One of the jobs that pastors do, with some reluctance, is exit interviews. Having pastored in two congregations spanning over 35 years I have done my share. Exit interviews are basically conversations pastors try to make a point of having with people when they decide to leave their church.
The intention first and foremost is to check on their spiritual well-being and hear what God is doing in their lives. It is also a time to express appreciation for them and their contribution to the church. And finally it is appropriate to affirm and bless them as they move on in their relationship with God.
Although there are many reasons people leave a church I have discovered that they can all be grouped into five basic categories. For simplicity’s sake I will term these categories by the types of people they represent.
1. Transplants and Transfers – These are people whom the Lord Himself is transplanting from one expression of His body to another. It may be related to a geographic move or may simply be a result of the Lord leading people to become a part of another church in the area that is a better fit for their stage of spiritual growth and gifting.
Obviously it is sad to see someone leave with whom you’ve had a close relationship. However, these transitions can be positive experiences for everyone involved when the people leaving process their decision making with the pastor and seek a blessing in their departure.
2. Traders – These are people who typically don’t make a conscious decision to leave the church and so do not tell anyone. Nor is it their intention to find another church. Instead they are gradually drawn away by trading away church involvement for other things that interest them. They make trades in the use of their time that reflect non-spiritual priorities. The busyness of life is often the reason they give for their absence.
The danger in such tradeoffs is that they can cause a person to suffer the same fate as the seed that fell among the thorns, in Jesus’ well known sower and seed parable. The cares of the world encroach upon their lives and gradually choke the spiritual life out of them. Since these people do not formally communicate their leaving, an exit interview may not work or even be in order. To the contrary, any contact that can be established should be with the purpose of warding off an exit and helping reestablish an entrance for them back into the fellowship.
3. Transients – Some people who leave have never really become involved in the church or established any significant relationships. Their connection to the church is typically through attending weekly services or special events. Their engagement in the church is measured for any number of reasons. A desire for anonymity may be a factor. Some may be exploring Christianity for the first time or possibly reengaging with a faith community after years of absence. Some are looking for a new church home or may be seeking a respite from a previous negative church experience (see point 4).
All share a reticence to putting any roots down and making any commitments. An exit interview with this type of person can be beneficial for both parties but often results in a feeling of offering too little, too late. People have an opportunity to share ways in which their sojourn with the church was both beneficial and/or detrimental to their spiritual walk. And the pastor can respond with ways in which the church could have better served their needs. In this situation a mutual blessing bestowed respectively upon the individual(s) and the church will go along way in honoring the Lord and parting ways positively.
4. The Traumatized – These are people who have been wounded by a church experience. Some pastors and church leaders, it is tragic to say, misrepresent God and mistreat their people. In some churches it is the exception or an anomaly. In this case the issue should be addressed and hopefully, with God’s help, it can be worked through to a peaceful resolution.
In other church settings, especially legalistic, controlling type churches the misrepresention of God and mistreatment of people permeate the entire culture and it is a systemic problem. In this case, unless there is a clear leading from God and a support network of other Christians to support a confrontation of the entire system, those who have been traumatized simply need to leave! They are under no obligation to announce their intention or submit to an exit interview.
Years ago we had a young man in his early twenties, arrive at our church seeking refuge from a “Christian” community in which he had been raised. He had that very day “escaped” with just the clothes on his back and a bicycle he had used to ride nearly 20 miles to freedom. In his own telling, he had chosen not to talk to the leader or let anyone else know for fear of falling prey to the strong spirit of control that held sway over the people’s lives in that place.
He was taken in by one of the families in our congregation and over the period of several months was able to gain the spiritual strength to finally renew some contact with those still in that system while not being subjugated by it.
Through our ministry to that young man, I came to understand the sinister controlling power that aberrant religious systems have over people and the necessity of taking any opportunity to flee them post haste with no explanations required.
5. Traitors – This group of people is thankfully a small one. However, traitors like Judas and Diotrophes in the Bible, do exist in our churches. But we need to be very cautious in giving people the “traitor” label. One of the marks of a traitor is the sowing of division into the work of God. We are told this is one of six things God hates. (Proverbs 6:16 )
People who introduce heresies, undermine church leadership and cause division in the body of Christ need to be confronted and warned as soon as possible. If they disregard the warning and continue their ways they need be asked to leave. The only exit interview required is an admonishment to change and the spelling out of steps of restoration available to them if they respond accordingly.
In all my years of ministry I have only had to ask one person to leave the church. It involved a carefully and gracefully crafted process that unfortunately went unheeded. As it turned out ours was not the only church from which he ended up being expelled and thankfully the body of Christ at large was protected from him.
I welcome your observations, comments and additions to this conversation.
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