You know the conversation. Someone in your church asks to meet with you, or you set up the meeting because you know they are angry at you, the church or a decision that was made.
The conversation is going well. You are making some headway and figuring out what the issues are (which is really important), and then the unexpected happens.
Not really unexpected.
You should have seen it coming.
The insults. The ‘several people’ comments. The, “I’ve asked around” comments.
What do you do? Do you defend your honor? Pushback? Take it like a man? Try to win?
If you as a pastor have not found yourself in this conversation, it is coming. When it happens, here are six things to keep in mind:
1. It will surprise you who it is. This is always the case. You will be blown away at who is angry at you and who hurls insults at you. Whenever I’ve made a change or decision at our church, the people who are mad and leave over it are never the ones I expected. In the same way, the ones who will criticize you unfairly, spread rumors about you, talk to a “bunch of other people about an issue” will surprise you. They will not be who you expect.
This is one reason it hurts so much when it happens.
2. Don’t stoop to their level. It is easy in this situation to defend your honor, try to win (this is my default mode), prove your point, point out their shortcomings and sin (because they are there), or try to explain yourself. More than likely, in this meeting (there might be a second one) they are simply wanting to vent and “get something off their chest.” For the person this meeting is often not about reconciliation, understanding your perspective or seeing that they might be wrong. That will hopefully come later, but the reality is, they have been angry for quite some time and they have some pent up anger.
3. Listen as best as you can and figure out what the actual issue is. Often, not always, but often when someone comes and says, “I’m leaving _____ church because…” Or, “I’m angry because ________”, those are rarely the issues. They think they are the issues, but they aren’t. People will give you a reason for leaving your church that you won’t be able to argue with. This is the reason why “I’m not getting fed enough” or “God told me to leave” are such popular reasons.
In seminary I took one counseling class, and I got the best piece of advice in my entire seminary experience. A professor told me, “When someone’s life is out of control, they have sin in their life they can’t handle, they are angry at their spouse, parent, child, boss or feel letdown in life and don’t know what to do, they take their anger out on the closest authority figure they can find, and that tends to be a pastor and the church.”
I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had over the years with people who want to leave the church I lead or meet with me because they are angry at a decision we made, and more than half the meeting is about what frustrates them about their spouse, parent or child.
Once you are able to determine what you think is the real issue, start talking about that. Help them to see what the real issue is. This isn’t always possible. You might be told that isn’t the issue, but if your gut tells you that is the issue, it usually is.
4. If they want to leave your church, let them. As a pastor you want everyone possible to be a part of your church. Why? Because you love and care for them. You’ve walked with them, labored over sermons for them, prayed for them, listened to them, seen them grow, discipled them. You don’t want them to leave. It hurts every time it happens.
But it happens.
Don’t try to talk someone out of leaving your church.
Now, if they are leaving for a bad reason, tell them. If they are leaving for an immature reason, tell them.
But don’t stop them.
If they met with you and are angry at you, hurling insults at you (yes, people say horrible things to pastors), and they say they want to leave your church, don’t try to talk them out of it.
In fact, and this might be controversial so hear me out, you might need to encourage them to leave your church.
Their staying might not be healthy for them, their family, for you or the church.
5. Debrief with someone you trust, who loves you, to find the truth in what was said. The meeting is over and you feel like you have been punched in the gut (hopefully only figuratively).
The reality is, the person who talked with you might be right, they just did it in the worst way possible. So, you have to find the truth. Is what they said on target? Do you have any sin or shortcomings you need to confess or work on? Don’t waste what was said simply because it hurt or you don’t agree. They might be right, or at least partly right.
6. Reconcile to the best of your ability. It isn’t always possible or healthy to have a second meeting. It can easily become the two of you trying to remember what all was said. If you need to reconcile over an issue, try to. The other person may not want to, and you don’t always need to talk to them to reconcile it, but you need to make sure you don’t allow them to take up space in your heart over an issue.