It doesn’t matter what size your church is or how big your city is—running into people who used to go to your church can be tough.
Like a gazillion other Americans, I’ve recently spent a lot more time in the local mall than usual. I went to shop for my dear wife one Saturday before Christmas. As you can imagine, the mall was jammed full of people doing their last minute shopping in a not-so-merry mood.
It’s not rare for me to run into folks from our church, but my walk through the mall on that particular day was painful. In the span of about an hour, I encountered five people who once thought I was awesome but now think I am awful. They were all former members of the church I pastor.
Some of the former attendees were cordial, a couple ignored me, and one gave me the look of death. There was no doubt in my mind how this man felt about me, and it cut me to the bone.
I wish I could tell you that I’m secure, confident, and treat difficult experiences with ex- members with ease. The truth, however, is there’s always at least a little sting with rejection and often a painful blow to my soul.
Years ago, I learned this simple truth: People come and people go. Unfortunately, they sometimes come for the wrong reasons (e.g. they got mad at their former pastor), and they often go for the wrong reasons (they’re mad at me).
I understand the reality of church-hopping and the all too prevalent consumerist mentality in the American church, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. I still hurt every time someone leaves. Especially when they leave cursing my name on their way out the door.
So how do you handle those potentially painful encounters with the sheep that now bite?
1. Take the bites with grace.
Certainly, there have been many times when I wanted to bite back! I’m smart enough, biblically-literate enough, and self-righteous enough to blast someone for their foolishness. Giving them an earful would not be difficult. Giving them grace is. And grace is always better.
Being right is never more important than being relational. Blessing those who curse us is what we are called to as Christ-followers and leaders. (Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9)
2. Forgive like your joy depends on it.
We all know the value and importance of forgiveness. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven. This is a no-brainer. That being said, I still frequently find myself struggling through the steps of forgiveness after agonizing encounters with someone who has wounded me.
No matter how mature I think I am in Christ, it seems like this is a lesson I keep learning: We can become bitter or better, and better truly is better, so it’s best to let it go.
3. Stay focused on the good rather than the bad and the ugly.
Because I’m a pastor, I care for people. I pray for them more than they know. I remember dedicating their kids, and I know exactly where they sit in every church service. So when they depart, I feel it because I’ve invested a part of my life into their lives. That’s why it hurts when they leave—a part of me is leaving too.
While complaining to God about some recent hurtful departures, the Lord whispered to my heart, “Focus on the many who are with you rather than the few who are not.”
Every Sunday I have the honor of serving about a thousand adults. Why do I let the unkindness of a few outweigh the blessing of the many?
Perspective is everything. We can look in despair at what we have lost or gaze in awe at all that God has given to us. I’m choosing to be humbled by and thankful for the many who still call me pastor.
4. Resolve to grow through rejection.
Let’s face it, sometimes people leave because we blew it. Maybe we didn’t care for them adequately. Maybe we didn’t lead them like Jesus. Maybe they expected something we couldn’t deliver. There actually might be some legitimate reasons for their departure from our ranks. We can go through the sting of that reality or grow through it.
I’m not suggesting we walk around in a self-induced funk over our imperfections. I’ve never been perfect, and on this side of eternity, I never will be. I’ve also never been a pastor who pretended to have it all together, so getting depressed over my inadequacies is just stupider than Jupiter.
Therefore, maybe then the wise thing is to simply acknowledge my many opportunities for growth. Perhaps, when someone leaves and I run into them elsewhere, I could see those post-exit encounters as a reminder that I’ve still got a ways to grow. And it’s okay.
The next time you’re in the mall, at the gas station or post office and you run into them—smile and guard your heart with grace.
Remember, you are loved, and so are they.