I just returned from a church growth training event at a local church where we reviewed and evaluated their vision. Their vision statement was a bit wordy, but overall it got high marks.

However, this question arose from some of the members: “What about those in the congregation who don’t support the vision… those who don’t want to make the changes it will take to pursue this vision?”

The short answer is (1) convert them, (2) neutralize them, or (3) remove them.

The more painful answer is this: When a church attempts to grow, there is going to be conflict. There are going to be unhappy people. And no matter how you respond, you are going to lose church members.

  • If you stick with the transition, you’ll lose those who don’t want the changes.
  • If you back off the transition, you’ll lose those who have been waiting for the changes.
  • If you try to compromise, you’ll lose those from either or both camps.

Never mind those you might have reached if you’d successfully navigated the transitions (like future members of your church).

One leader said (as it seems someone always says), “Our congregation is committed. No one will leave. I’m sure of it.” And the leaders all nod their heads in agreement.

We wish that was true, but it’s not. With well over 20 years of experience and research with thousands of congregations – and with years of consulting other consultants across the country – we’ve yet to identify a congregation that had been in decline or on a serious plateau that beat the odds and successfully transitioned to a healthy, vibrant, growing, sustainable congregation without conflict and without losing someone.

That’s the primary reason that less than 20 percent of churches successfully turn it around. If you’re a member of a mainline congregation, your odds drop to a less than 10 percent success rate.

There was a lot of silence when I finished my talk. No one wants to lose church members. Some churches are certain that they can’t afford to lose anyone. But the truth is, those who quit because they won’t tolerate the changes necessary to grow their churches have done the local congregation and even themselves a good deed. They weren’t going to be happy if they remained … and people unhappy with a church’s direction either create conflict, or worse, allow their spirituality and worshipful spirit to depart.

Is it difficult to see people leave the church? Sure. I’m sure Jesus was disappointed when the rich young ruler walked away – or when the crowds turned away. But there’s not a single example of him chasing down those who walked away to try to negotiate or convince them to reconsider. He let them walk away.

I wish we could tell you your church will be the exception, but it won’t be. If you move forward to implement a church transformation strategy, there will be conflict and someone will leave. That’s just how it is.

Question: Have you witnessed the inevitable departure of church members during a transition? What did you learn from the experience? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.