“When People Leave Your Church Over Politics”: A Note for Pastors

“I once heard you should never vote for a politician who tells you how to pray, and you should never listen to a pastor who tells you how to vote,” their parting email said.

The family would be leaving the church because I was “too liberal,” even though I had never told anyone how to vote, from the pulpit or otherwise. I mentioned this fact, by the way, and he said, “Yes, but we can tell what you think about it and how you’d wish we would vote…”

That’s a big assumption.

No goodbye in the office. No farewell. Just an email with no subject line.

It hurts when people leave your church over politics. It still stings me, even now, to think on that family and a number of others.

It feels like a failure of some sort, like you couldn’t keep people together.

By the way, the translation of the above phrase actually should be, “you couldn’t keep people happy,” which is absolutely true. A pastor’s call is not to keep people happy, anyway, despite what the people will tell you…

It hurts when people leave because they see you have a bumper sticker for a different candidate than they prefer (this actually happened, btw).

It hurts when people leave because you were just trying to keep them safe with masks and social distancing and they wanted to “trust Jesus” rather than “trust the science,” pitting Jesus against science in a way that I think would make Jesus himself scratch his ancient head.

It hurts when people leave because you talk about tending the poor and needy and they hear “socialist!” instead of hearing Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jesus, and Paul.

It hurts when people leave because you say “Black Lives Matter,” because it’s just true and Jesus was a person of color and all they hear is the filtered funnel of the media.

It hurts when people leave because you mentioned the existential threat of gun violence in that one sermon because, honestly, it is an existential threat that is killing our babies (and if mental health is such an issue…which is certainly is…suicide alone is enough reason not to keep a gun in the house!), and all they heard was that you think all guns are terrible.

The honest truth is that it hurts like hell. Even if you know that they won’t be upset all the time anymore, and even if you know that this kind of a break is coming, and even if you know that you won’t have to sweat when opening your email inbox on Monday because they’re perturbed by something they heard or thought they heard or pretended to hear on Sunday, it hurts.

Even when you see it coming from a mile away, it hurts.

No two-ways about it.

And you know what? It hurts even more when you see them at the grocery store around town, or see their social media posts about how happy they are at their new church where the pastor “never talks about politics” (translation: doesn’t talk about political things I disagree with). It hurts even more when they still hang out with the people who stayed and you see them at parties, but you don’t talk to them, or feel like you can, because no matter what the truth about their leaving is, it feels like it’s because of you.

You.

And it is at this point where you might expect I’d say something like, “They’re better off,” or “You don’t need them,” or “Shake the dust from your feet and move on,” or “But look at all the new people joining!” or “It’s not you, it’s them.”

But I’m not going to, because I can’t.

While all of those platitudes might be true, none of it heals the other deep truth that it. just. hurts.

In this Advent season I clutch perpetual hope tightly, hanging on as if my life depends on it (which it probably does). But I do wonder if pastoring in these hyper-partisan times is perhaps the hardest in recent history, and I’m not sure where hope plays into that in the immediate moment.

Even so, pastor, I hope the pain recedes in time.

And I hope those people, even in my life, are happy how they find themselves.

And I hope that one day political partisanship won’t split the pews and the pulpits.

I hope.

5 thoughts on ““When People Leave Your Church Over Politics”: A Note for Pastors

  1. Hello, I read each and every email that you send and I appreciate them all. The one about the pastor being hurt over people leaving was difficult to read. I left my church of 30 years over many issues and feeling “pushed out” by the pastor. It goes both way, I’m sure you realize that. Keep up the good work, your writings are honest and filled with love. I appreciate them,

    Not only did I leave the parish, but I left the church totally. Then covid came and I’ve not been to church in 4 years.

    Take care,

    Janet Damian

    >

    • Hi Janet,

      It certainly can go both ways, and I’m sorry that happened to you.

      There are certainly many good reasons to leave a church. I just hope and think personal politics is not one of them…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      tjb…

  2. I left a church over politics, among other things. It was a pastor I loved, the church where I was married.

    They were preaching that we should vote a certain way as the ability to marry as a same sex couple was on the ballot at that time.

    Which way they recommended we vote didn’t matter to me, but the fact that we were being told to vote a certain way at all seemed troubling to me.

    It was a very large church. We ended up joining a church family closer to home, and it was a better fit. I don’t think they even knew we left.

    It’s hard. For all involved. Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective.

    • Thanks for commenting, and thanks for these thoughts.

      I do think there are all sorts reasons to leave a parish. What you describe is a question of human decency, and certainly I think when we start preaching against people we are straying into territory that is unbecoming of the Gospel.

      Thanks for commenting and reading as always.

      tjb…

  3. Thank you for sharing this. So much of what you write resonates precisely with experiences I have had over the last few years. No matter the reason, it always hurts, yet I appreciate your reminder that hope is still a part of the Advent season. I needed to read this today.

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