Why Families Flee: 12 Fatal Mistakes You Make With Families
Published: February 11, 2020
We asked for real stories about families who left their church because of a serious ministry mistake. These stories are heartbreaking and eye-opening.
Every church has been there: They’ve worked tirelessly to invite and engage new families, only to have a careless word or act send a family running for the door, never to return again. We asked for real stories about families who left their church—and sometimes the church altogether—because of a serious ministry misstep. These stories are heartbreaking and eye-opening. Read on to gain wisdom from their errors.
1. Mistake: Not Hearing Families’ Needs
“I was somewhat new to full-time ministry when my husband and I took a family-life pastor position at a church in our hometown. They’d been looking for a new family life pastor for about a year, and things were awkward to say the least. When staff changes take more than a few months, it can be disheartening for everyone. After we’d been on staff for a few months, several of our homeschooling families expressed a desire for an alternative program for their preteen boys. We had two separate midweek ministries already available for our preteens. But these families wanted a more in-depth Bible study for just the homeschoolers—no one else. They felt their group of boys had outgrown the small groups, and they didn’t want them to go to youth group just yet.
“I know this sounds horrible, but I snipped at them: ‘Just so I understand, you want a separate group, just for your boys—where no one else can participate in—and you want me lead it?’
“How did I fail them? I let myself get offended. I couldn’t hear past their criticism. What they needed from me was reassurance that I’d work with them to support their families. Instead I gave them a long list of reasons why I simply couldn’t start a long-term program just for them. This handful of families came to me with a perceived need, and I gave them the reasons I couldn’t help them.
“In retrospect I should’ve listened to their concerns and heard what they were really saying. I could’ve had thicker skin. But I missed the chance to minister to this group of families, and now they’re attending elsewhere.
“Now I’ve learned two wonderful phrases: ‘We both want the same things,’ which translates to ‘You and I are on the same team,’ and ‘What are you willing to do to launch this?’ which translates to ‘How much investment will you put into this project?’ ” —Belle
2. Mistake: Hurting People
“A mom who gave birth to a Down syndrome baby was told, ‘You must have done something really bad to have given birth to this baby.’ Needless to say, she doesn’t go to church anymore.”
3. Mistake: Burning Out Parents
“Our lead children’s ministry volunteer was very disorganized. She started an after-school program at our church, and she became far more focused on the after-school kids than the kids who actually came to church.
“After I started working there, two parents approached me with concerns about the lead volunteer’s lack of concern for the ministry. One big concern: She didn’t want anything to do with the nursery. The senior pastor ended up asking one of the moms if she’d be willing to head up the nursery. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but this mom was never able to worship. She felt stuck. She asked about trying to get some volunteers so she could attend services, but nobody volunteered.
“I was concerned (and also new to my position), and I started trying to meet with her to see how we could change in the nursery. She said she’d love to meet but didn’t have time. It didn’t take long before her family left to attend another church. It seemed they were already planning to leave our church by the time I came in. But I feel that our mistake was to demand parents’ time and energy without supporting, relieving, or spiritually feeding them.” —Tim
4. Mistake: Not Serving Children With Special Needs
“We had a family of a single father and two sons attending our church for over four years. The youngest son is autistic, and our team worked tirelessly with the family as the young boy advanced through our kids’ ministry.
“Last year the church leadership revamped our children’s ministry team, and, unfortunately, working with this family overwhelmed the new director and team.
“The new director told the father that his son would only be allowed to come if he brought an aide with him. She suggested that he call the county for said aide. The family never returned to church.” —Sue
“We have a lady who hasn’t been back due to the fact that we can’t serve her two very autistic children. We just don’t have the volunteers or space for something like that. I know this is occurring in many churches.” —Rachael
5. Mistake: Saying Horrible Things to Hurting People
“A teenager shared this with me: When his mom gave birth to his brother—who lived only an hour—the pastor told her that the road to hell is paved with babies who aren’t baptized.” —Tyra*
6. Mistake: Losing Your Congregational Identity
“The church I work at is getting too corporate, and we’ve lost a few great families because of it. They miss the small, family feel. That’s what made them join in the first place and stay as long as they did. The new pastor is trying to make it a large church, and not everyone will stick around to watch it grow. It’s not for everyone, and we’re losing a lot of great people because of it. Too many changes are not always good!” —Missy
7. Mistake: Being Exclusive
“Our church lost families because we decided to make small groups closed to new members. There wasn’t a place for everyone who wanted to join a group. Kids’ groups fell apart. Our discipleship mechanism fell to the ground for most young families, and the kidmin staff was very discouraged through the process.”
8. Mistake: Poor Safety and Security
“My sister-in-law and her husband have two boys. Our church ‘lost’ their oldest twice, and once he was found in the parking lot. That wasn’t the only reason they left, but it definitely contributed to their departure. At the time, our church was growing but we did not have any real security system in place.” —Brad
9. Mistake: Being Fearful and Judgmental
“My son was in sixth grade and was interested in science, which was actually his favorite subject. He was continually asking questions of me and my wife, and we did our best to answer him the best we could. His curiosity also led him to ask us about evolution. He eventually took his questions into the Sunday school room. On one particular Sunday he questioned his teacher about the validity of the theory of evolution. She started to shut him down without giving his questions any kind of a meaningful response. She embarrassed my son in front of the class, but he pushed a bit, as he was seeking answers from a place and a person he trusted. Upon his final question, he was told that he was an atheist and didn’t belong in church. This very much upset my son, who came home and told us about the incident.
“As a family, we probably didn’t do the right thing on our son’s behalf, because we told him to just let it go. He never moved past the incident, and as he entered high school he quit going to church altogether. He went for holidays and some special services, but essentially that day forever changed his concept of what unconditionally love meant. I still feel guilty that I didn’t handle it better, but I guess I was too worried what others would think of us. Church was never the same for me after that, and doubly so for my son.” —John
10. Mistake: Making a Money Grab
“We had a nice young man who was divorced and raising three children attending pretty regularly. They seemed like a great fit for our church. But not long after he began coming, someone from the leadership team handed him a year’s worth of tithing envelopes to ‘make him feel welcome and at home.’ Boy! Not so much. He left and never came back; he told our children’s minister when she called him that it was obvious all we cared about was money—and since he didn’t have any, there was no point coming back. Nothing we’ve said or done has encouraged him to return. This situation really bothered me because it was a big misstep and does NOT represent our church, but to this day I don’t think the leader sees it that way. He still gives tithing envelopes to all new attendees.”—Dezree
11. Mistake: Shaming People
“As a young adult in my early twenties, I’d walked away from faith and my childhood church. I found myself with a newborn baby girl, and my ‘baby-daddy’ was an alcoholic. The church pastor sent me a letter inviting me to a Sunday to celebrate all the new babies that year. Once there, however, the pastor introduced me as married—and the pastor knew the truth.
“Fast forward three years, and a new man God had brought into our lives had proposed to me. I wanted to be married in my church. However, a call from the pastor left me in tears. He refused to marry us and said my marriage would never be recognized by God because of my daughter and her father. He also referred to me by a name I never thought I’d hear from my pastor.
“Good thing for me that God has a bigger plan and my story doesn’t end there. What did the church do well? They pursued me. They invited me to be part of something. Why did I leave? I felt judged and unloved. I felt shame. Note that I already had these feelings and I didn’t need them reinforced by my church family.” —DeAnna
12. Mistake: Choosing Legalism Over People
“Our entire family was thriving at our possible new church home. Our 3-year-old son even got in the car after one particular Sunday school session and told us, ‘Jesus makes our hearts clean.’ We were beyond elated. After visiting quite a few churches, we finally felt we were right where we needed to be.
“Unfortunately, as my husband and I wrapped up the newcomers class, we had an unexpected visit from a member of the church. He told us that he was in the unenviable position of telling us that since my husband hadn’t said the exact words necessary to fully accept their “statement of faith,” we couldn’t go through with becoming new members. It was a sad day for us. Sad for me that they treated my husband in such an unloving way and sad for me and our sweet son that they dashed our hopes for a church family. We decided we wouldn’t let the actions of men dictate what we thought of God and his love for us.” —Sophia
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