Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Reasons Church Staff Stop Attending after Leading

Carey Nieuhof writes an interesting blog about leadership. Cary is an author, motivational speaker, and former pastor. He recently wrote an article on why vocational church pastors and staff (e.g. "those who once drew a salary from the church) have a hard time attending church once they've been involved in leading one. I found his points interesting and replicate his post in full below: 

9 Reasons It’s Hard To Attend A Church

 Once You’ve Been Involved In Leading One

Carey Nieuhof

Kind of a strange to even say it, isn’t it?

Why on earth would pastors and church leaders have a hard time attending church of all things?

After all, wouldn’t leaders who have led churches be the most anxious to attend them?

Strangely, not always. You can talk to thousands of people who used to volunteer or lead at a church who will tell you they no longer attend. Or maybe they attend, but it’s just ‘not the same’.


That’s a great question.

I want to offer up some reasons I think pastors and church leaders struggle to attend a local church once they’ve led in ministry.

The common issue? Current and former church leaders who struggle with attending a local church.

Many Of Us Have Been There

If you attend church but aren’t involved, or if you’re serving right now and love it (which if you are, I’m glad!), you might not even understand why a post like this would be written.

But if you’ve ever served at a local church as a dedicated volunteer or a paid staff member, you likely have an idea of what I’m talking about.

Not attending church after you’ve led in a church is actually quite a widespread phenomenon. Just browse the comments on this blog and it won’t take you more than 5 minutes to hear from someone who used to lead in a church and now isn’t engaged at all anymore.

How does this trend of non-attending former leaders show up?

Pastors who used to lead a church who now just sleep in on Sundays and have given up on all forms of the local church.

People who only attend when they’re ‘on’ the music team, the greeting team, serving in student ministry, or speaking.

People who stop attending the moment they stop serving.

Every time I hear of it, my heart breaks a little more.

Please understand, I know the local church is not perfect. But I honestly do believe the promise of the local church is greater than the problems of the local church. And I realize the Church (as Christ sees it) is bigger than any local church. But to pretend the local church in all its forms around the world isn’t a part of the Church is, well, just not accurate.

And a little disclosure here. Everything I’m writing about in this post, I have felt. Sometimes just a twinge, but I’ve gone there in my mind.

For the record, I intend to be part of the local church as long as I live, whether I’m paid to lead or not. But when I’m on vacation or out of town, I often slip into a local church for a service (or sometimes even the one I lead) and it’s…different. I wonder:

Could I attend here?

Why do I feel so different?

What’s going on?

Once you’ve been involved, it’s just different.

So I’m just wondering if maybe some of the things that go on inside of me might the same as what’s going on inside you or someone you know and care about.

If not, just give thanks. (Seriously.)

If you’ve struggled with this feeling before, ask yourself whether any of these 9 reasons might be part of your struggle:

1. Your Identity Is Tied To What You Do, Not Who You Are

So who are you really? A preacher? A musician? A worship leader? A student director? An elders? An usher? A group leader? A staff member?

No you’re not.

You’re a child of God redeemed by a Saviour who came for you.

So many of us define who we are by what we do. I struggle against this every day.

Before you dismiss this, do this simple test that Tim Keller offers.

“If work [or ministry] is your idol, if you are successful it goes to your head, if you are a failure it goes to your heart.”

Boom. Maybe your identity is more tied up in what you do than you think.

2. You Like Being The Center Of Attention

As Andy Stanley says, anyone who’s ever strapped on a microphone is a little like Lady Gaga; we all live for the applause. Come to think of us, many of us don’t need a mic for that.

Could it be that you’ve grown accustomed to being the center of attention, no matter how small your audience might be?

Often my decision that something doesn’t fit ‘me’ is far more a statement about me than it is about whatever I’m uncomfortable with.

3. You’ve Seen How The Sausage Is Made And Have Lost Your Appetite

Yep. Church is messy, flawed, disappointing and at times deeply hurtful.

Largely because people are messy, flawed, disappointing and at times deeply hurtful. And we live on this side of heaven.

Hurt, unresolved, breeds cynicism. And there are so many cynical former church attenders who simply haven’t addressed their unresolved issues.

Part of maturity involves realizing that I contribute to messy sausage making. I am part of the problem. And so is almost every leader who has abandoned church.

Jesus never said we would be known for our perfection. But he did say we would be known by our love.

Love owns my share. Love forgives. Love says I’m sorry. Love reconciles. Love works toward a better tomorrow.

Love sees who you really are and stays anyway.

4. You’ve Become More Of A Critic Than A Worshipper

This one’s hard. Once you’ve been on the inside, you listen ‘at’ a sermon as much as you listen ‘to’ a message.

You ask “What’s he doing here? Why did he make that transition this way? What’s up with his body language?”

Musicians critique the music. Guest services people criticize greeters. Graphic design people laugh at other designs.

And lead pastors critique everything.

What’s missing in this picture?

Humility. Submission. Grace. That’s all.

5. You Think You’re Better Or Smarter Than The People Who Merely Attend

This one’s ugly.

I don’t know what else to say about it except stop it. Really.

Okay one more thing. So maybe you are smart. Or more successful. Got that.

If you think you’re too important to help someone, stop fooling yourself. You’re not that important.

6. Somewhere In The Process, Your Personal Walk With God Tanked

Leadership is best when it springs from the overflow of our personal walk with God.

There are many ways unusual church leader struggle with God (I wrote about 5 of them here), but just because you lost your closeness to God while leading in a church doesn’t mean church is bad.

He loves you, and He loves the church in all of its weakness.

7. You’ve Forgotten You’re A Follower, Not Just A Leader

Originally all of us got into ministry after we decided to become followers of Jesus. That following should never stop.

The best leaders are actually the best followers.

A leader who can only lead but not follow is actually not a great leader. And certainly not a godly leader.

8. You’re Neglecting The Fact That You Still Have A Role To Play

I know it’s cliche, but the goal is not to attend church or go to church. You are the church.

But, for reasons outlined here, I think the church is so much stronger when we are together, not when we are apart.

While we can all use some rehab in a back row of a church somewhere from season to season, ultimately, every follower of Christ has a role to play in the local church. Even if it’s not your favourite role or a role you’re used to.

Being involved is one of the best ways to stay engaged, even if it’s not what you used to do or want to do.

9. ‘Why’ Has Died On The Altar Of ‘What’ And ‘How’

Church leadership is a lot of ‘what’ and ‘how’. I find I have to remind myself daily of the ‘why’ of church.


Because God is good.

Because he loves us.

Because Jesus gave his life for a world he desperately loves.

Because our cities are full of people who don’t know the love of Christ.

Because my life is not my own.

Because the church was Jesus’ idea.

Because grace ultimately makes all things new.

So does that help? I realize these reasons will not address every issue, and that some will flail against any organized church no matter what is said.

But so many leave unnecessarily. Maybe you’re one of them. If any of these reasons are true, what will you do about them?

I know that working through them has kept my passion and hope for the local church strong, even if it flickers in the wind some days.

Now it’s your turn. Why do you think it’s hard to attend a church once you’ve been involved in leading one? Please leave a comment.


Alaskan in Texas said...

Who is this author's audience? To me, his audience does not seem to be the hurt, disappointed, benumbed, or shell-shocked former church leaders about whom he writes. There is an awful lot of 'blame the victim' in his advice:

"Boom. Maybe your identity is more tied up in what you do than you think."

"Could it be that you’ve grown accustomed to being the center of attention, no matter how small your audience might be?"

"Part of maturity involves realizing that [you] contribute to messy sausage making. [You are] part of the problem. And so is almost every leader who has abandoned church."

"What’s missing in this picture? Humility. Submission. Grace. That’s all."

"You think you’re better or smarter than the people who merely attend"

"Just because you lost your closeness to God while leading in a church doesn’t mean church is bad."

"A leader who can only lead but not follow is actually not a great leader. And certainly not a godly leader."

Brother Wade: Those observations are more sandpaper than balm.

Wade Burleson said...


I agree.

However, sandpaper serves a good purpose. It is preparatory for an effectual balm. Wood shines best after the old varnish is removed, and I think the author's intent is to remove an old varnish, not apply any new oil.

Wade Burleson said...

And, to directly answer your question, "Who is the author's audience?" - the answer is "paid, vocational staff members and pastors who no longer are employed by the church but remain in the community where they served.

Sallie Borrink said...

I had the same reaction as Alaskan in Texas. This seems to be a whole lot of a "you're just full of yourself and that's why you gave up on church" type attitude.

I kept waiting for the reason I see among many Christians who have been in positions of leadership or missions. They've experienced real Christian fellowship in the past and are physically and spiritually sickened with what's currently going on in so many churches today.

Once you've had the opportunity to be in real Christian fellowship, everything else pales. If you are an authentic Christian, you cannot fake it just to be polite and show up every Sunday.

It's become more and more difficult to find churches that care about the real things of the body of Christ. It's all about numbers, the quality of the production put on the stage, and getting younger people into the building.

Anonymous said...

I'm in this author's audience and I can say while I slightly can see some of these points, none of them resonate with me as "ah ha!"

I hated seeing the fake religious people in the church, and on staff, you know who every single one of those people are. So if you go back into the same congregation, it's tough to play "dress up church" with those people. And as much as they claim to be about transparency, nobody is actually being transparent in church, and usually, the transparent people are ostracized anyway. It's not that you lack belief in the mission, it's just knowing that the majority of church people simply don't care. There's some churches, like David Platt, that have a singular vision of what they do and you either agree with it or you don't. I'd venture to guess they suffer from this less than average churches.

It's probably easier if you go attend a different church altogether.

Anonymous said...

I am a former leader (not pastoral but just a dedicated volunteer)who now "just attends" and has some troubles with that.

But not for the reasons stated. Closer to Sallie.

We relocated and just did a church search. It is amazingly HARD to find a church that talks about, presents, in any way tells one about Jesus Christ.

Social service projects, how the church needs to change or how we need to change or any one of a number of "do more try harder" messages abound.

But not preaching, singing, or teaching about Jesus. Prayers that are mini sermons, not prayers. Songs about "I think, I feel, I will do, I want, I need" or "You give me, You stroke my ego" or more likely "This needs fixing or that needs fixing."

I can sleep in and hear all that all week.

Give me Jesus. Just give me Jesus.


Aussie John said...


The comments previous to mine sum up my own thoughts. I certainly disagree with your comments on sandpaper (I am a hobby woodworker). The balm of Gilead is what is needed to heal the wounded, not further wounding. I have seen this to be the case during my time of ministry. and in my own life.

Christiane said...

What is the nature of a Christian 'leader' in a Church setting? What is your 'focus'?
And in how many ways do you find that you must 'decrease' so He can 'increase'???

Sometimes the people who are most inspirational in a Church are the ones who work quietly without complaint and offer assistance when needed and provide a listening ear or a handkerchief for them what needs to talk it out or even to weep . . .

to 'go along side', to be 'with', to do the simple things that have no chance of being done 'for credit' but just to help out and always, always pointing people to Christ with echoes of 'do as HE tells you' in the way of your pointing :)

small steps, helping carry the burdens of others in a thousand ways, hands-on nurturing, patience with them what is needing it the most, and failing but trying again ...and again and still again

as a Church 'leader', you have been a servant who tried to help each person respond to
the call of the Lord Jesus: 'Follow Me',
you will not have grown accustomed to being the CENTER of attention at all :)

Wade Burleson said...


Great comments.

Though we may disagree, I appreciate everyone’s thoughts.

I think it may all be one of perspective. I think the audience intended by the writer is composed of pastors and ministers at good churches, and after their salary comes to an end, they no longer participate in the church they once led.

Rex Ray said...


Thanks for this post. It will be pasted out in SS next Sunday.

Number 2 really got my attention. (You Like Being the Center of Attention)

Last Sunday the preaching hour was done by our mission team that came back from Mexico a week ago. They presented an excellent review of the work accomplished for our Lord. They had many pictures of about 40 children in Vacation Bible School. Each of the ten members told their part and it touched our hearts. They finished at twelve o’clock.

That’s the usual time ‘church’ is to be over, but our pastor said, “I know it’s late, but…” He then proceeded to preach a 25 minute dynamic sermon.

Anonymous said...

"Now it’s your turn. Why do you think it’s hard to attend a church once you’ve been involved in leading one? Please leave a comment."

Because they don't pay people to attend? Surprised he didn't make the $$$ connection.


Wade Burleson said...



C said...

As a "plugged in" church member

Jesus designed us to have fellowship with each other. As a Christian, we long to be with each other and grow together and learn from each other. The love of Jesus overcomes our weaknesses. When we are in search of that fellowship, we find a church and we discover the love we have been looking for, and we get involved. Over time, even though we have the love of Christ around us, we turn our focus to the person themselves instead of Christ in them. We begin to see their weaknesses and we start placing more emphasis on the weaknesses of the person, often as justification for ourselves. We find out how we are better than the others, and then our pride kicks in and the attitude swiftly moves from, "I need the church" to "How did this church ever survive without me?" - Eventually, we burn out. The task to keep up the show is too overwhelming, the weaknesses of others are too glaring, and the love of Christ, still flowing through that church, is blinded by our own self-righteousness. We try and "fix" it and then get upset when we don't have the power to make the changes that we think are needed. In a matter of time, we leave, and we write off church as a non-necessity for life. Often claiming, all we need is Jesus.


As a paid minister

Leaders are often Type-A personalities. They really have a heart to follow Christ and see their church be successful. While they may buy into the worldly methodologies to grow numbers, I still believe that the majority of them deep down inside have the long-term goal of seeing people grow in Christ.

Being Type-A personalities makes it difficult to see someone else run the show that you once ran. Even though you felt that your leading was Spirit-led, there is still something inside that says, "That isn't how you do it!"

I believe it is best for a pastor to actually leave the church he once pastored, and get plugged in at another local church, once retired. A new pastor coming into a church already has enough issues, and the former pastor being around would make that leading all the more difficult. Unfortunately, the majority of the church members follow the pastor, rather than following Christ, even though this may not be the pastors intention or desire. So when a new pastor comes in, the church would tend to still want to follow the old pastor, if he was still around. It would be quite a task for a new pastor to overcome.


The final though for both members and paid staff

God has a purpose for EVERYONE. We all have a role to play in the body of Christ. Pray and seek what role that God wants you to be a part of, and then do it. However, do NOT do what God is not leading you to do, thinking you know what is best. Follow the leading of the Spirit for your own sake and for the sake of the Kingdom. How much more successful would the church be if every member truly followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives. (This is just as much for myself)

This is likely where the 10 points of the article fit in. We fail to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and do what we think is best, which never turns out well in the long run.

Rex Ray said...


I believe to honor the Mission Team and make the church feel good who had helped in supporting them with funds and prayers, the best thing the pastor could have done would be to forget about his sermon and start clapping and ask the church to join him.

But that would require giving up the center of attention.

bunkababy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bunkababy said...

I am not a member of a church. I have been previously for many years.

But as I have a heavy interest in the function and state of the church, I have noticed a massive trend to create leaders.

I have seen massive leadership conferences across the board. Churches hold a slew of leadership courses and leadership schools.

I was wondering why the shift in focus? I was under the impression we are to be disciples of Christ. We were told to make disciples of Christ, not leaders of Christ.

A disciple of Christ is not an elevated position.

And if Jesus referred to the church as a flock with one sheperd, himself, it makes me wonder if the church is focused more on self or self promotion as a business model as opposed to a flock.

In a flock of sheep there is no assigned leadership sheep, or the shepherd was not teaching other sheep to lead the sheep.

The focus was to follow the shepherd.

These are some observations. I realize you need sunday school teachers and pastor, but when I look at all the paid positions of staff in churches there seems to be a position for almost anything.

Just curious about the shift to business model in the church and it's origins.

Why the shift in focus?

bunkababy said...

As Paul said Follow me As I follow Christ. To me that seems like a totally different model than what I see today.

Christiane said...

I think it is interesting to remember that the Holy Spirit was sent among us as a 'Paraclete' to help us and minister to us;
but it is also interesting to realize that the Holy Spirit points us not to Himself but only to Christ.

So, perhaps that might be a 'model' for ministry . . . . that humility . . .

Even then, for those who minister to others in imitation of Christ, they need to take to heart that the only time Our Lord was Himself raised up above others, it was on a cross.

'Leadership' in Christianity is a paradox. To be a 'leader', you become a servant. If you would lead 'leaders', then you become a Servant of the Servants of God.

so much for 'popular' or 'famous' or 'celebrity' pastors . . . it is NOT a coincidence that the model for raising tremendous amounts of money for the missions is a little woman who gave her food away to her beloved Chinese during a famine, and died of the effects of starvation weighing about sixty pounds.

bunkababy said...


I have never heard that, "the only time Our Lord was Himself raised up above others, it was on a cross"



But being a servant is the model of Jesus. I forgot that.

I love what you wrote Christiane.

Do we really need leadership conferences to learn to be a servant? Doesnt that come out of the Holy Spirits guidance and transformation from old self to new self?

There seems to be a conference for everything these days...

Rex Ray said...


The lady you mentioned who gave her food away was Lottie Moon.

“Starting in 1888, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® was established to empower the international missions efforts for Southern Baptists. After more than a century, the annual offering continues its steady growth. The National Goal this year is $160 Million.”


Jesus said go, but the church today says come.

Christiane said...

Hello Romycat,
That concept about Our Lord elevated on the cross
. . . . a very long time ago, in the Sixties, was a folk song sung by Judy Collins called 'Suzanne' (written by Leonard Cohen) and there is an image in it that stuck in my mind all these years from the lyrics, these:

'. . . and Jesus was a sailor when He walked upon the waters,
and He spent a long time watching from a lonely wooden tower . . . '

I never forgot that image.

thanks for mentioning Lottie Moon. Do you know that she is celebrated in other denominations? The Anglicans(Episcopalians) gave her a 'day' in December on their liturgical calendar:
On that day, December 22 of each year she, by name, is mentioned in their prayers in this way:

"O God, in Christ Jesus you have brought Good News to those who are far off and to those who are near: We praise you for awakening in your servant Lottie Moon a zeal for your mission and for her faithful witness among the peoples of China. Stir up in us the same desire for your work throughout the world, and give us the grace and means to accomplish it; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

you can read about it here:

The thing about a Christian saint is that many in the WHOLE Church will take them to their hearts as sources of inspiration and a reason for thanksgiving to God.

Rex Ray said...


Many years ago, I heard a man say, (he didn’t know the background) “Why do we keep giving money to Lottie Moon? She hasn’t even replied with one thank you letter”.

Gary said...

After having served as Full-time, Part-time/Bi-Vo, Volunteer, Interim, Supply, Revival, etc., I retired from having been with the same congregation for almost 20 years. I knew that there was no way that my wife and I could stay and become disengaged from what we had done there, so we found a small-ish church where we enjoyed the Worship, Preaching, and Fellowship and plugged-in there. Being both retirees, we get called upon to do this and that, but it is wonderful to "just be a choir member" for the first time in, well, er, um, actually since college.

It never crossed our minds to "just go somewhere to hide".