Church Planting, Leadership, Pastors

Church Planters: Beware the Church Hoppers

Angry People

When I meet an aspiring church planter, he or she is usually a kind, soft-hearted and trusting person. These are qualities that make for a great pastor.

At the same time, these are qualities that less-than-healthy people will take advantage of.

Every church planter feels the continual pressure to gather an ever enlarging group of people, because a church plant has to fight for survival. New churches die for lack of people and funds. It’s hard to get something new off the ground, and you can quickly find yourself being tempted to involve anyone who comes your way.

Showing up and having a heartbeat, however, are not the only criteria a person must meet in order to be entrusted with any measure of influence in the church you’re planting.

The church you’re planting needs emotionally healthy, stable people.

God loves everyone, but not everyone is emotionally healthy enough to have influence in a church. Any church will only be as healthy as its core group, and unhealthiness in the core group will only be magnified in a new, small church with inexperienced leaders who are often not accustomed to dealing with church drama.

There is a group of people who will do more damage to the church plant than you could ever imagine when you first meet them. At first encounter, they seem nice, very thankful they found your church, and eager to jump in and get involved. You need people, and they’re looking for a church. Seems like a match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, there are people who change churches frequently because they have a difficult time relating to other people and committing any length of time to a church. They are often called “church hoppers.”

Every church planter and pastor I know can verify the reality of church hoppers by painful experience.

There are several types of church hoppers. Here are three:

1. The “We weren’t being fed” type.

They are looking for expository preaching and their favorite worship songs from a particular flavor of church they like, but left, for some reason. They expect you to change your church just to please them.

2. The “We were just looking for something else” type.

This means that they move from church to church based on what feels exciting to them, what is new, and what church style they like. They will leave the church you serve as soon as the newness wears off.

3. The “We were hurt” type.

They experienced a church conflict (often more than one) and, instead of resolving it, they left looking for a church with no conflict and a perfect pastor.

In this post, I’m talking about the third type.

They left their last three churches because they were hurt in a conflict. They were hurt. Over and over and over again. So, instead of resolving the conflict, they left. You can see the clear pattern.

They caused the repeated conflicts that hurt them.

Then, instead of caring enough to confess their role and resolve the conflict, they bailed.

Now, they’re in the church you pastor!

This third type of church hoppers are people who have a difficult time staying in any one church because of their own emotional and relational dysfunction. They cause relational conflicts in every church they try. They may not mean to, but they can’t, or won’t, help it. It is a pattern in their lives that springs from their own pathology.

Once they cause the conflict, they exit for another church, leaving the people who are committed to clean up their mess. They hop from church to church, looking for the perfect church that doesn’t exist.

Young pastors are often idealistic, trusting… and incredibly naive people. Especially when feeling the pressure of church planting, we can lose sight of basic facts about working with human beings:

  • Mental illness is real.
  • Some people really will lie to protect their own egos.
  • Unhealthy people gossip and build alliances, taking others with them when they leave.
  • Because of pride, some won’t admit their unhealthy decisions, even when it’s obvious to others.
  • They don’t see the problem because they are the problem.

This is the reality of working with human beings in a fallen world.

Once again, God loves everyone, but not everyone is emotionally healthy enough to have influence in a church.

In Community of Kindness: A Refreshing New Approach to Planting and Growing a Church, church planter Steve Sjogren warns that new churches attract a variety of people who come for different reasons. Some connect because they genuinely believe in the mission and values of the new church. Some like to help new churches and may leave once the church grows. Some join, however, because they have a history of not being able to build a long term relationship with any church, and your church is their next ex.

The tell-tale sign of a church hopper is the list of churches he or she has left and the strong emotion they hold against “church,” in general.

  • Often, the person will meet with you and emotionally share multiple stories of painful conflict.
  • He or she may demonize former pastors (red flag!).
  • He or she will express frustration with “church” in general and always be on the brink of chucking the whole thing.

You may see some small warning signs along the way, but you may not be aware of how dysfunctional the person is. The inciting incident could be anything, including a normal level of human conflict that occurs on a daily basis.

You will see what is hard for you to believe, because it makes no sense. You will witness emotional and relational dysfunction that the person can no longer mask. You will observe irrational behavior, even belligerence, and you will watch a person you thought was here for life explosively leave the church, inflicting maximum harm on the way out… just like he or she has done before.

It’s new to you but not new to them. You will watch the relationship go up in flames, and now, you need to know something even more painful.

Pastor, they will attack you personally.

They won’t leave because of a conflict with “the church.”

They will leave because they have a problem with you.

It will be intensely personal, because in their dysfunction, it is always personal. They expected you to be the perfect human being who would heal them and coddle them. They often want a job title in the church. They thought you would be different than every other “nasty, terrible, hypocritical pastor” who hurt them so deeply.

In other words, they wanted you to be Jesus. Often, they also wanted a job title, or they wanted you to promote their own agenda.

You didn’t, and for them, it’s personal.

This third type of church hoppers tend to be people who were wounded in a past church experience. Perhaps they encountered an abusive pastor or a shady church conflict and were disillusioned. Unfortunately, they were not able to overcome their own woundedness and function in a healthy way, so they will be overly guarded and actually look for reasons to leave the church you shepherd. They will unintentionally sabotage their own relationships, especially with you, looking for reasons to validate their lack of trust and bitterness.

As the shepherd God has entrusted with this church, you cannot let church hoppers tear the church apart.

Here are some simple ways to guard the church plant from church hoppers:

  • Resist the temptation to give authority to everyone who is nice to you.

Develop a policy that people new to the church wait for at least a year before putting them in any positions of leadership.

  • Vet people before entrusting them with influence.

Why not contact that “terrible, hypocritical” former pastor and get his or her side of the story? It might be quite revealing. Observe the way they interact with others, and do not ignore red flags.

  • There is strength in numbers.

Limit the amount of time you spend with people who have repeatedly left churches, and when you meet with them, make sure other trusted members of the church are with you.

In this church plant, God has called you to be the shepherd, so protect your flock by resisting the temptation to take anybody who comes your way.

God will provide the right people at the right time.