why some people stay (or why they can’t leave)

The other day I was talking with a friend who had just recently resigned their position at the church where they served for a number of years. Seems that the leadership culture had soured to the point that it just became impossible for them to stay in their ministry position with the church.

In the process of leaving, they ended up sharing, in great detail, the leadership failings at the church on the part of the pastor and the overall moral decline in the leadership culture with a handful of their closest friends (lay people) that served along side them in ministry. While most of the friends actually believed what they were hearing about the pastor and leadership was indeed true, they decided to remain at the church.

Having spent the last 28 years in a handful of churches as a pastor (and as a lay person), I myself have witnessed this phenomenon time and time again. I’m sure there are several reasons why this occurs, but it does make one ask the question: Why do people continue to serve and support such an organization that they know is making poor decisions? Are they not loyal to their friends who have left? Are they turning a blind eye to the poor leadership? What gives? Again, while there is not a single simple explanation, here is what I shared with my friend to try and make sense of it all.

Organizational Development Behaviorists have a theory they call the Psychology of Sunk Cost. This is an irrational behavior manifested in a tendency to continue with an organization (or situation) once a significant investment in money, effort, or time has been made. In essence, most people don’t leave because their poor and costly investment of time, money, and emotions is motivating their present decision to stay, despite the fact that it objectively should not.

Restated; most (not all) people can’t bring themselves to leave a bad church when they consider the amount of hours they have invested in volunteering in ministry, money they have given to the church over the years, or emotional expenditures on relationships and community that now seem like a poor investment.

Think about these real world examples:

  • Should I continue this unhappy relationship with my fiancé? I have already put so much into it.
  • Should I continue with this terrible job? I spent a year in training to get this position.
  • Should I stay and watch this horrible movie? After all I did pay $10 for the ticket and another $10 for a coke and popcorn.

A sunk cost is an expense that you cannot recover so we linger until the bitter end. Most people often feel that they have have too much invested to quit, or just feel trapped. Most psychologists agree however, that this opportunity for loss should have no effect or bearing on the current situation. But it does.

So, why is that?  Why can most people in the church not bring themselves to separate from the organization?

I believe it’s because most of us have an understanding of and a yearning for hope and it’s hard for us to not account for it in any given situation.  Every situation or circumstance can be redeemed – including our church that is not meeting our expectations.

Hope promotes the belief in a positive outcome. And while all hope should not be lost, ultimately it’s this hope that “things will get better – I just know they will” that keeps most people from leaving a bad church.

Should we always leave when the going gets tough or things don’t go our way? Absolutely not. More times than not we should stay and hope. But sometimes we should when there are spiritual, ethical, or moral failings amongst the leadership.

So here’s to never giving up on hope, but also not allowing “sunk cost” to keep us from making the right decision in our present circumstances.


8 responses

  1. The investment of time, emotion and friendship is without a doubt the hardest to let go of. I still miss serving every weekend for my church with my friends.

    Unfotunately, growth and income seem to become more important than fellowship all to often.

    I applaud you for bringing up this topic. Many of those with whom I served are still trying to make the best of a bad situation and this blog rings all to true.

    If you ever find that people who have served your church for a long time suddenly leave, I would encourage you to seek out what they have to say and not accept what others may tell you as the truth. You will not be counciled wisely by those who are fearful of losing thier income.

  2. Good topic! Hard decision – harder still to settle for something less than optimal, or healthy. No body (double entendre:) is perfect. What makes the difference? Tough it out and hope, or look for greener pastures// Healthy/ unhealthy church?

  3. LisaJ, really hard decision. I do believe there is a difference between agreeing/disagreeing with the decisions that the leadership make. Too often people will disagree over trivial matters and use that as a reason to leave a church when they probably shouldn’t. However, this person was in a situation where there were some really poor leadership directive from the pastor – likely mostly felt by the staff at the church and not the congregation.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. Hi Alex,

    Good info and a very interesting read. I have actually read and re-read it several times… to the point of feeling compelled to comment — for what it’s worth 🙂

    I don’t know the entire story behind why your friend left their church so my view is pretty limited in that regard, but with what you’ve relayed I find myself coming back to several thoughts:

    * First off… I’m sensing that your friend is deeply hurt and my heart goes out to them. I’m quite sure that their close friends feel their pain as well and I would bet that they’ve been praying for them… to help them find the peace and healing that they are seeking. I, too, will pray for them.

    * To assume that their friends’ unwillingness to also leave the church falls into “irrational behavior” might be a bit harsh. Perhaps it is possible that their friends, regardless of the information being shared about the leadership… perhaps they are not as affected in such a direct way. Or perhaps it’s just as possible that the friends are receiving from God exactly what He has intended for them at this time of their lives. Being fed by Him in the manner that He finds best must always trump loyalty to friends. It’s just not fair to the friends to expect that they should feel exactly the same thing; that they are impacted in exactly the same way; and in such a way that they can no longer receive God’s Word at this same church. That expectation, in my view, could be somewhat selfish because my church experience and what I’m receiving from my church is never going to be on the same level as any of my friends — and if any of my friends decide to leave my church I will wish them well… but they should not necessarily expect me to go with them. The bottom line is “I’m not there for them.”

    * Regarding the leadership and poor decision-making of the pastor of the church… I’d have to think that not ALL decisions are poor nor can the leadership of the church be completely lacking. Any relationship that has gone sour… both parties bear at least some share of responsibility for the souring of the relationship. Somewhere along the line I would think that the church pastor has done some good.

    * Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was when I finally realized that a church is comprised of a house full of sinners… from the pastor on down. And we are all wired differently with varying viewpoints. Therefore, no matter where we go… if we look hard enough we will find something that we don’t like. It comes down to whether we choose to allow the things we dislike to overcome the things we like. If we, as sinners with sinner mentalities, begin picking and choosing what we like or dislike about a given church… we must ask ourselves one question: “Am I focused internally or externally?” If we are focused internally (on ourselves) then no matter what church we ever go to it just won’t work. There are all kinds of churches for all kinds of people… but to search for the church with no issues is a futile search fraught with frustration.

    Having said all this… if a pastor or leadership team starts making and continues making decisions based on ego or their individual wants… God will let that church will eventually die. It’s His house… not our’s.

    Thanks for listening… sorry for the long reply, but again thank you for starting the discussion because it inspired me to seriously give thought to a sensitive and challenging topic.

    I truly hope your friend finds the peace and healing that only He can provide… and I hope that they find a good church home where their spiritual fire can be rekindled and fed to the fullest.

    With Love,


    • Scotty,

      Thanks for the comment. You make several great points, some of which we can’t discuss in this public forum, and some of which I’m not fully aware of because I myself don’t know all the details of my friends’ situation.

      I tried to be careful in saying that these issues are complicated and that people shouldn’t always leave when the going gets tough. But based on what he told me, there was some corruption of some sort that to the point, if true, would be grounds (in my opinion) to no longer follow the leadership of the pastor or the leadership team for that matter.

      A lot of times in these situations people do leave, and likely justifiably so. I was trying to help him understand why a lot of people don’t leave in these situations. Again, you made several great points all of which can or may be true. But it’s also true that people sometimes have a hard time leaving situations (relationships, jobs, churches, etc…) because of the investment (time, money, relationships, emotions) that they have made, even when they should not consider the investment but rather instead their present circumstances.

      Bottom line, it’s not the only reason that people stay with bad investments, but definitely one of them.


  5. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that you must have been talking with my friend “John”. He too resigned his church staff position due to his inability to work with the existing poor leadership culture. He too made many attempts to address the failings he saw with the pastor, staff and lay leaders to no avail. He too felt compelled to share his concerns with friends and those involved in his area of ministry. He too was disappointed that a few, but not many heeded his advice to leave the unhealthy church before it became fully corrupt.

    But there’s always another side to the story: see, “John” served on our church staff for several years in a tenure that could best be described as contentious. He had strong opinions on the direction the church should be going and he openly antagonized the pastor to other staff. He had an ongoing complaint to the board about the pastor, and raised allegations of misconduct which were based on assumptions he’d made, and on some occasions, lies that he told about the pastor’s activities and motives. When the board didn’t take disciplinary measures against the pastor, he became convinced it was filled with “yes men” who would not stand up to the pastor so he took his complaints to his friends who would listen, and finally, in what could best be described as an ultimatum (ie–“if things don’t change I’d rather have no job than this one”), he resigned. He took a few people with him, and left some confused church members in his wake, but I have to be honest: peace returned, and we will hopefully hire differently in the future.

    Same story, different perspective. These are things they don’t teach you how to deal with in seminary, and for the most part, you have to pray a lot and do the best you can, and hopefully love people along the way. Not every church is a fit for every person, and sometimes people just don’t see things the same way you do. I agree with Scott, and ask this for your friend as well as “John”: that he would find a place where he can serve well, and have peace.

    • M, well said and great insight.

      A wise man once told me that there were 3 sides to every story: this side, that side, and the truth. Seems like the truth is always somewhere in between.


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