Times of sifting and pruning are painful for a pastor. These times, as excruciating as they are, are healthy and necessary for a church to grow larger and to bear greater fruit. What should you do during those painful times of sifting every church experiences?

John 15:2
“Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.”

It’s not unusual for a pastor, during pruning or sifting times to take it personally. After all, you hear all the comments about “not being fed,” “church is now on the wrong track,” “he’s not taking me deeper,” and a host of other hurtful but common phrases. But I assure you, after 30 plus years of ministry, I’ve learned, that it is rarely—if ever—personal.

Of course, the pastor feels the pain of people leaving. It’s because he loves the flock and has “no greater joy than to know they are walking in the truth.”

I John 1:4
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

When a sifting occurs, it’s often the people you’d least expect. For example, a couple has been praying for their family to come to Christ. When they finally do, the couple leaves the church. A once-faithful board member or support team member walks out the door, filled with accusations, and you wonder how many others they have influenced along the way.

The problem is truth is usually lacking in most sifting times. A Concordia study several years ago revealed something that opened my eyes. When people leave a good church, it’s almost never for the reasons they say. Over 95% of the time it is some sin or family struggle they are embarrassed over or afraid of being exposed.

Pastor, you don’t want everyone in your church. You want the right ones in your church—the ones God Himself has added to your expression of Christ’s body.

What a lesson.

If people leave the flock, it’s an indication that they do not accept you as their shepherd.

By my fourth year as pastor, our church had grown from 226 to around 1200. The people who helped me lead the church when it was smaller became threatened by the growth. I noticed more grumbling, rebellion, contention, and nervousness among them. They started inviting people over to their homes and injecting their fears into new members.

But, I wouldn’t budge on what God had put in my heart, even though the “original” leaders disagreed. There was a mass exodus—a hundred souls left in a matter of a few months. Talk about painful, it hurt. There were rumors and innuendos left behind that we had to deal with.

After they departed, I noticed something special—peace in the church. Young leaders, submitted to order and the passion of our vision, began rising up. The church launched off the 1200 plateau and within two years had more than doubled to over 2800 worshippers. Income increased and enthusiasm flourished.

I will admit, I did become a bit hardened, I think. It hit me hardest about six months after the sifting. I was dealing with the emotions, and feeling guilty that I didn’t try to persuade them to stay. In retrospect, I know it would have been detrimental to the growth of our church if they did remain. When individuals develop an attitude of superiority, a spirit of rebellion, or are harboring some secret sins, it’s better to let them go—it’s probably God performing His wonderful, but painful pruning process.

What does a pastor do during pruning times?

First, on a personal level:

  • Keep pressing into God and His Word
  • Keep hearing from God—He speaks
  • Know that God is about to bring you to a whole new level
  • Always hang onto this: God knows something about it you don’t know
  • Never quit without a clear word of instruction from the Lord. People need to see you as solid, durable, and lasting.

On a corporate church level:

  • Assure the people that sifting is a normal process. Jesus always spoke in agricultural terms: planting, maturing, harvesting…and pruning.
  • Keep casting vision in faith…even when you don’t feel like it or see evidence of your vision coming to pass. That’s faith (Hebrews 11:1-3).
  • Always speak the truth kindly. People will remind you, “They were good people.” Maybe they were (but not usually), yet they weren’t the right people. God is helping you to get the wrong people off the ship and the right people on the ship for great advancement of your church.
  • Always radiate warmth, build bridges, and focus, not on the ones that left, but on the team, God is now raising up for you.
  • Under no circumstances, accept back into leadership the people who left if they return, without a long period of probation and watching them closely.
  • Know that God is building His Church and He has entrusted a great leadership role to you.
  • Keep winning the lost and equipping the believers…and never stop.

We’ve experienced siftings and pruning over the years since that first one. They’ve always been painful, yet productive. I’m glad I never quit. Since that first sifting, we’ve planted 243 new churches in America, Africa, and Asia, and now enjoy over 100,000 members (here and in our satellite churches).

Sifting is a good thing after all!

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