There’s no denying it: When someone leaves your ministry, it can sting.
You might wonder if you did something wrong or if your church wasn’t enough for them. Or you might be angry, furious that they could leave you after all the time and love you’ve invested in them. However you process it, the loss of a church member is exactly that – a loss. And I’ve been there too. But when someone leaves my church, I’ve learned to get to the heart of the matter and handle it differently than you might expect.
First, I need to rewind. Years ago, before I started the Shelter, I worked at another church for eight years. I was devoted to this church and to the lead pastor, who was my mentor, for that entire time. I was given full control over all of their youth ministries, from children to college students, I preached from the pulpit and I worked with their finances. But then came the day I told my mentor I was leaving. I told him I was being called to chase the vision he had put in me, to start a new church… and he shunned me. Within 30 seconds, I went from being a deeply trusted friend and colleague to being treated as a traitor.
This experience was incredibly difficult to go through, but it taught me a great deal about how we all fit into God’s greater story and how we’re called to treat one another. This shaped my perspectives to come.
We are shepherds; just part of their story
From the moment we opened up the Shelter, I realized we have to embrace that we are just part of people’s spiritual growth. We’re not the be-all, end-all in their spiritual journey and it’s actually dangerous to view ourselves that way. When we put ourselves in a place that’s more influential than God, we get confused. But many pastors don’t acknowledge this. There’s an emotional part of this, as well as a pride piece, which can distort how even the most loving of pastors react to members leaving.
First, we must remember someone leaving does not mean they have a personal vendetta against you (and odds are good they don’t). It’s imperative we try not to take their decision personally. Second, we should remember our role. We are called to be shepherds. This means we do not own the people in our congregations; we lead them. We are someone else’s steward – God’s. The sooner we can recognize that our church members belong to God, and not us, we can relinquish our desperate desire to retain them. Trying to keep someone with you who is ready to move on puts an undue amount of pressure on you to perform for them or rescue them, and this isn’t your job. This will take you away from your vision.
We are all one body
Instead, face the truth head-on that people will come and go. After all, you wouldn’t eat at the same restaurant every single day for 20 years. You just wouldn’t, even if you loved it, because you’d get tired of it. Similarly, every church has a unique vision that may fit a member’s life and heart for a period of time, but likely not forever. For example, my church is unique in its calling. The Shelter invites in people who either want to provide shelter actively in a serving role, or people in need of shelter. If I’m preaching every week about the importance of serving and being active in the church, someone in a different stage of life might not connect with that vision. They may leave – and that’s okay. People’s lives are seasonal, and it’s not up to us to make them stay.
With any issue like this, I always try to dig deep into the heart of the matter. And here’s what I believe that is. We are all part of the body of Christ. Each church is not its own body; all believers make up one body. As 1 Corinthians 12:27 phrases it: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Do you believe all your members are part of the body of Christ? I do, and this knowledge gives me peace. Even when a church members leave my church, they are not leaving the body of Christ. And what’s what matters most.
Blessings upon entrance and exit
Because of my experience with leaving my mentor’s church, the first message I ever preached at the Shelter was about how the way in which we leave one thing is how we will enter another. So when a church member tells me they’re leaving, I want to bless them. If I need to apologize to them for something, I will. I’ll also go out of my way to stay in contact with them once they’re gone. I’ve become passionate about destroying that awkwardness someone naturally feels when they leave.
If I bless them in their exit, I’ll enter into my next relationship with a new church member in a blessed fashion. But if I respond to a member’s exit with hurt and bitterness, I’ll enter into the next one hurt and bitter. Let’s all commit to serving those in front of us, while also honoring, loving, cherishing and remembering all the great things others who have left brought to us and our churches. Let’s trust the Lord to bring us new church members, and to serve Him as He moves some of our church members into the next season of their lives.
Don’t get me wrong – I get emotionally attached to my congregation, as anyone does. But I’m blessed by them taking a risk and leaving our fellowship to take their gifts elsewhere. I also trust that they’ll be blessed in their journey. So, I’d like to leave you with the following verse that summarizes how we should treat those we are leading better than I ever could:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:9-18.
That last part says it all. It is our responsibility, as church members come and as church members go, to live at peace with everyone. I challenge each one of us to rise to this occasion.