Every church experiences some level of transition. The church I have been privileged to serve as a pastor over the last 10 years has seemed to be quite transient. When our family first came to the church there were about 40 people. In the last decade, we have had over 200 people from all life stages transition away from our church. Seriously, I can produce the file of names that I am continuously updating. Today our active membership floats around 125.
People come and they go. Lately I’ve told people that my ministry life feels like an airport with all the friends entering and exiting. Like travel, there’s the anxiousness of preparing for leaving but also the eagerness for seeing what’s next. There have been a few times when I was the one leaving, which has helped me understand the transitioning as one who is staying.
Sometimes a person transitions from a natural setting: a child graduates and goes off to college, and thus never really returns to live at home; employment transitions; a person retires and relocates for a job or lower cost of living (MD and 21146 is crazy!); aging and family decisions; and of course that fateful transition we will all face – death. Added reasons people transition are the reality of differing views about the church ministry (or any number of social reasons these days!) or people. While conflict has the potential to purify, every loss hurts, especially for a small church. I am grateful there have been only a small amount of in this latter category for why people have transitioned our church.
While it is not easy, I/we try to view each transition from God’s perspective. I’d like to share some lessons when people leave your church. Placing these thoughts in writing may only be helpful for myself (writing can be my therapy!), but perhaps may benefit others.
- Love them sincerely.
Jesus said his followers will be known by their love, even toward those we have differing or opposing viewpoints. Christians are called to love in words and deeds. The Apostle Paul gives us many examples of parting with gospel partners with significant attention and sincere affection. You will want to encourage the transitioning of sisters/brothers about your friendship and care for them as a person and not just as a church or staff member.
- Listen to their story.
People have a reason, or at least a rationalization for their decision. While you may be caught by surprise, or tempted to defend or object, your best option is to give the person your time. Listen and learn for what God is teaching them and how they believe is leading them. Avoid interrupting, ask questions, and value the person with your undivided attention.
- Don’t take it personally.
Someone’s decision is not always about you or what someone has done. It may be about you, and in those cases you will want to exhibit a great deal of humility, repentance as necessary, and peacemaking among all parties. Yet, many times people leave based on their personal goals and convictions for where God is calling them. We must realize we are never owners in this world, but stewards of all that God allows us to serve, and that includes relationships.
- Help them forward.
In the coming days, as able, help the person navigate any next steps toward honoring God.
– Remind the person you are praying for and care for them. Pray with them in that moment. This transition has been weighing on them for days/weeks or even longer. Your encouragement will keep them in the right perspective emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
– Consider ways you or church can serve them tangibly. Assisting with packing or providing a meal could help. Taking time for “last” experiences and sharing memories together.
– Consider others you may know who have made related decisions that could be of help to them; or others/church in a location they are going next that could be of support to them; etc. Added connections and networks can be invaluable and greatly used of God in that person’s life.
– Before (during) moving the church to their next step, take time to acknowledge the person/family leaving through public recognition. You will want to weigh how much recognition to give and what is appropriate, but gratitude and grace can almost never be enough. Highlight the friendships, the service and good they have invested, and the meaningful nature of Christian family. Use the setting as a teaching moment for the congregation about how to leave well, and why being part of a church family is a meaningful and worthy investment.
– Remember to stay connected with the person. Invite them to return for future events or milestones in the church, or even just for visits. As opportunity presents, visit them in their new location.
- Help your church forward.
Like you, the church will have similar emotional responses to the person leaving. Some will grieve, while others may focus on the positives. Take time to listen to multiple person’s stories and do what you can to lead the congregation short and long-term. If you are a pastor/leader, then you will want to communicate these next steps and goals soon.
Consider several questions:
– Who else needs to know this decision? When and how will this be communicated?
– What roles, tasks, tangible items (keys, passwords, technology, etc.) need passed on to other team members?
– How is God orchestrating change for good in each circumstance? Are there ways to combine roles or mix ministries, or even in some unique cases merge churches?
– What are the next step details and big picture aims you and the church should work toward?
Remember to give yourself, and the church, grace. The temptation (at least for me) is to try to fill all the empty roles and solve all the problems in the fastest manner possible. Fast doesn’t always equal effectiveness. We often do not have to guess what happens when we place a warm body in a cold position; so why is that our frequent action? Take the time necessary to evaluate, plan, and pray through how God is leading the church.
Also, in the months and years ahead, you will want to be personally mindful and encourage the congregation to speak positively of people who have left. Even if there are future differences or right critiques about ministries or styles, the way we speak about others privately and publicly matters to God; it’s called integrity. One day you will be the person leaving and you will hope others extend the same grace of your lasting impressions and legacy.
- Rejoice in the Lord.
God is never surprised by any of our actions or reactions. He is our present strength and our eternal hope. Jesus is more than enough. Do you believe this? If so, then you have a firm foundation and you can rejoice at the way God orchestrates the puzzle pieces of our life. Anchor yourself in God’s word and gospel hope. Count it all joy (James 1:2) and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Hold on to the good and learn from the negatives. In all, trust the grace of God to carry you through this next season and rely on the Holy Spirit. Dedicate time in prayer to be the person and fulfill the role He has for you in His church.
- Be on the lookout.
Since God is the Creator of parts in the body (1 Corinthians 12), and Jesus is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and the Holy Spirit indwells each believer (Ephesians 1:13), we can be confident of His care for the church. Pray expectantly for how God will raise up new persons and add to His church to continue the work of the ministry. Involve others in the process of navigating the transition and making decisions for the future season of ministry. Trust the Lord and commit to following His word and ways (Psalm 37:4-5).