Recently we had a leader leave our church and they did it in an awkward way. Instead of speaking to my wife and I first so that we could determine a plan of action to unwind them from their ministries in a gracious way and send them with a blessing. They decided to abandon their post. They showed up on a Sunday morning, told everyone that they were leaving except my wife and I and simply left. We actually found out the next day after the fact through one of the leaders on staff. I can’t tell you how shocked I was the Senior Pastor to find out through another leader that one of my key leaders left the church without me knowing it. Certainly, this is one of those defining moments that cause us to reflect as leaders and here are some of my early observations.
1. Their leaving didn’t come out of no where.
If I’m honest, I can look back and see the signs of discontent. Because we are a gracious church, I’ve often allowed grumbling and complaining to occur without addressing it. I just figure that people have differing opinions and I’m okay with that. In fact, I welcome it because you often get a better outcome when iron sharpens iron. But if I’m honest about what I saw and felt, I have to say that when I saw this couple pulling people aside to have private conversations that I often wondered, what are they talking about? Why are they always focused on a certain group of people who are living in a particular area or at a particular distance from the church? Why are people coming up to me saying… have you spoken to so and so? It’s because they were hearing things from this couple that troubled them and they saw a growing division between the couple and the vision of the church and wanted me to be aware. However, because I’m generous and want to think the best I ignored the warning signs.
2. Their leaving was premeditated.
When leaders leave a church, it is a painful decision. It doesn’t come easy and it involves months and weeks of thought, prayer and conversations. This particular couple came to church with an agenda to leave. They planned their exit, thought through their reasons, thought through their message and executed it with clear precision. This issue isn’t that they left. Leaders come and go. The issue is how they left. They left in such a way that they did not receive the blessing of the church or of the leadership. As one pastor said, some people are sent and some just went. As a leader I’ve always valued the blessing of churches where I’ve served at. I’ve never left a church without speaking to the leadership first. I believe it’s key to building a strong foundation for ministry. Now, I understand that not all leavings are healthy and sometimes leadership have to leave an abusive environment without a blessing. I have certainly been faced with that scenario, but that is the exception not the rule and it certainly wasn’t true in the life of this couple.
3. Their leaving revealed the health of our church.
When a leader leaves a church, the test of health is not the holes they leave but the opportunities for leaders to step up. It’s caused all our leaders to rengage. It also revealed a significant grace filled quality of our church… the same graciousness I extended to this couple was also extended through our other leaders. What I have found out since their leaving is that they have been in disagreement with my leadership for some time. However, because we are a gracious group the other leaders simply allowed them to voice their concerns without judging them as being divisive. They were extended grace. But it also revealed a disconnect in that the leaders didn’t feel the need to share with the pastoral staff that there were problems. After all, I preach every week that we are to love the ones that nobody loves. Moving forward, we are going to learn to continue to extend grace but also be aware of potential problems early on.
4. Their leaving revealed areas of improvement.
We are a highly relational church. The one quality we hear often from visitors is how friendly and welcoming our church is. We don’t want anyone to feel left out or unconnected. The weakness in we don’t want to confront people because we don’t like conflict and we don’t want them to leave. I am becoming aware of the number of conversations that have occurred with people over the past year. I’m wondering what would have happened if the people this couple were speaking to would have encouraged them to meet with Roxie and I? I wonder if they would have had the opportunity to share their concerns or better understand my vision. Maybe they would have left sooner. Maybe they would have grown in their understanding of grace. Who knows because they weren’t encouraged to deal with things Biblically which reveals an area of growth that our staff needs to look at.
5. Their leaving has opened the door for real communication to happen
I am holding a meeting with all the staff to ask two questions. 1) What criticisms, reasons, etc. were they given for their leaving? 2) Do they have any questions to ask me to verify if what they were told was true? What I have discovered with immature leaders is they don’t know how to process their questions appropriately. Instead of asking the right person, they talk amongst themselves or go to a person they thing will sympathize with them, back up the dump truck and unload. It’s unhealthy. By calling a meeting, I will give everyone the opportunity to ask me questions directly. Since I am the target of this couple’s criticisms, I am the best one to answer or verify if I was represented correctly by this couple.
One of the criticisms I found out was that I don’t preach enough on repentance. Interesting criticism because I preach on repentance every Sunday by confronting the lies that people believe about God and themselves through scripture. However, I don’t use the word repent or sin so the conclusion is I don’t preach on repentance. But the fruit of the ministry is I’m watching people leave behind their lies about God, they are falling in love with Jesus, getting involved in ministry because they love Jesus and they are filled with joy. Sounds like repentance to me. But because I’m not a hard nosed preacher against sin and evil I’m not preaching on repentance.
6. Their leaving gives them the opportunity to grow.
Unfortunately, most leaders who leave in the manner this couple did have not learned the critical lessons they need to know in order to become effective, godly leaders. A leader who abandons their ministry simply doesn’t have a pastor’s heart. They are selfishly motivated. They see ministry in terms of how it benefits them, not in terms of obedience to Christ. This is a lesson I learned early in my journey with Jesus. I learned that my life is not my own. I belong to Jesus and Jesus loves His bride. I learned that Jesus doesn’t take kindly to people who take advantage of His bride for their own purposes.
When a leader is called by God, it’s a sure call. It’s not a call to the highest bidder or biggest pay check. It’s not a call to the church that lets me do whatever I feel like. It’s a call to submit myself under the authority of Christ and then mutually submitted to my brothers and sisters in Christ and this includes the leadership of a church. The test of the call doesn’t come when you agree with everything. It comes when you disagree. How do you handle disagreement in vision, theology or practice? How do you handle leaving a ministry if your disagreements lead to that? Do you leave in a way that hurts the church or encourages the church?
7. Their leaving will produce consequences
Be prepared for fall out. If it doesn’t happen right away, it may happen months down the road when the seeds of discontent planted by a discontented person begin to bear fruit. Don’t be defensive or angry. Be gracious. Nothing may happen. Everything may happen. But whatever happens remember that Jesus is Lord of the Church and I am merely an under shepherd. Seek the Lord and walk in obedience to the things He tells you to do. Let God establish the work. It’s His work and He will establish it. Let Him protect the work. If people leave, bless them as they go. You want people who are with you in seeing God do something incredible. You don’t want people who really have their hearts somewhere else. Release them from their ministries so that they can have freedom to do whatever the Lord wants them to do. Now we are a small church and that’s scarey for us. Every person counts. But in the long run, it means a healthy church and a thriving church.
These are just a few of the reflections I’ve had from this poorly executed departure. My wife and I pray God’s best for the couple that left. Whatever pain is in their life that led them to handle things in the manner they did, we pray that God heals them and grows them. We are saddened that we didn’t get to share in blessing them out, but as 1 John 2:19 says… They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
If you’re a leader contemplating leaving. Do it right. Talk to your pastor before you talk to everyone in the church. Trust the Holy Spirit in your pastor to put together a departure plan. Be humble and respect the decision of leadership. God is in control and He knows. If it is the Lord calling you out, why would you be afraid to talk to the leadership first? Don’t miss out on the blessing that God wants to bestow on your future ministries.