Estimated Time of Departure
I started going to youth group, at the same church my now-husband attended, when I was a teen. As a young adult, my family made that church our home. My core group of friends came from that youth group. We grew in the Lord together. We experienced high school, college, new careers, weddings, and the birth of children together. Our lives were invested in that body of believers, and we belonged.
Until a new pastor took over. We didn’t know all of the details involved in the transition, but we did know the circumstances surrounding it were not positive. Over time, we got to know the new pastor’s character qualities and his beliefs. As with any change, there was discomfort in our church family. Some people left right away, some were thrilled with the new pastor, and some of us weren’t sure what to think or feel.
My husband and I were torn. This church was our home. It was the place almost all of our parents, siblings, and close friends were. We had roots, deep ones. Eventually, we became more and more concerned and uncomfortable with the direction of leadership and some of the teaching. There was a point when we realized it was no longer our home. Leaving was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make early in our marriage. Ours wasn’t an abrupt departure, and we had the benefit of being able to say goodbye to family and friends; it took a long time for us to work through the sadness of leaving, and it took a long time for us to heal.
As church leaders, we see departures all the time. Some of them are naturally occurring and expected. People move to new towns; volunteers are called to serve in a different capacity. The farewells are bittersweet. It’s like waiting for a flight to take off–we know the estimated time of departure and have time to prepare. We’re able to rejoice with people and their new opportunities, while expressing our sadness over having to say goodbye.
On the flip side, consider how absolutely distressing it would be if flights took off from the airport before anyone could board the plane? Think about the sinking feeling in your gut if it happened to you. Sometimes departures at church are abrupt and negative. No one has time to prepare or process reactions and responses.
In over ten years of vocational ministry, I’ve seen a lot of goodbyes. Many have been positive, and those families and volunteers who have moved on to new places are remembered with fondness. Sadly, the ones that stick out the most to me are those sudden, negative departures. No matter how many times it happens, I experience some of the same emotions every time. I’ve felt angry, bewildered, wounded, defensive, inadequate, attacked, and in some cases relieved.
Certain situations, I’ve worked through with the Lord, and I don’t have residual negative feelings. I’ve run into those individuals and families since, and it’s been a positive experience. And then there are other situations that unearth the same emotional response every time they come to mind or happen to cross paths with the people involved either in person or on social media. It’s in those times I have a choice to make– allow the feelings to grow into a frenzy or ask the Lord to help me process in a healthier, more godly way.
As I’ve thought about this topic, revisited our experience leaving a church, and reflected on situations I’ve had as a church leader, two things came to mind:
- There’s always a story, and I don’t know all of it.
- It’s not all about me.
When we left our previous church, it was complicated and multilayered. Even though my husband and I talked through our concerns and feelings repeatedly, asked others to pray for us to have wisdom, and shared the why with family and friends; we were the only ones who knew the complete story. We’re sure there were people who questioned, speculated, and judged us unfairly because we’ve been prone to do the same thing toward others. But we never felt prompted or thought it wise to share everything with everyone. So why would I assume to know the “real” story in the lives of others?
When we’re faced with people leaving our ministry or our church, it’s important to remember that there’s always a story, and we do not know all of it. We can attempt to piece together the things they’ve said to us, to others in the church or what they’ve shared on social media to try to understand what’s happened, but it’s far too easy to go down that path with less-than-pure intentions. If we presume to think we know the whole story based on a small slice of information, are we acting out of our own “wisdom” instead of coming from a place of grace? What we may see as petty reasons or character flaws that were excuses to leave, might actually be indicators of deeper issues and hurts we don’t know about. Even when people leave poorly, responding in a grace-filled way is always God’s best.
Remember that list of feelings I listed above, the ones I’ve experienced when people have left? I wasn’t exaggerating. An emotional reaction is not at all unexpected in difficult situations which is why stopping to make the choice not to allow those feelings to direct our words and actions is so important. This brings me to my second thought – It’s not all about me.
I have a “gift” for being an introverted overthinker. It’s something that pops up over and over, and it’s an area of my life I’ve been unlearning for years. If left unchecked, it can get me into a whole lot of trouble. I start viewing everything through my self-focused magnifying lens, and I believe it’s all about me. As volunteers have walked away abruptly or without reason, I’ve agonized over what I should have done differently to keep them from leaving, while at the same time feeling personally wounded because they chose not to continue to serve even though they see the volunteer shortage I have. When families have left the church, and I’ve either known or sensed it was not on good terms, I’ve wasted so much time dwelling on it in unproductive ways.
When we view situations of volunteers or families leaving it’s like trying to ride a seesaw alone–you can run back and forth between the two sides and never get anywhere. Spending an extraordinary amount of time worrying if we’ve offended them or didn’t interact enough with their children, questioning our ability to lead a good-enough ministry, being angry because they’ve unfairly judged us or the church is exhausting. And then the guilt over feeling relieved for being done with “extra grace required” people swoops in to put the cycle into turbo mode.
We can give in to processing these situations with a self-centered focus and wallow in all kinds of mess or we can seek God’s wisdom and direction as we work through how to respond. Asking the Lord to show us if there are actual areas in ourselves that need correction is productive; peering through a magnifying lens with an overlay of “this is all about me” is not.
Volunteers and families leaving for all kinds of reasons is to be expected. It’s part of the ebb and flow of ministry, and we have choices to make when those departures happen. Responding to those occurrences in a healthy, God-honoring way requires surrendering ourselves to the Lord’s direction instead of allowing our skewed perception to dictate our words and actions is within our power. We need to let go of the thinking that leads to the assumption that we know the entire story or that the circumstances are all about us. Instead, let’s adopt a grace-filled approach toward those who’ve left along with a healthy amount of personal reflection that allows the Lord to change in us things that He wants to change.
Amy Diller began her career as an elementary teacher before moving into her current role of Co-Director of Children’s Ministry at Colonial Woods Missionary Church in Port Huron, MI. She is a life-long Michigander, wife to Jason, and mom to two college-aged daughters. Amy loves the smell of a new box of crayons, the feel of a book in her hands, and experiencing God’s Word through the eyes of kids. You can contact Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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