By Brian Boyles
“We’re leaving the church,” my friend Tim said matter-of-factly.
It was a gut punch I didn’t see coming, and I didn’t know how to respond.
He was a great guy and we’d become friends in the short time I had been at the church. We had a lot in common, and from time to time we would go mountain biking together or get our families together for dinner.
I knew I could count on him and trust him with my ideas and my frustrations in ministry.
So, when he asked if I could get breakfast with him one morning that week, I thought nothing of it. When I arrived at the restaurant, he was already there and had a booth for us. I slid in with a smile on my face, but I noticed he wasn’t smiling; he was just sipping his coffee.
When he told me he and his family were leaving the church, I just stared at him, and muttered the word, “Why?” That’s all I could say. He tried to explain that it wasn’t personal, but it sure felt that way.
Tim (which isn’t his real name) was a great leader, a friend, and a confidant. This was the first time I had lost a great leader as a senior pastor, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Losing a great leader from within your ministry hurts. It can leave you asking questions that seem to have no good answers. You may start questioning your own leadership, wondering if you did something wrong, or if you can change their mind and get them to stay.
In many ways, how you respond to losing a great leader may unveil a hidden idol that is lurking in your heart. God said He will not give His glory to another (Isaiah 48:11), but if you aren’t careful you might act as if losing a particular person in your ministry is equivalent to losing God’s calling on you as a minister.
I want to challenge you to see your response to this loss as a worship opportunity. Though it is frustrating when someone leaves your ministry, don’t let it affect your worship.
Here are four lessons I’ve learned from losing great leaders in my ministry along the way.
1. Don’t worship the wrong person.
The joy derived from a ministry needs to be based on the people being served, the need being met, or how God is being exalted. Don’t base the joy of the ministry on the one leading it. It’s true that a great leader makes a big difference in the success or failure of a ministry; there is no question of that.
Be sure to thank the leader and find ways to bless them, but the ultimate credit for a ministry’s success belongs to God, and only to God. When a great leader leaves it’s natural to mourn the loss, but make sure you worship the correct Person.
2. Don’t worship the ghost.
What I mean is this: Once the person has left, don’t act as if their ghost remains. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on it for too long. If a week has gone by and you’re still griping about it, or if you find yourself beginning to criticize that person, then you’ve crossed a line into sin.
If their chair is now empty, stop pointing at it. Don’t blame the empty chair for whatever problem you can come up with. People still serving in that ministry are looking to you for a plan for success. You have to move forward with those who are still there.
3. Don’t worship yourself.
Although losing people can cause pain and frustration, resist the urge to do it all by yourself. It’s imperative that you get other people involved in the leadership of the ministry.
Great leaders are vital to the long-term success and growth of a ministry. If you think you don’t have any great leaders to engage, you have two options: recruit them in or coach them up.
There was a time when I joined a ministry that had been dwindling for a long time and the leaders had long since left. I either had to go out and recruit leaders to come join the ministry, or I had to coach the people there to become better leaders.
If you recruit people to join you, you may create animosity among those who are already there. While coaching people to a higher level of leadership takes longer, this method will be more rewarding in the long term.
The question is if you and the congregation are patient enough for this to be effective. In the long run, if you mentor those around you, your ministry will be stronger and people will have more respect for you.
4. Don’t worship ignorance.
See each situation as a learning opportunity: When a leader leaves, what can you learn from it? Why did they leave? Is there a problem you should have addressed before now? Is there something you could have done differently?
Sometimes a great leader will leave because they don’t want to go where you are taking them. That’s ok. It’s better to let them leave than to risk them staying and causing a greater schism in the ministry. Sure, you’d much rather they stay, get on board with where you believe God is leading, and help you achieve the vision God is giving you.
But if they’re convinced they need to step aside, let them. If you’ve met with the person, articulated your vision, allowed them to ask questions (this takes humility), given time for prayer, and they’re still not on board, it may be best for them to step aside. If or when they do, just make sure you learn from the experience.
This will make you a better leader over time, which may be exactly what God is up to.
Losing a leader from within your ministry isn’t the end of the world, even if it feels that way. The longer you serve, the more likely you are to see great people come and go.
Mourn the loss, move forward, mentor those around you, and make sure you learn from it. If you continue to improve as the leader God made you to be, He will send more leaders to you over time.
BRIAN BOYLES (@brian_boyles) is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville, Georgia, and serves as a consultant for Revitalized Churches.