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I have exciting news to share with you—our newest book—Putting the Good in Goodbye: A Healthy Conversation About the Comings & Goings of Church Peopleis due out in January 2018! I coauthored the book with my friend and colleague Jim Wiegand, and decided to salt today’s blog with a few excerpts—hope you enjoy it ~ John

It was a typical summer Monday morning. Recovering from an exhausting Sunday where I had preached three church services, I fumbled around in my office, and struggled to be productive. All hope of a quiet day quickly vanished as George walked into my office unannounced.

George (not his real name), served as a board member and worship leader. He was a generous giver, and an integral part of our church. The look on his face foreshadowed bad news—and his words confirmed it: “John, we’re leaving the church. We don’t feel like we’re being challenged enough, so we’re going somewhere else.”

I was shell-shocked. George was well-respected within the church, and for good reason. He was a gem—the kind of guy you want to clone and build the church with. Losing him (and his family) was a painful punch in the gut. George’s kids were my kids’ friends. George’s wife was my wife Laura’s friend. This one hurt instantly. I mumbled to him: “Okay, George, if that’s what you feel you need to do . . .”

As soon as he left the office, rapid-fire questions bombarded my brain. “How are we going to replace George?” “Will other people leave because he’s leaving?” “How will we make it up financially?” “What will this do to my leadership?” “God, are You trying to kill me?” Catastrophic thinking hit high gear. Here’s what I didn’t understand at that particularly frustrating moment: From a leadership and stewardship perspective, I’d put George in the wrong place.

Today, as I reflect on his departure, along with other members who exited, I realize my understanding of people’s place in God’s economy was flawed. I operated as though once a person got plugged into our church, it was a life sentence. Subconsciously, (I’m so embarrassed to admit this), I thought they belonged to me. In my mind, we were joined at the hip, and any exit by them felt like a betraying slap in the face. My inaccurate and immature perspective made the pain of “goodbye” go deeper and last longer than it should have.

If you’re a ministry leader, when people you care about leave, it stings. It stinks. It can mess with your head, make you doubt your calling, lead to lost sleep, and tempt you to quit.

So let me offer three behaviors that I believe will help you process in a healthier way the comings and goings of church people:

Understand God’s people are His people, not yours

When you understand they belong to Him and not you, it will keep you more even-keeled when brothers/ sisters in Christ head for “greener pastures.” God’s people are His people, not yours.  And it’s likely you’ll have some of them with you only for a season. I understand the reluctance some leaders might have accepting this idea. They think: “If there’s a good chance folks will leave sometime in the future, why should I pour my life into theirs?” When we understand the macro picture of God’s kingdom, when we look beyond our small corner of the vineyard, we discover an important principle:  We pour into people because that’s what kingdom-minded leaders do. We understand our call is to build the kingdom, not our kingdom.

A healthier way to say “Goodbye” starts with a healthier way of saying “Hello”

When people arrive, try to keep this thought in front of you: you are one link—an important link—in a long chain of God’s work in their lives. Chances are you’ll be that link only for a period of time. Thinking this way sets you up to better handle the part of pastoring we all don’t like—when they say goodbye. If we view ourselves as a seasonal part of their journey, the comings of people won’t overinflate us, and the goings of people won’t over-deflate us.

Allow for a graceful exit

Avoid the temptation to burn relational bridges. This allows for the possibility of them coming back without having to work through a departure made ugly by our lack of grace. It’s incredibly tempting to set the record straight, to defend yourself, to point out how right you are and how wrong the person is who’s leaving. But experience tells us defending yourself in this manner isn’t the best strategy. Here’s an alternative plan:

          Understand sometimes it’s right for a person to leave

Legitimate reasons to leave a church exist: Sometimes God calls a person to help at another church; sometimes members leave due to systemic issues within the church. Sometimes a person leaves because of vision problems. A member who can’t buy into the vision of your church, or wants to actively promote a different vision, needs to say goodbye and find a church with a more compatible vision.

          Grieve

 When people I discipled left our church, I was shocked. Then I got angry—angry at them for leaving, and angry at myself for not preventing it from happening. Then I got sad. I was unknowingly walking through several stages of grief—shock, anger, and sadness. Sharing our grief with a select group of people—our spouse, a trusted mentor, our board—is healthy. Stick to the facts, ask for prayer, and remind them to maintain confidentiality.

          Say goodbye with grace

When we make villains out of those who leave, people still leave, but they leave having to justify their actions. After all, if leaving is evil, then those who leave must make what they are leaving more evil. Do your best to bless people on the way out.

          Get back to work

When people bolt, it may feel like it’s the end of the world, but it’s not. A disgruntled member leaving your church doesn’t change God’s plan. Plant and water. Dream and strategize. Execute and implement. Pour into those who remain.

 

So there you have it. Just a snippet from our 40+ years of pastoral experience, and from our new book coming out in early January, Putting the Good in Goodbye: A Healthy Conversation about the Comings & Goings of Church People. It is available for preorder here.

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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