A healthier way of saying goodbye begins with a healthier way of saying hello. We learned that in last week’s post from chapter five in Putting the Good in Goodbye. This week we will discuss Chapter six . . . what to do when people go.
When a church member departs, it hurts. As vocational ministers we pour our blood, sweat, and tears into the work the Lord has called us to. When someone walks away from that work, we feel it deeply. Questions cloud our judgment: How will this exit impact the church? Who else will leave on their coattails? How much information should I share and with whom? What will this do to our finances? What if those who remain are told untruths about the circumstances surrounding that person’s exit?
Our hope in this post is that we can help you process these questions and offer both a proper perspective and some useful tools to get through the inevitable exit of church people.
A huge component involves blessing them when they leave. We do this primarily out of our love for them. By behaving in this manner, we leave room for a graceful exit and even allow for a return if they so choose. Blessing people when they leave is an art form because each situation is unique and requires somewhat of a custom approach.
Although everything inside of you may be telling you otherwise, can we encourage you to resist the temptation to defend yourself or “set the record straight.” Acting defensively can cause unnecessary turbulence and make a demanding situation even harder.
So, how, exactly, do we do this? How can we genuinely bless people when they leave?
Understand it’s sometimes right for people to leave
Natalie Runion, content creator at Raised to Stay, says, “People can leave a church, and nothing be wrong with said church. They are going out of obedience, faith, and trembling in holy reverence for the season ahead…”
An individual may be part of our church for a season and for a specific reason ordained by God—to learn something from the Lord best modeled by you, or to obtain healing from a hurtful past, or to launch into the next phase of God-given purpose. Or maybe the individual was sent there to teach you something and bring healing to your broken places.
Sometimes their leaving revolves around issues such as leadership abuse or heretical teaching. Or perhaps there are systemic issues within the organization like heavy-handed authoritarianism or overwork/overscheduling. Departures can be an opportunity for leaders to evaluate the question: Am I contributing in any way to this individual leaving?
Realizing that it is healthy in certain circumstances for people to leave helps us to adjust our expectations and manage the pain associated with their departure.
That being said, it’s appropriate to grieve the departure. We often cycle through the stages of grief when a departure happens: shock, anger, and sadness. It’s acceptable and healthy to mourn the loss of people, especially when you’ve shared so much life with them. Pastoral ministry is deeply personal. Most ministers throw themselves into work with their whole heart. And it’s difficult not to take departures as rejection.
Grieving for a season is important, coupled with the expectation that you will move past the grief. It’s appropriate to process the grief of the loss with a select group of safe individuals—your spouse, a trusted mentor, or a coach. Stick to facts, ask for prayer, and request confidentiality. It’s our contention that it’s best not to mourn publicly in front of the entire congregation.
Say goodbye graciously
In a recent post on her Instagram account, Runion says regarding those who leave your church, “Celebrate what they have done . . . send them off with prayer and prophetic words. Watch how they go with grace.”
A church culture that celebrates sending and next steps is operating in the ministry gift of preparing God’s people for works of service. Co-author of Putting the Good in Goodbye Jim Weigand says, “Lead with an open hand to those who walk in and walk out of your church, and you will stay emotionally healthy and heal many wounds.” And finally . . .
Get back to work
Tap into the vision God has given you and your team. Continue being on mission. Plant. Water. Dream. Strategize. Implement. You cannot control who stays and goes, but you can offer a compelling ministry experience for those who remain. You can work toward creating an environment where they meet Jesus and experience rich community.
Processing the departure of the people we love is difficult. Learning how to say “hello” and “goodbye” helps us to put “the good” in goodbye.
Next week we will continue to unpack ways to get better at processing the comings and goings of church people. Meanwhile, take time to work through these questions:
- What are practical ways you can bless people on their way out?
- How can you grieve the loss of a person leaving without it consuming you?
- Who can you talk to today about this?
Rooting and praying for you,
John & Jaime