When People Leave

On a regular basis people come to our church, and on a regular basis people leave our church. For all sorts of reasons, they leave. This is the painful part of being a pastor. I am so very grateful that more people are coming than going these days, but every person who leaves is a loss not just to the church in an abstract way but a loss to me personally, and to our staff. As a pastor I hold people in my heart in a deep way, and I carry their stories with me. It is not a matter of “if” people will leave our church; it is rather a matter of “when.” After all, weather by God’s calling elsewhere, or entropy, or death – we are all on a journey. Each goodbye is painful, sometimes heart-wrenching. I think that just as it is in friendship, we will have our “communities of faith” for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friendships are for a reason, others a season, and some for a lifetime. Our churches are like that too. To be in a church for a lifetime is a rare and beautiful gift, and if you are given this gift, cherish it. Evelena is 94 years old and has been walking through the doors of our church building since she was 14. That is a rare and precious gift. She is a rare and precious gift whom we cherish.

When we decided to adopt a child from China, we imagined a child who was all alone, perhaps in a crib, with little attention or love. After we were “matched” with Lyla, we came to discover quite a different story! Lyla was in a home with the most fabulous and loving foster family. Hulu, her foster mom, immediately began video chatting with me daily so that Lyla could get to know her new mom even months before we met. We would send videos back and forth each day and I would sing to Lyla and read her stories and Hulu would play those videos for Lyla when we were still millions of miles apart. So when we finally met Lyla face-to-face, she already had been prepared in countless ways to be family.

The journey of a foster family is one of loving deeply and fully, and then letting go. Letting go is the final act of love. It is a picture of sacrificial love that is vulnerable, beautiful, and impossible to fully honor.

Hulu and her family gave Lyla (and us) a gift – the gift of loving Lyla and then letting her go. They will always love Lyla in their hearts, but they held her loosely in their hands, knowing one day she would no longer be in their home, though she will always be in their hearts. This is the excruciating work of love.

So here is how I am coming to cope with the dynamic of loving & loosing that is inherent to ministry. Sometimes as a church we are an adoptive family, and other times we are a foster family. We don’t always know which one we will get to be when someone walks through our doors. But, either way our job is the same: love people. Love people like family. Love people deeply, fully, and without fear. If the possibility of someone leaving tomorrow keeps me from loving them fully today, then fear wins. And scripture says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” 1 Jo. 4:18

Maybe someone will leave because their time with us was only for a reason or a season. I want to be Hulu in these moments of departure. Like Hulu I will cry, I will grieve, I may even wish it were different. And at the exact same time I will remember: this is what we are made to do. We are made to love, and sometimes loving means letting go. And so the door of my heart remains open towards the person who leaves so that they can go where God leads them with my love and blessing. And if they ever need this family again – we are here. We are here. We are always here. We will love you when you come, and we will love you as you go. We will love you when you fall away and flake out, and if you choose to return, we will love you then as well. After all, our job is to love one another as we have been loved by God.

Our weekly benediction says, “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm, may He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you, may He bring you home rejoicing – once again into our doors.”

Hulu and I still regularly exchange photos, and she continues to send Lyla the most amazing gifts. As Lyla’s mom, I am forever grateful that Lyla has so many people all around the world who love her so deeply. So for those of you who have left our flock, and for those of you who may, please know that you will always have a special place in my heart. I’m honored to be one of the pastors in this world who has played a small part in your journey.

Someday, Lyla and I will go visit Hulu again in China….”once again into her doors.”

Susie

The Average CEO

The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is just 4.6 years, and  it’s even shorter for many pastors (average of 4 years.) This statistic could be explained by burnout, but it could also be a reflection of a shadowy tendency of human nature. People sometimes leave when the going gets tough, when the honeymoon is over. By changing positions frequently, it’s possible to keep one’s life and leadership in a constant “honeymoon phase” and leave the problems to someone else. However, this isn’t the kind of leadership Jesus modeled and advocated.

Jesus talked once about the mentality of the shepherd versus the hired hand. He said, “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it” (John 10:12). Jesus highlighted the difference between someone who acts like a shepherd/owner and someone who acts like a hired hand. The shepherd has ownership of his flock, is invested in their wellbeing, and is connected with their destiny. Jesus describes himself as “the Good Shepherd” who knows his sheep and lays his life down for them. When it comes to that which God calls us to do, he wants us to imitate Jesus and be shepherds/owners and not like hired hands.

Although it has taken me some time, I’m now grateful for a leadership crisis I experienced at an early age. I had to face my own inclination to run away. I experienced new levels of grace through the grueling, soul-refining work of conflict resolution, forgiveness, and team-building that test a leader’s character. Crisis, portrayed in Jesus’ parable as the wolf’s intrusion and attack, has a way of revealing motives and prompting reactive behavior. We all have a mix of pure and impure, selfish and loving motives, but crisis often strips us of our facades and breaks down for us what is really important. Crisis clarifies why we are doing what we are doing and to what extent we are committed to the “sheep” entrusted to us. Crisis is a tremendous way to grow in intimacy with the Lord.

Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -1963

When crisis comes, let’s trust our Jesus-shepherd and be faithful to the task and to the people who look to us for leadership. Let’s allow the hard times to take us deeper with the One who loves us and gave His life for us.