Four lessons in saying goodbye

By Brad O'Brien

After serving 10 years on a church staff, completing a church planting residency and participating in two church planting assessments, there is one thing no one told me to be prepared for that has caused my wife and I a great deal of pain. We were well equipped to plant a church and even, when our plans changed, to merge our church plant with an aging congregation. We were doing everything possible to learn and grow in our leadership.

But over the past five years there has been one thing that continues to cause us heartache that totally blindsided us: Saying goodbye to people we love.

As I look back over the first five years of our ministry here in Baltimore, I think my greatest ministry struggle has been having to regularly say goodbye to church members. I wasn’t prepared for the pain I experience each time we see members depart. There are a lot of different types of goodbyes in ministry, but the specific one I have in mind is when a faithful member senses it is time to move away from the city and is leaving our church.

I served on staff at a church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, for several years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the RDU metroplex is on almost every Top 10 list ever created. It is a destination location many people want to relocate to for the rest of their lives. I was a staff member at a megachurch, with hundreds and thousands of members and regular attenders. When you are in a larger context numerically, saying goodbye doesn’t have the same sting as when you are in a normative-sized church (under 199), especially a replant. If you are in a normatize-sized church in a context where transitions are common, here are four things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Take a moment to consider the basis of your identity. I began to realize that the difficulty of saying goodbye was made even more complicated because I began to believe that my identity and worth was based on the size of my church and my ability to convince people to stay in downtown Baltimore. As pastors, it can be easy for us to slip into the mindset that our worth is based on the number of members in our church. If this is your belief and you are pastoring a normative-sized church, you will consistently struggle to embrace your worth. If you continue to base your worth on the size of your congregation, you will struggle to rest in your identity as a child of God.

Pastors, myself included, often base our worth in our ability to elicit a response from our congregation. In my situation, casting vision for why people should stay in Baltimore (one of the most challenging places to live) is one of the more difficult tasks I have encountered in my 18 years of ministry. My wife and I are confident we were called to Baltimore. If I attach my identity to the number of people who choose to stay here to carry out God’s vision for our church and how we can impact the city, I will never measure up. Baltimore isn’t a city you move to because you want to be comfortable. It isn’t a city you relocate to because you want to get a lot of benefit for your tax contributions. Baltimore is a place where many people move because they want to be part of Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, or Under Armour. They move here to muscle through an entry-level internship so they can eventually relocate within their company to another city. Baltimore has a decreasing population problem, which includes Christians leaving to pursue other options.

When I begin to notice myself veering off course by finding my identity in the size of my congregation or my ability to retain members when their graduate programs end, I have to remind myself of my identity in Christ. I have to preach the gospel to myself daily. I have to remember that Christ died for me when I was his enemy. I have to remind myself that my salvation and acceptance has nothing to do with my works or my merit. I have to remind myself to rest in the finished work of Christ so I can truly enjoy grace.

2. Take a moment to celebrate biblical community. When people who have been deeply connected to the body of Christ leave, we grieve at the loss, but we can learn to celebrate. Their departure and our painful goodbye is a reminder that God has graciously allowed us to experience the fruits of biblical community together. We must remember that no one wants the church to be an example of godly community more than God himself. So, if He has graciously allowed us to experience that in the past, why would we doubt God can accomplish that in the future? If our minds immediately jump to how we can fill the voids and vacancies created by the departure of faithful members, then we miss an opportunity to celebrate what God has graciously given us in our church family.

A few ways you may want to consider celebrating is by sharing a meal with the member who is leaving so you can recount God’s goodness together. We pray publicly for our members who are leaving, which provides an opportunity to corporately remember God’s goodness to us by providing faithful brothers and sisters to serve alongside us. Public goodbyes help us cast vision for why we believe church membership matters. We live in a culture where very few people are willing to commit. We have an unknown number of people who profess to be Christians, yet refuse to commit themselves to Christ’s bride. These are opportunities to cast vision about why membership matters.

3. Take a moment to teach your members how to leave well. In our members’ meetings, when it comes time to remove people from their role as a covenant member, it gives us an opportunity to teach others how to leave well. We live in a time where many Christians believe they can experience the fullness of a Christian life without being meaningfully connected to a local church. This means we have to work hard to teach why church membership is biblical and vital to a Christian’s walk with Christ. If there is a small number of Christians who see the beauty of church membership, then there is a much smaller number of people who know how to leave their church well. Whenever we say goodbye, it is an opportunity for us to highlight what it means to leave a church well.

As we say goodbye, we share what the Bible teaches about seeking wisdom from others, about God’s sovereignty, and we remind the body that signs of sadness are evidence of love and connection. We remind the departing that our membership covenant states that when a member leaves he/she will immediately pursue fellowship with another church for the good of their spiritual growth. Often, I will offer suggestions of churches in their future city.

4. Take a moment to pray for more laborers. I have found goodbyes to serve as a reminder for our people to pray for God to continue sending laborers for the harvest in Baltimore. I am convinced that the gospel is the only hope for our city. We are seeing a population decline. We pay extraordinarily high taxes, with little to no return. We are one of the most violent cities in America. We were at one time the heroin addiction capital of the nation. We seem to have a perpetual number of elected officials entangled in various types of corruption. If we’re going to see the gospel advance in our city, we need more laborers.

Over the next four or fives weeks, we are saying goodbye to nine members who have served our church family faithfully for several years. Some were with us from the beginning, while others joined us when they moved to the city for medical school or other graduate programs. With a current membership of 70 people, we feel the impact of every departure, but it doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It doesn’t mean that God has given up on us! It just means we have an opportunity to send out some faithful missionaries and that we have a chance to exercise faith that God will continue to build His Church in Baltimore and beyond.

Published May 24, 2018

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Brad O'Brien

Brad O'Brien and his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to plant a church in the heart of the city, after serving on staff at the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, for 10 years. Ultimately God led them to merge their church plant with an existing church that had been established in 1855. Brad and his wife, Jena-Marie, have been married for 11 years and they are the proud parents of three little girls. They are expecting their fourth child in May 2019. The O'Briens love city life and the replanting journey they have been on for the past five years.