Saying goodbye again

By Brad O'Brien

Even after 10 years of service on a church staff, a church planting residency, and two church planting assessments, there is one thing no one told me to be aware of — and it has caused my wife and I a great deal of pain. I felt like we were well equipped to plant a church, and even when our plans changed as we began to focus on replanting, I felt like we were doing everything possible to learn and grow.

But over the past five years, there has been one thing that continues to cause us heartache that totally blindsided us.

As I look back over the first five years of our ministry here in Baltimore, I think my greatest ministry struggle has been the ongoing process of saying goodbye. I didn’t feel prepared for the pain I experience time and time again when it came time to say goodbye to a member. Obviously, there are a lot of different types of goodbyes, but the specific one I have in mind is when a faithful member senses that it is time to move away from the city for one reason or another.

Previously I served on staff at a church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. 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 that many people want to stay around for the rest of their lives. Also, my context was in a megachurch. When you are in a larger context numerically, saying goodbye doesn’t seem to have the same sting as when you are in a normative-sized church. If you are in a normative-sized church in a highly transient context, here are four things you may want to consider.

1. Take a moment to consider the basis of your identity.

For myself, I began to realize that the overall difficulty of saying goodbye was made even more complicated than just people leaving.  I had started to believe that my identity was based on the size of my church and my ability to convince people to stay in downtown Baltimore. As pastors, it is always easy for us to slip into the mindset that our worth is based on the size of our church. If this is your belief and you are pastoring a normative sized church, you will never be enough. You will continue to strive to prove your worth based on the size of your congregation and you won’t ever get to a point where you are able to rest in your identity as a child of God.

Oftentimes, we can build our identity on our ability to cast vision. In my situation, I feel like casting a vision for why people should stay in Baltimore is one of the more difficult tasks of my 18 years of ministry. My wife and I were called to Baltimore and know that without a shadow of a doubt. But if I base my identity on the number of people who choose to stay here based on our vision for what this city could be, I will never measure up. Baltimore isn’t a city that 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 get Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, or Under Armour on their resumes. They move here to muscle through an entry-level internship so they can relocate within their company to another city. The reality is that our city has a decreasing population problem, and that includes Christians leaving to pursue other options.

As I began to notice myself veering off course to find 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 that 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, and it causes us grief, it should be a time to celebrate. Their departure and our painful goodbye should be 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 that God can’t 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 that is leaving so you can recount God’s goodness together. We pray for our members who are leaving so it gives us a chance to corporately remember God’s goodness to us by providing faithful brothers and sisters to serve alongside of us. Doing this also helps us cast vision for why we believe that 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. Take these opportunities to cast vision for why membership matters and if for some reason your church doesn’t practice meaningful membership you may want to consider reading this.

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. Sadly, 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. In these times, we try to share what the Bible teaches about seeking wisdom from others.

This is directly contradictory to our culture’s celebration of autonomy.  We try to help people consider how their departure may impact our local Body. In some situations, when it is applicable, we may ask that someone delay their departure for the good of the Body. However, there are still many situations where timing is not in the control of the church member. Lastly, our covenant states that when a member leaves he/she will immediately pursue fellowship with another church for the good of their spiritual growth. In many situations, I will assist the member that is leaving by offering suggestions of churches in their future city. This is one way to serve them as they are leaving so as to remove one of the burdens of relocation.

4. Take a moment to pray for more laborers.

Finally, I have found these times to be a wonderful reminder to pray for God to continue sending laborers in 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. We just don’t have a lot of hope outside of the gospel. If we’re going to see the gospel advance in our city, we need more laborers. This is a constant request for myself as a pastor and should be for you as well.

At one time, over a period of four or five weeks, we said goodbye to nine members who served our church family faithfully for several years. Some had been with us from the beginning, while others connected to us when they moved to the city for med school or other graduate programs. With a current membership of 70 people, this is a good amount, but it doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It also doesn’t mean God has given up on us! It just means we have an opportunity to send out some faithful members and that we have a chance to exercise faith that God will continue to build His Church in Baltimore and beyond.,

Published March 22, 2019

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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.