When people depart

By Bob Bickford

Sooner or later, someone in your church will decide they no longer wish to be a member of your church under your pastoral leadership.

Replanter, this will happen to you, perhaps even regularly. Let’s be real, when this does happen, it stings and hurts. It can feel like a betrayal. It is concerning. In the work of replanting, you are trying to build a body up spiritually and numerically. You’re not typically looking to send people away. It might keep you up at night. There likely will be sadness and grief. These responses are common, they are proper and good. Why?

As pastors we love people, especially our church family. When they leave, a part of us leaves with them. Paul writes; “We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thess. 2:8)

The replanters I mentor often struggle in knowing how far to go in seeking to encourage those members to stay or how to appropriately let them depart. In a recent call, I shared the following four thoughts with a replanter in my city.

1. God brings sheep; God takes sheep

Prior to my starting as a replanter, in God’s great providence, I met with a wise, seasoned pastor. He shared many helpful things with me. One of the most helpful was this: “God brings sheep; God takes sheep. I shepherd the ones he gives me.” I needed that counsel. In the first year of our replant, it seemed like we had a revolving door every month. It seemed like we had a consistent influx of newcomers and the weekly departure of long-timers. My head would ache, and my heart would pound anytime someone said; “Pastor, can you come over? We would like to talk to you about something.” Experience told me that many of those conversations would end with someone informing me of their intended departure. I had to learn to see God’s hand in all of this. He was reforming our congregation through arrivals and departures.

2. It’s difficult to keep the already departed

Years of hard-earned ministry experience has shown me that when a person says they are considering leaving or looking for another church, they already are gone. Not always, but more often than not. Most people share this struggle having considered it for a long time. It has probably taken them weeks, if not months, to come to the conclusion — and then another lengthy time to finally speak this out loud to you or another leader. People leave in their minds and hearts before they leave with their feet. Expressing your concern and seeking to understand are appropriate, but save your energy. Attempting to keep a person from leaving if they have given it months of thought will like be frustrating for both of you.

3. Grieve their loss, but don’t despair

We lose a lot when people we love leave our replant. They are part of the body. They serve and give, and the contributions they make are uniquely theirs and cannot be replaced. The relational and pastoral investments we have made have been costly. Walking alongside them through valleys like chronic illness, marital strife, job loss, spiritual doubt, and addictions have bonded our lives together. Sharing joys like new birth, answers to prayers, healing, and spiritual breakthroughs bring us joy as we see and remember God’s faithfulness in their lives. We grieve as they go, but we need not despair. In my experience, every time someone has left, God always brought someone else in their place.

4. Send and bless those leaving

Many determine to leave and do so without really letting the larger body of the church know anything at all. When we don’t talk about it, the body aches. In these times, the church body can grow nervous and even discouraged. We decided to be open and honest about God leading people to us and from us. When possible and appropriate, take every opportunity to share the news that some are leaving your fellowship. Communicate the reasons in a positive way and send them. Pray for them and invite your people to say goodbye. This is difficult, but it also is good. The congregation learns that people will come and people will go — and we love them the whole time.

My prayer for you, replanter, is that you rest in God’s grace and learn to trust that God will bring sheep and He will take sheep. Our role is to shepherd the flock God gives us, leading them to faithfully walk toward maturity in Christ.

Published July 8, 2020

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick