By Alicia Purdy, Crosswalk.com
When you’re pastoring a church, one of the most disconcerting circumstances you’ll encounter (if you haven’t already) is when people leave your fellowship. How it plays out will be largely determined by how they left: whether they were ‘sent’ or just ‘went’ can make all the difference.
People come and go—that’s the nature of life in general. However, leaving a church isn’t the same as changing jobs or deciding to move to another city. A church is family. We structure it that way for a biblical reason.
We are one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:48-50), the bride of Christ (Isaiah 54:5)—all images of intimate, family relationships with strong emotional connections that run deep. You know these people. These people know you.
So, when your spiritual family wants to part ways, it hurts knowing the relationship is going to fundamentally change. It’s hard enough when you truly love them and they’re called to another ministry or feel the Lord is moving them toward another season apart from you. It’s much worse when they harm you, sow discord, backbite, attack, and take people with them in their anger, bitterness, and rebellion.
When ministry relationships break down and it’s time to part ways, you will find two types of departure: ‘went,’ and ‘sent.’ And each of them must be handled differently.
With many years in ministry under my belt as a pastor’s daughter, the wife of an elder, and a worship leader, I have seen my share of ‘went’: people who, after simmering in rebellion, anger, unrighteousness, or bitterness, finally show their true colors and explode like a blister under pressure.
Maybe you had discerned something already, but couldn’t put your finger on it. Maybe it came out of left field. Maybe the signs were there, or you knew all along and were crying out to God about how to deal with it. And then pop!
‘Went’ are the people who leave for the wrong reasons and intentionally cause harm to you and your ministry. They may come to you with a list of complaints or criticisms, but typically these people operate behind the scenes, telling everyone but you about your issues and shortcomings with criticism, derision, and disrespect that divides loyalties and disconnects hearts from the fellowship.
While a ‘sent’ person will come to you, ask for your blessing, and leave on good terms with the love of your fellowship and maybe even a time of prayer or a small good bye party after church, the ‘went’ leave kicking and screaming—at you, about you, and loudly enough for everyone to hear.
How to Handle It
Sometimes, ‘went’ people need to be removed from ministry, and that is tough indeed. However, the Bible does address these types of circumstances. One example is in Titus 3:10-11: “Reject a divisive man after a first and second admonition, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.”
Is it easy? No, it’s painful. However, you must keep this in mind: you are the shepherd of a flock and there is a wolf among you. The longer they stay, the more destruction they will cause. This is one of the burdens of leadership for which you were anointed, and God will give you the grace and strength to weather the storm.
Leave the door open on your end. We don’t want to see anyone crash and burn. What we want is for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, correction, and repentance. When that happens, they will need someone to turn to; and God could use you in their healing process, restoring what the enemy has stolen.
Sometimes, a situation like this can lead to a church split, but it doesn’t have to. There will be fallout and hurt and most of the time some in your fellowship will inevitably depart when the person leaves. Some of this you can manage, and some is beyond your ability to control.
God is faithful.If you have close ministry relationships that have soured, take the high road. God will bless what is bless-able: righteousness, love, faithfulness, peace, mercy, and grace. Their unrighteous acts will expose themselves and, if that doesn't bring repentance, will lead to their destruction.
It will be difficult and painful for them as they experience the natural consequences of their rebellion— which is ultimately rebellion against God, not you. It could affect their marriage, their children, and their other friendships. In that, only Satan wins. Pray for them.
It’s not wrong, ungodly, or even unbiblical to “have nothing to do with those people,” who are in spiritual darkness against godly authority (Proverbs 24:21). Rebellion is darkness. You who walk in the light cannot partner with that, and the Lord won’t either (Amos 3:3). Take heart from 2 Corinthians 4:8-18. Let God vindicate you!
In Psalm 55:12-14 David wrote, “It is not an enemy who taunts me I could bear that. It is not my foes who so arrogantly insult me, I could have hidden from them. Instead, it is you—my equal, my companion and close friend. What good fellowship we once enjoyed as we walked together to the house of God.”
‘Sent’ in God’s Timing
Timothy was ‘sent,’ as were most of the apostles who spread the gospel across the globe. Maybe they ran into each together sporadically, as the epistles note; however, that was not the norm.
Most of the time, when a fellowship parted ways to begin their own ministries, they wrote letters. But most never saw each other again.
Today, that’s unlikely because of social media; however, when you’ve raised up a Timothy in your fellowship, the biblical patterns show that there is a time and a place for them to be ‘sent’ out to expand the work of the kingdom in a new place.
Your role, regardless of denomination, is to be the Paul. Stay in touch. Write. Call. Ask how you can pray. Offer advice and wisdom. Be the father or mother in the faith to the ones you have ‘sent.’
When a ministry relationship is strong, it’s easy to get used to having those familiar folks alongside you, and that might be God’s plan for your ministry. However, it’s also possible that God wants your relationship to change, and that your Timothy needs to be ‘sent’ to continue their growth and enlarge what God has done through you.
This is how the kingdom of God advances! Your Timothy has your spiritual DNA and will carry that with them into their own ministries.
‘Sent,’ at the Wrong Time
If a ministry relationship ends because someone feels “called to another season,” and you don’t agree, you can and should speak up. But accept their decision with grace.
Maybe you don’t agree with the timing. Maybe you don’t agree with where they want to go. Maybe you think they’re leaving for the wrong reasons. Once you’ve said your piece privately, lead the way publicly on the path forward with love.
Your fellowship, who has cared for this person, will need to say their goodbyes to a beloved member of the family. They don’t need to know the private, leadership-level details. Lay hands on them and let them be ‘sent’ out to their new season with a smile on your face. Your example will set the tone for how others receive the news and process it moving forward.
Losing a ministry leader is never easy, even if the reasons are good. Goodbyes are usually sad, even if the reasons are joyful. Your church will follow your lead.
In spite of differing perspectives and opinions, if the person came to you out of respect and loyalty to share the tough news, honor that—let them leave with your blessing.
‘Sent’ or ‘went’ will change everything, but God is faithful.
Whether a ‘sent’ or a ‘went’ leaves the family, your fellowship will shift. And during that vulnerable time, Satan will attack on every front.
Be vigilant. Draw your church family close. Spend more time in prayer, in fellowship, at a meal, or in each other’s homes. Here’s some wisdom I’ve learned over the years: if God didn’t need you so badly, Satan wouldn’t want you as much.
There is healing, restoration, rebuilding, and strengthening to be done afterward. You will lead the way with the Lord on your side. Be encouraged: you might be walking through fire, but you are not alone in there.
Alicia Purdy is an author, blogger, and professional writer with an M.A. in Journalism, and a human with an ongoing education in all things life-related! Her passion is to write about real life and a real faith in a real Jesus to inspire, encourage, and entertain people from all walks of life. You can learn more at her blog: TheWayoftheWorshipper.com and if you need a laugh today, check out her snarky side at An Everyday Kind of Jesus. Alicia and her husband have five kids and one cat, named Chester. You can find and follow Alicia on Facebook and Instagram. If you meet her in person, she will most likely try and wipe you down with essential oils and then ask if you want to grab a coffee.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/Martin-Barraud