This is the sixth chapter in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first five parts at www.deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on www.Facebook.com/deorl.
It is not possible to make everybody happy, especially when you are called upon to challenge people and speak (all too many times uncomfortable) truth. It is also not possible to be perfect in this life. Sometimes we hurt one another, intentionally or unintentionally. I’ve made mistakes and offended people. Forgiveness is essential to any lasting relationship.
It hurts a pastor when people leave his church. At least, it hurts me. Sometimes difficult people leave. I should breath a sigh of relief when this happens, but still I feel a loss. Over 14 years as pastor of the same church I’ve seen people come and go. It is difficult to let people go when they have become like family.
I’m generalizing because I hesitate to tell the stories of people who are still out there. People whom I still love. Many of these live nearby. Some who have departed expressed a desire to remain friends. I have tried. Honestly, that’s a lot like dating someone, getting close to them, and then breaking up. We say, let’s just be friends. Yet, even without animosity, the friendship is nominative. We drift to become acquaintances at best. They might as well be in a different city. In fact, that would make it easier.
I’ve had leaders in my church leave. This doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts the whole community. They continue to maintain relationships with members of our church, while they are serving enthusiastically in a church down the street. This only leads people to question why. What is wrong with our ministry? It leads others to resent them. What is wrong with that former leader?
In two prominent cases, young people who had been in my youth groups in the past were involved deeply in our church, met their spouses at our church, had children whom I blessed, then left our church for larger ministries. Ironically, when you consider how they established their families, both of these former leaders cited a weakness in our children’s ministry as their reason for leaving.
I have a former student who is now the pastor of a church in another city. He posted on Twitter and I reposted what he said. It was something like, “When you leave a church for the sake of your children, what does that teach them about church?” The obvious answer is, it teaches them that church is all about “me”. I didn’t state the latter, just posted his quote. A prominent couple left when one of them saw that post as a last straw. I believe church (and family) should be focused on Jesus Christ, not on children… or youth… or single adults…. or any other group.
One of the reasons some pastors are reticent to have small groups that meet in homes is due to the possibility of the group going rogue. A cell group may have a leader who teaches bad theology. A small group may attract people who complain about the church, the pastor, or another leader. The group becomes a meeting of the discontented. The result may be that they all stop attending, or go to another church. We’ve experienced the latter several times in our history. Two of these groups were headed by leaders who had once been in an accountability group with me. In the most recent instance, every member of that group left our church in about a one year period.
Are we doing something wrong? Am I doing something wrong? Did I offend? I ask myself these questions each time someone leaves. I care about them. Why don’t they care about me and this body any more? What more could I have done. I beat myself bloody, and it does no good. I used to go after these people. I mean, that’s what a good shepherd does, right? Go after the lost sheep. Except, most of these people are not lost. They’ve simply moved to another shepherd and another flock. Most importantly, the Good Shepherd is Jesus. I’m just his helper. It seems to entrench people in their decision when I try to dissuade them. So, I take a different approach now. When they leave I hope for the best and concentrate on those over whom I still have charge as a shepherd.
Divorce is rampant in our society. For too many people it is the go-to solution for marital problems. Why do people get divorced? Adultery: understandable. “We grew apart,” or “I don’t love you any more”: unacceptable. This is symptomatic of our unwillingness to work out our problems with each other. It’s easier to move on and start over. Sadly, if you haven’t worked out the problems that caused the previous marriage to fail, the next one may face the same challenges, and could end the same way. When you leave a church because you had a problem you wouldn’t work out, you are taking at least part of that problem with you to the next church. Relational problems always have at least two sides, and you are on one of those sides. Leaving, divorcing, doesn’t solve your side of the problem.
People’s relationship to a church is somewhat like a marriage. It is a commitment to a community rather than an individual. People are going to disagree, offend one another, fall short of expectations, and we must learn to work through it. We have to learn to communicate with one another before the breaking point. The alternative is lost friendships, and lost love. People who move from church to church are demonstrating restlessness within themselves. When we shop for a church, rather than pray and let the Holy Spirit lead us to commit to one, then we’ve turned Christ’s community into a consumer commodity. Why are we are seeking to affiliate with an institution and identify with a brand, rather than joining ourselves to a spiritual family? Church is people, not a building, denomination, institution or brand. We are called out from the world, and we are called together in communities to help one another to follow Jesus, and take the Gospel to into our world.
There is no perfect church. You will never find one. We are imperfect people gathering together in communities, and we are perfected day by day as we encourage one another to become more like Christ. I pray that I may encourage our people to realize this, and stay until the Holy Spirit calls them away.