By Rob Hurtgen
Few things are as emotionally draining, hurtful, and discouraging as when a church member tells you they’re going to attend another fellowship.
This is especially the case when it comes from people you’ve poured your life into—people you’ve discipled, gone on mission trips with, and shared time and meals.
Sometimes, these members have legitimate reasons to leave. Perhaps they’re relocating because of a new job. Or maybe they’re marrying someone who attends another church.
Then there are the other reasons. Someone may come to you saying, “I’m not being fed in our Sunday School anymore. My kids need different programs than this church offers. Pastor, it’s not you; it’s me, but my family and I are leaving.”
Whatever the reason, an emotional vacuum often forms when people leave. Whether you ignore that emotional wake or elevate it to a position where it doesn’t belong, it can wreak havoc on your life.
But there are other ways to respond when someone leaves your church. Here are three ways to address disappointments, heartbreaks, and breakups in the pastorate.
Don’t ignore the way you feel
You’re an emotional being. Having emotions is part of what it means to be created in the image of God. To ignore your feelings is to neglect a critical piece of your imago Dei.
That feeling in the pit of your stomach when a family leaves your church is actually good. It tells you that family matters to you.
They were a part of the flock entrusted to you, and you cared for them. You don’t want to ignore the way you feel.
In his book “The Happy Christian,” David Murray offers six questions that help us think through whatever is causing stress and discouragement in our lives. He writes:
- What are the facts?
- What are my thoughts about the facts?
- What are my feelings?
- Can I change the facts?
- Can I change my thoughts about the facts?
- What am I feeling now?
Working through these questions may not change what’s happening in your life. It may change, however, how you think and feel about what’s happening.
Don’t follow your heart
The worst advice anyone can give or receive is probably to follow one’s heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?”
Leading with your heart is the worst possible way you can lead.
Don’t misunderstand me; heart-filled compassion is necessary. Passion is a priority, but following your ever-changing heart is like chasing the wind.
Resist the urge to let your heart set the course of your days and your response to others.
One of the transferable lessons we learn from the world of sports is the importance of drills. Drills are repetitious exercise needed to master a skill.
Here are some simple spiritual drills to engage in before responding to disappointments, heartbreaks, and breakups:
- When you’re confronted and caught off-guard, pause and pray before you speak. This worked well for Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:4).
- Write an email or letter in response to a tense situation but wait to send it.
- Make a commitment to not resign on Monday. It’s easy to want to quit on Monday. Don’t.
- Have a confidant—someone you can fearlessly share your thoughts without worrying about your job.
Don’t follow your heart. It may seem like it’s leading you in the right direction, but the Lord says it will deceive you.
Seize the opportunity to increase your faith
If you truly believe God establishes the times and boundaries of men (Acts 17), believe He leads each person to the church you serve. And assuming the people who’re leaving aren’t doing so in a rebellious state, we must believe He’s the one who’s sending them away.
Their departure hurts and is discouraging but it’s also an opportunity for you to increase your faith.
I’m discovering two truths when people leave the church. First, my identity is not wrapped up in the success, or lack thereof, of my ministry. My identity is in Christ.
And second, the work of ministry involves both equipping the saints and winning the lost. Yes, the Lord is the one who ultimately completes both of those tasks but He chooses to use the ordinary and the available.
Therefore, set about doing the work of the ministry.
Each time discouragement, disappointment, and heartbreak have emerged in the ministry—and those days have come and will come—you must remember who you are, who you belong to, and the calling that’s been placed upon you.
Pastors, we’re not called to a title but to the person of Jesus. We’re not called to a position but to the passion of making disciples.
When discouragement comes, don’t ignore how you feel. Resist the temptation to elevate your discouragement to a status it hasn’t earned.
Resist the urge the let your heart lead you around the country from ministry to ministry. In times of despair, seize the opportunity to allow God the Holy Spirit to increase your faith.
ROB HURTGEN (@robhurtgen) is husband to Shawn, father of five, pastor of First Baptist Church Chillicothe, Missouri, and earned his doctor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also blogs at RobHurtgen.wordpress.com.