It hurts, doesn’t it?
A student, family or volunteer leader you’ve poured your life into suddenly disappears out of your ministry… and you have no idea why.
Then again, perhaps you do know why – maybe they had a legitimate issue with something you did or found another church more exciting than yours.
Ministry loss even has a pattern – it’s often heaviest at the beginning of the school year, the start of a new year, or at the onset of summer. People who leave may claim they’re making a spiritual decision, even though you’re thinking, “Hmm…odd how everyone feels God led them to do something that seems more led by the calendar.”
One loss alone like this can wreck you.
Several losses can eventually even sideline you.
You can try to push through it, but without dealing with it you’ll end up like an abuse victim who continually expects the next person you meet to hurt you like others have hurt you…and soon you’re cynical on the inside while shaking hands on the outside.
C.S. Lewis summed this tension well:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Metaphorically, ministry is like foster care – you give and give and give your love to “kids” who (with rare exception) ultimately will not stay under your roof. Still, that doesn’t stop it from hurting when they do leave.
It’s why I appreciated the emphasis at the Simply One Day training for ministry to be Jesus-centered. Before you nod your head at that, make sure you know what I mean – especially as it relates to ministry loss:
- Jesus-centered means “Come as you are.” Some think following Christ means giving ourselves a good “What Would Jesus Do?” pep talk each day. Ironically, Jesus himself operated less like a predictable GPS and more as a real person who genuinely dove into every situation around him – whether he was joyful, fatigued, hungry or angry. Jesus valued questions as much as conclusions, and he even knew the pain of ministry loss. On one occasion, he asked his disciples (after many followers left him), “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Coming to Jesus as you are means you can confess your ache, yet ache your way through him into something deeper.
- What does it mean to root your life into Someone who knows the joy and pain of ministry… of having people be excited one moment, only to then head elsewhere for the next temporary wave of momentum?
- Jesus-centered means “You are not alone.” I’m routinely jealous of some of the churches in my town… and I routinely confess it to them. I grew tired of my negativity after seeing “disciples” I invested myself into suddenly transferring into another congregation or student ministry without even a conversation about it. Some area pastors and I began meeting together to pray and nurture something healthier. Suddenly, I no longer disliked them from afar or was jealous of what I perceived – we really started working on being the Body of Christ. I remember one pastor whose situation I coveted saying, “From the outside, we’re an exciting church to be at. From the inside, we have so much immaturity that I’m exhausted just thinking about what’s needed to overcome it. I covet the maturity I see in other churches as much as they probably covet our numbers.”
- How does realizing we’re all a part of flawed congregations inspire you to complement the other churches and ministries around you… so you all quit worrying about trading people and all start working on reaching people?
- Jesus-centered means “Take your next step.” The beautiful thing about pain or adversity is that it reveals something about your character and spiritual journey as you experience it. The same is true of when people leave your church or student ministry – you have to ask yourself, “What is happening in them… in me… in our ministry… that I otherwise would glance over, and what could I do about it so this loss turns into a step of growth?” According to Thom and Joani Shultz, there are 4 Acts of Love that can really turn things around for virtually any ministry.
- Which is your church’s next step to grow in each of these areas – Radical Hospitality, Fearless Conversation, Genuine Humility and Divine Anticipation?
- Jesus-centered means “Grace AND Growth.” We’re all like lost kids, looking for a sense of Home. Theologically, we can learn that only heaven is that perfect environment. Practically, we’ll still look for heaven on earth… bouncing around from sliver to sliver until we finally come to that larger theological revelation. While we may demand students and adults quit jumping around or walking away from church, they’ll never grow without first getting some grace. I like how Rick Lawrence sums how God does this for us: “We are adopted by God, but then we actually have His DNA.”
- Who do you need to forgive for not yet being the type of mature Christ-follower that they one day might be if you forgive them today? Likewise, who needs you to appropriately challenge them to grow up a bit?
I’ve served in all sizes of churches and have felt this hit whether I was in a megachurch, a medium-sized congregation or a small-town ministry. I imagine you have, too. Let’s learn from each other.
How have you navigated this pain?
Any thoughts on what has and hasn’t worked for you?