When the High Road Hurts—how to respond when people leave your ministry

“Pastor, we’ve decided to move on.”

These are some of the most difficult words that a church or ministry leader can ever hear—especially when they come from people that we have lived and laughed and dreamed with. It’s painful to hear that people no longer want to be a part of our ministry, and it’s additionally painful when they leave and don’t take the time to tell us why they’re leaving, where they’re going, or what we could possibly do to repair any damage in the relationship.

I wish that no one ever left my congregation—I wish that everyone that visited our church community would fall in love with us, get pumped up about our vision, find their niche in relationships and service, grow spiritually, and stay with us throughout their entire lifetime. Unfortunately, people do leave sometimes, and when they do, their departure can usher us leaders in to an unexpected crossroad that is laced with pain, self-doubt, and hurt feelings.

God’s intention in these intersections is that we would take the high road.

Sometimes people have healthy, godly reasons for leaving—a geographic move, or a clear, undeniable leading from the Lord to connect to a different congregation. At other times though, they leave when they really don’t need to—they leave over misunderstandings, disappointments, unresolved conflict, or spiritual immaturity, and in these instances it can be extremely painful for the ministry leader and it can be very difficult to embrace the “high” road.

It’s what Moses and Aaron had to do when the criticisms of the multitude drove them to fall on their faces in the Lord’s presence (Numbers 14:5). It’s what David did when Shimei cursed him and he restrained Benaiah from cutting off his head. He said essentially, “Perhaps the Lord has told Shimei to curse me” (2 Samuel 16:10).

If we’re going to survive the hurtful times when people leave, inflicting discouraging wounds in our soul, it will help us to follow a few simple—but difficult—suggestions.

First, take the necessary time to allow the Lord to heal your soul. Get in His presence, break out your journal, express your grief, and allow Him to pour His healing anointing and perspective in to your mind and emotions.

Second, analyze the situation making mental notes and healthy commitments for the future. If you messed up somewhere along the way, repent wherever it’s necessary and do your best to make things right, but if your conscience is clean, hold steady without over-analyzing yourself.

Third, do whatever you need to do to ensure that you are above reproach before the Lord—sometimes this entails repenting to a person, sometimes it involves some confrontation, and sometimes it might be a gracious letter expressing your love and good will to the departing individual.

Fourth, stick to the high road. Never resort to criticism, gossip, or other low-level tactics. If you were wrong, He will graciously cleanse you and give you the chance to make things right, and if you’ve been wronged in the situation, He will heal you and, ultimately, justify you.

Fifth, say goodbye and get back to work. Be like Nehemiah who said, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down” (Nehemiah 6:3).

Sixth, never back down and never give up. We are in an hour of history where ministry leaders like you are desperately needed and desperately loved.

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