Stewart and Debbie were in the small group my wife and I led for more than a year. Our families really connected and it became obvious Stew and Deb were both gifted for ministry. My wife and I asked them to be apprentice group leaders, and they agreed.
Over time, our group grew and then multiplied. Stew and Deb took over leadership of the original group, while my wife and I launched out to start a new group. Stew and Deb became the solid group leaders I had envisioned them being. Their group grew. They developed an apprentice leader and, eventually, their group multiplied again!
Stew and I kept meeting throughout this time. I was overseeing small groups church-wide back then, and it became clear that Stew had a vision for the overall small-group ministry. I decided to ask Stew to consider moving into a senior leadership position in the larger church, helping oversee small groups along with me. I told him I wanted him to do what I was doing in the near future. I believed that God had prepared him for that role and the church needed his leadership gifts and values. As for Stew, he was humble about the possibility, but he didn't shrink away from it. He clearly had the vision and the heart for the ministry.
We continued to meet. Several months passed until, one day over breakfast, we had "the conversation." "Dan," he said, "we've decided to leave. We are transferring to another church."
If you've been in ministry very long, you've probably had "the conversation" at least once. I pray you haven't gone through it very often, because it is a blow to the gut and it can take the wind out of you for a very long time. I asked Stew why he was leaving. He told me his family needed things our local church wasn't providing. The truth was his family did have very legitimate special needs, and the truth was that we couldn't provide for some of those needs in our current structure of ministry.
My initial reaction was all too typical. I wanted to say: "Why are you leaving, really!? Did I do something or say something that made this happen? Why haven't you talked to me about this before now? I've invested so much time in you and your family just to have you walk away?" Indeed, these experiences do bring you face to face with your own weaknesses and insecurities as a leader.
After talking to Stew more, I realized this wasn't a rash decision. Sometimes you can talk people through it and change their minds, but other times they've been thinking about it under the surface long enough that there's no turning back. I knew Stew's decision was made, and now I needed to figure out how to react to this new reality.
How to Move Forward
Here's what I'm learning about these situations. When someone we've been discipling decides to move on, it doesn't really matter what their reasoning is. Stew's decision could have been anything legitimate: "I'm switching jobs and relocating," or "The church is going in a different direction than our family is going," or "God is calling me to do something different." You fill in the blank. Regardless of the reason, the real issue involves getting past our own expectations and agendas to see where the Lord is still at work. As leaders, we must see our relationships and ministry to one another as more important than success at our "ministry job."
Believe me, there are still organizational things we need to do in these situations. There are feelings to deal with and tough conversations that have to happen. But at some point in the process it's important to get past ourselves and realize: "This is not about my efforts or success. Stew is not my 'project.' People are not projects!"
"We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). We don't serve because it is our "job" or because church leadership expects this from us. Rather, our goal is "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Ephesians 4:12).
This applies to all those things we do relationally to build another believer up toward maturity: Reading the Bible together, praying together, sharing our struggles, confessing sin, exercising together, getting coffee together, finding out when each other's birthdays are, attending each other's kids sporting events, and hanging out at each other's houses. We do these things because it is the lifestyle of a disciple, not because it is our job. People are not a project. The end goal is not the church institution. The end goal is an ever expanding love for God and others.
Does it still hurt when someone you have connected with leaves? You bet! But it's important for us to see our investment in that relationship for its eternal impact, not just for the impact here and now.
Here some ways to avoid losing site of that:
• Stay focused on the mission and vision. Someone close to you leaving doesn't mean your calling to relational ministry is somehow illegitimate. Ultimately, we are called to love and be faithful in planting seeds and watering. God provides the quantity and quality of the harvest.
• Focus on Kingdom wins, not your personal win. Just because someone you've done life with has moved out of the picture doesn't mean you have failed. If the individual remains faithful, he or she will still have an impact for the Kingdom wherever they go. The discipleship lifestyle they experienced while with you can be a model they can take to their next field of ministry—possibly impacting even more than if they had stayed.
• Remember, God never wastes anything. Your disappointment could be a significant tool God can use. What you think of as a devastating blow to your ministry could be the necessary stimulus you need to seek the Lord in a deeper way. Disappointment is natural, but in your disappointment ask the Lord what needs to die in you to fully depend on him more. Discover adjustments that you need to make in your own leadership that can help you be more effective as you lead others going forward.
• Don't lose the relationship. You still can have an ongoing impact. You may lose the advantage of proximity and scheduling convenience to stay in touch, but if possible, keep encouraging, asking questions, and praying for one another. By staying in contact, you can still see how the Lord is at work in and around both of you. Because after all, Stew is my friend in the Lord, not my project!
—Dan Lentz is an Editorial Advisor for SmallGroups.com and the author of Let's Get Started: How to begin your small-groups ministry (Standard, 2007). Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.