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 you, as a ministry leader, will ever hear—especially when they come from people you have lived, laughed and dreamed with. It’s painful when we hear that people no longer want to be a part of our ministries. 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 had ever left my congregation. I wish that everyone who has visited our church had fallen in love with us, gotten pumped up about our vision, found their niche in relationships and service, grown spiritually, and stayed with us throughout their entire lifetime. That hasn’t been the case.

People do leave, and when they do, their departure can lead us to an unexpected crossroads laced with pain, self-doubt and the bitter feelings that accompany injustice. God’s intention at these intersections is that we would take the high road.

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To do this we have to remember that we are sowers, and, according to Jesus, sowers don’t receive a 100 percent return from their sowing. In fact, from Jesus’ parable of the sower in Mark 4 we know that of all the seed we sow, 25 percent will be rejected outright, 75 percent will be appreciated and received, and only about 18 percent will actually bear fruit that remains.

Of course, we should swing for the fences and hope for a home run with each ministry endeavor; however, it will help us to remember that first and foremost we are sowing spiritual seed into the hearts of people who must be willing and open to receive the seed. Some won’t be. Some will leave.

Sometimes there are godly reasons people leave—a geographic move, or a clear leading from God to connect with a different congregation. But when they leave due to misunderstandings, disappointments, unresolved conflict or spiritual immaturity, it can make embracing the high road very difficult.

Taking the high road is 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 (see Num. 14:5). It’s what David did when Shimei cursed him and he restrained Abishai from cutting off Shimei’s head (see 2 Sam. 16:5-14).

If we’re going to survive the hurtful times when people leave, we will need 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 heal your mind and emotions.

Second, analyze the situation, making mental notes and commitments for the future. If you messed up somewhere, repent and do your best to make things right. If your conscience is clean, hold steady without overanalyzing yourself.

Third, do whatever you must to ensure that you are above reproach before God. This could entail repenting to a person, confronting someone, or writing a gracious letter expressing your love and good will to the departing individual.

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

No matter how difficult the situation may be, never back down or give up on the ministry God has called you to. We are in an hour when ministry leaders like you are desperately needed and desperately loved.

Chris Jackson serves as senior pastor of Grace Church of La Verne in Southern California.

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