Ministry is a funny animal because before you are a shepherd you are sheep. You are not separate from the community of God’s people that you lead and your family is usually deeply intertwined with other families in the church.
Like life and relationships outside of church, people move away. Sometimes friends leave for bad reasons, but typically when friends in the church leave it is for good reasons like job opportunities, wanting to be closer to immediate family, or affordability of housing in other counties. When this close connection breaks it’s always painful. I think this might be the number one pain people bear on their souls at church, aside from sin or abuse, because of the depth of friendship found in the local church community. I recently spoke with a good friend who was in tears at having to explain to his daughter that because they were moving she wouldn’t be able to see her friends from church like she used to.
How can we continue to live, love, learn, and last in ministry in light of the sadness and difficulty of having our friends move on from our churches?
Let Yourself Feel
I know for me, and more than likely for many of you reading this, there is an overwhelming temptation to just press on in the face of the sadness, hurt, confusion, and grief of your friends leaving your church. You’re going to want to tell yourself that “the mission is more important” that “Jesus’ glory is more important than your feelings” or something like that. But in doing that we forget that Jesus, in his own mission to redeem the world, stopped to feel. He felt compassion for people (Mark 6:34), wept at death (John 11:35), and felt all the gamut of human emotion (Hebrews 2:17).
A word of warning, pressing on and not experiencing emotions in the moment will catch up with you. We must feel and grieve the loss of physical closeness with our friends. They are not only sheep to be shepherded or congregants to be counted in annual reports, but real friends. Don’t deny the importance of your friendships. If you do you’re lying to yourself.
Love Your Friends
Perhaps the best way to process grief when your friends leave your church is to press into loving them, serving them, and squeezing the best times out of the last months and days you have with them.
Pressing into this time reminds you of the goodness of God to give you friends. It serves them practically, whether it is loading up a moving truck, bringing a meal, or talking together about what the future holds, both of you are built up as you practice the joy of being with one another.
Don’t hide your emotions from your friends — they probably feel the same. It opens a time of sweetness together that you will not regret.
Trust the Shortness of Separation
This might seem like cold comfort in the midst of raw emotion, but take heart. We have a future that is secure in the resurrection of our shared Lord and Savior, Jesus. The time we spend apart from people we love is difficult, but in light of eternity, it is an insubstantial and momentary affliction.
This goodbye is not a forever one. This is not the end. By the grace of God there will be reunions with the friends who are leaving, and they are just a build up for the true and forever reunion that all who trust in Jesus will experience. On that day when every tear is wiped from every eye, will we enjoy our Lord and our friends as all things were intended to be (Revelation 21:4). Grieve the loss of your friends from church, but live in anticipation of this coming day.