As a former athlete what I loved about baseball more than anything was the strong sense of team and the shared goal of winning. It becomes ingrained in your spirit so deeply, and nothing matters more than those two things. Even today what I miss the most about playing is the camaraderie in the locker room with the guys, and the feeling that comes after a hard fought victory when the sweat and tears are worth it. Whether we won or lost, we were a team.
But that doesn’t mean that we all always liked each other. I remember having many teammates, both in college and professionally, that I would never hang out with had I not been contractually obligated to do so. Yet, when we took the field we were one because we had a common mission, a common name across our chests, and a common goal of beating the snot out of whoever came across our path.
It’s interesting how our team bond was galvanized even further through adversity, especially when someone decided to leave the team. When someone transferred, was traded or quit, when you’ve to battle together, it feels like a slap in the face and breach of trust. It’s arguably one of the most painful things to a team because it’s as if the walls have been breached by the enemy. There is a searing distaste that settles deep into your spirit and when you see that person, it’s hard to look them in the eyes.
I say all that because I want to be honest with you.
You see, I don’t believe veneered sayings that make things sound and look better truly help us grow as leaders. In fact, I think sometimes our “churchification” of what we’re really feeling as leaders may actually hinder our ability to be raw and honest before God. So I’ll just come out and say it.
I hate it when someone leaves my church.
There. I said it.
I’m willing to bet maybe one or two others feel the same way. I believe every leader feels it — whether part of a small rural church in the middle of nowhere or a megachurch in the middle of a major metropolis. We all hate to see people go, because we believe so deeply in what we’re doing.
However, the most painful person to see go is not the one who comes late and leaves early (you don’t even know they’re there!) It’s not the ones who complain all the time, because unless you somehow love verbal MMA being done on your character every weekend you may even start the car for them as they leave. No, the ones that hurt the most are the people you know. Friends.
These are people you’ve lived life with. You’ve shared in special moments, dedicated their babies, baptized them, served alongside them, cried with them. It’s the ones you know, and who know you. Friends. These hurt the most.
I recently had an amazing couple leave our church and it rocked me. The main reason was I felt like we checked every box for them and their family. She was growth group leader, her kids loved our children’s program, they had friends, their extended family came, they loved the worship, and even thought the messages were great. The husband was involved in men’s events (even invited his dad), I personally discipled him for an entire year and called him friend. They were and still are amazing people and I saw an amazing future with them at our church. But in the end, they still left. And I was left wondering “What in the world happened?” If that isn’t enough for a family to stay, I’m not sure what more we could do!
Of course, this isn’t the first time it happened, and it won’t be the last. But each time someone leaves it burns like a cigarette being put out on my soul. And although I’m not proud to say, those old feelings of broken trust and passion from baseball well up inside me almost like a Pavlovian response as someone decides to leave the team. I grow a distaste for those who leave. I doubt myself. Lose confidence. And frankly, I look at other people more skeptically, more cautiously, wondering who will let me down next.
But in my wallowing and self-pity, my wife of 16 years is will sometimes knock me on the head and remind me of something. “Remember the mission” she will say. It’s the mission demonstrated by Jesus in Luke 15. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine found sheep and goes after the single lost one. Jesus’ mission was all about the lost “one.” Maybe my focus can’t be on keeping the ninety-nine found people happy when there are still millions of “ones” destined to die without Jesus.
Our mission is to reach the lost. And sometimes that mission hurts.
Because sometimes when you go after the one, you return to find a few of the ninety-nine are missing. Sometimes they have left in search of a church that will cater to and affirm them more – which has nothing to do with the relationship you had with them. As leaders it’s vital that we see through the personal pain and breach of trust. We must realize that with every “one” the Kingdom of God grows. But if our sole focus is appeasing and pleasing the ninety-nine, the Kingdom grows stagnant.
And that hurts. It hurts the heart of God and it can hurt us too. But that’s what we’ve been called to. Because it’s not a matter of if we’ll experience pain, but when. Leading a church is not for the faint of heart. As one of my old coaches used to say, “If you’re scared, get a dog!” We are to stay on mission, even when it hurts.
Jesus was so committed to His mission that it cost Him His life. He was betrayed by some of his closest friends, abandoned by those on mission with him, and died an embarrassing death. But He stayed on mission. Might we as leaders consider it an honor to feel even a fraction of the pain Jesus took for us, even losing teammates for the sake of the Kingdom of God. When any of the ninety-nine wander off to another church, if the reason is because we’re finding the “one” – then let us in unison say, “So be it!”
I still hate it when people go. I think I always will. But I sure do love seeing another one found. The look of freedom as they come up out of the waters of baptism. The hands held by couples that are going to make it because Jesus now leads their marriage. The baby being born into a family that has been changed forever by God’s power and love. Those are the moments I live for. Those are the moments that keep me on mission.
The people that leave are not the enemy. Satan is the enemy. So as long as I have breath I will fight for the “one” and kick Satan in the teeth as I do it. I will stay on mission because that what I’ve been called to do.
The mission hurts. But it’s worth the pain.
About the writer
Brian Hunt is the Lead Pastor at Crossroads Grace Community Church in Manteca, CA where he lives with is wife Cherie and two children Aniston and Easton.