If you have been leading for longer than ten minutes, then you have had someone leave you. I’ve had quite a few people leave my teams over the years. The first time I had someone leave me that I really cared about and had invested in, I didn’t handle it particularly well.
I had been working with this young guy since he was a teenager. He was a super talented musician, sweet natured, humble and gentle. He felt called to ministry, and he had the raw potential to do something significant for God. When a gifted, older man joined the team and began to connect with this young guy, I felt uneasy. This man had very strong opinions and began to negatively influence my young protégé. About a year later, this young man decided to leave when a small church offered pay to come do their music.
I was angry and disappointed, and I made sure this young man knew it. I felt like he had short cut his destiny and abandoned his team for a side gig and a handful of cash. My response wasn’t particularly loving. I cut off the relationship. I made sure he understood that I wasn’t releasing him into ministry; he was leaving us.
Every leader struggles to let valuable people go. We needed them and invested our best in them! Us female leaders seem to get particularly hurt when people leave. The maternal instinct in us connects to people, and when they leave us, it feels like one of our kids has just abandoned us. How do you walk away from family? If someone you loved leaving has hurt you, it can be very hard to trust again. It makes us very slow to let new people into our inner circle. When the betrayal is bad enough, those doors may close permanently.
If we succumb to this instinct for self-preservation, we keep our leadership impact small with fewer authentic relationships. It is possible to have people leave us without being hurt or ending friendship. One of the most valuable leadership skills we can develop is to release people instead of rejecting them when they leave.
SEASONS OF INFLUENCE
I’ve been a Christian serving in church for about twenty years. About a dozen different leaders have invested in me in different seasons of my life. They all contributed to who I am today. I needed what each gave me, just like I needed my kindergarten teacher as much as I needed my 12th grade English teacher. God trust leaders with people for a season of their life. The fact that it’s only temporary a in no way reduces the value of our influence in their lives. The residue of our investment continues to build people’s lives long after we are gone.
We tend to want people draw clear lines of where their loyalties lie–in or out, black and white. Paul challenged this thinking. “For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-14 NIV) Paul reminded us that we are all on the same team!
With this in mind, I don’t need to hang on to people so tightly. I’m not developing people for my thing; I’m developing people for God’s thing. The quality of what we have built into people’s lives will speak for itself. This passage continues on to explain how fires test what we have built in people’s lives. The true quality test of what we have invested is not proven by how long people serve on our teams building our ministry. The character revealed when those team members go through hell later proves the quality of what we have built.
THE AWKWARDNESS OF TRANSITION
Leaders can feel really awkward around people who have left them. The relationship changes, and we have to change with it. When your kids grow up, you have to figure out how to relate differently. You aren’t going to spank or hold your adult son’s hand to cross the road. In the same way, your relationship has to change when people leave you. Feeling the awkwardness, we often just let the relationship go, but this may be a mistake. A new season in someone’s life doesn’t have to sour the old season. Sometimes the reason people move on is as simple as God bringing them a new season. It’s not always a personal rejection.
Transition is always awkward, and change is hard, no matter how good the relationship is. It’s the most difficult when we are convinced someone is making the wrong decision, or when people leave badly and hurt us. Jesus expects us to forgive, again and again. This is easy to teach, harder to put into practice. I have to take these moments to Jesus and ask him to help me and give me grace for the person who has disappointed and hurt me. If we are honest before God about our hurt and dismay, he will help us and heal us.
Sometimes we feel like we need to justify ourselves to our church or our teams and talk way too much about the circumstances surrounding someone’s departure. This is especially true when people are leaving nastily and publicly. When we bleed all over the rest of our team it just adds fuel to the flames. This is totally unnecessary most of the time. It’s better to verbally honor and value what that person brought, answer any questions privately, and move forward without excess drama on your end. God will replace them in our ministry when we just move on. Let’s keep our spirit sweet and show the love Christ commands us to.
REDEFINING THE RELATIONSHIP
I’m not suggesting that we run after people who leave us. We have to stay focused on the people with us and the work God has called us to, absolutely. What I am saying, however, is let’s not use ministry busyness as an excuse to cut relationships out of our life when the real reason is that they hurt or disappointed us.
Leaders love to take the credit for the success of someone who trained under them, but if they fail it’s because they left us. Ha! We have a responsibility to train people, but Paul said that it’s God who actually grows them. We have a part in their fruitfulness, but we don’t own anyone; they belong to Jesus. This heart helps us release people into new seasons of fruitfulness with joy, knowing we had a part in their development, and that what we built in them is lasting.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a young leader I released a few years ago. I had handled his departure very differently, and kept this relationship intact. I was so pleased to see his growth since he left. He is flourishing, and adding incredible value to his church. That day, he wanted to chat about a leadership issue he was struggling to navigate, and we talked it through together. It was so good to be able to invest again into his world in a different season, in a different way. I believe this is the way Jesus wants kingdom relationships to be: without awkwardness, hurt, or unspoken issues. That way we can be unclouded and proud of the investment we make in people’s lives. Our lives can become more significant through building someone else.