When They Leave
By Rebecca Burtram
“A painful reality of the early days of church planting is that core team members leave. Many planters report discouragement resulting from the loss of good friends from their core team. Losing half of the planting launch team within the first years is common. Planting is hard work. Weary volunteers can end up searching out existing, stable churches to call home. The planter should be emotionally and spiritually prepared for relational losses.”
-Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today
The idea of being prepared to lose team members sounds great in theory, but it is incredibly hard in practice.
Everyone told us we would lose many of our launch team members, but it has still been difficult to see them go.
I found myself crying last night as I updated the contact lists for the next session of Life Groups. I had to delete one of our launch team members from the list because he lost a very short and hard battle with cancer.
We are almost a year old, and here is how we have had launch team members leave:
- One couple broke up, and neither person got the church in the split.
- One couple moved.
- One member was hired away by another church.
- One couple felt underappreciated and worn out.
- One couple left when their daughter and son-in-law felt underappreciated and worn out.
- One couple had committed to drive over an hour to help us each week for a year, and their year is coming to a close.
- One member died.
It is expected and normal to lose launch team members, and we have to process the losses in a healthy manner or we can become discouraged and weary.
I learned this after a brief season of being discouraged and weary.
I had to work through the process of loss in order to stay focused on the vision of what God called us to do. I had to be reminded that church plant is God’s not mine and cling to the faith that he would in fact grow his church.
I don’t think there is one comprehensive approach that will work for everyone, but I can provide some guiding principles that helped me process the loss of team members.
We can be bitter about losing those who have inevitably become close to us as we pursued a shared vision, or we can be grateful.
As we have spoken with many planters during training, in the launch phase, and post-launch, we have repeatedly heard launch teams referred to as scaffolding. The launch team is there to build the church, but scaffolding comes down after it has served its purpose.
This mindset is particularly helpful in maintaining a perspective of gratitude. When you view a launch team member’s departure as a completion of the task she came to do, it is easy to simply thank her for her service.
No matter how or why a member leaves, you can choose to be thankful for what was gained by your time together rather than what is being lost.
Although you are grateful for all your launch team members have contributed, it is 100% normal to feel sorrow at the loss.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many reasons for a team member to leave, and each of them can cause you to mourn. When you work alongside people, share a common goal, and pour your time and energy into them, it is painful to separate.
It is important to allow yourself time to feel the loss. We are often quick to try to rationalize the loss and move on. However, we must allow ourselves to process our emotions rather than pretend they do not exist.
Not all team members leave well. Some people will place blame or share everything they think you should have done to create a church they could have stayed at.
To maintain your own health, you will need grace for yourself and grace for the individual leaving.
There is a distinct possibility that the complaints have some validity in them. As a young church, there are going to be many things you simply can’t do yet. You are also going to make mistakes. You must own that and move on. If you strive to always honor God by giving him your best, you have done all you can at the moment. That won’t always be enough for everyone, but it is enough for God.
Take an honest look at the criticism and use sound judgement to determine what needs to change, what you can change, and what will have to be okay for now.
There are also those who will present reasons you have failed them that are just wrong. You know they are wrong, but it hurts to be accused and blamed. This can cause you to become angry with the individual leaving. We have to extend grace to these people as they go. We hurt ourselves when we hold on to offenses, even those that are justified.
It took me a few days of holding on and internal struggle before I was able to accept that it isn’t my job to prove the person in the wrong was in fact wrong. I wanted to call or email and explain her error. However, when I finished grieving and focused on gratitude, I was ready to extend grace. I sent an email thanking the couple for their service and released them with my blessing and a genuine desire to see God’s best in their lives.
I don’t want to lose any more team members, and I highly doubt losing people will ever become easy. However, I am determined to practice the principles of gratitude, grief, and grace.
God is in control, and he brings the people we need when we need them. We must learn to trust him and remain in the peace that comes from following the one who ordered the stars.
Jonathan and Rebecca Burtram planted Redemption Church Charlottesville on Easter of 2016. Rebecca is the author of Our Broken Hallelujahs and blogs about grace and imperfection at rebeccaburtram.com. She is passionate about helping others know that they are not alone in their struggles or their triumphs. If you have a church planting story to share with other CMN women, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.