All the ones that didn’t stay

I may have said this before but church planting, and church leadership generally, can be tough. As I heard Andrew Wilson say, with reference to Mark 6:48, it can be like rowing a boat into a headwind. Painstakingly slow. You need a tough skin and a soft heart and it’s not always to keep those things from getting mixed up leaving you unteachable and unapproachable.

One of the hardest aspects for me in the struggle to establish a church and set a healthy culture is when I think of the ones that didn’t stay. It’s part and parcel of church life that not everyone who visits will stay and if they come and go for a couple of weeks and then don’t show up again, c’est la vie. You wish the rate of staying would be higher but there’s freedom and we’re not for everyone. The investment has been next to nothing and so is the pain at their leaving. They move on and so do we.

At the other end of the scale you can live with those who have left well. Those who have loved and served and were served and loved. Those who have come with faith and in faith have moved on to follow Jesus. You miss them, but even their leaving has served you. That they have gone has been as much a part of your mission as their staying. It has the sense of family moving out and moving on, they are family even when they are not there.

In the middle of this scale are two very different sorts of people both of whom cause you pain. There are those who come, end up causing you harm and everyone breathes a sigh of relief when they are gone. Sometimes they walk out and sometimes they are ‘encouraged to find a spiritual home more suitable’. Those people are the cancers, the tumours that cause you pain. The body is better off without them. Once they’ve gone you heal.

For me, painful as those episodes can be, is not where the real anguish lies. That special place of regret is with the ones that didn’t stay but you wish they had. The ones you’ve invested in, the ones you’ve dreamed with, hoped for and been real friends. The ones who in their leaving, you release them not bless them. Say goodbye not send. The ones where you wonder what you did wrong and the memory of it keeps you awake at night. Those are wounds, sometimes self-inflicted, that can take a long, long time to heal.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is the case. Sometimes it is a result of mistakes that though repented and forgiven are too hard or too awkward. Reconciliation and rebuilding broken trust is hard work. Not every relationship makes it.

Sometimes, we uncover a misalignment in thinking, and discover a disconnect of values or of world-view that we never knew was there. We are like the couple that got married first and asked questions later. It was crazy, it was passionate, it was intense, and fated to be over very shortly afterwards.

I find that my own lingering pride and ambition causes me ongoing hurt. Think of what the church would be like if they had stayed? Bigger, that’s what it would be like, it would be BIGGER! Bigger for most church leaders is better. It’s an addiction.

Bigger equates with more successful, more platform, and more staff to keep all the annoying stuff (and people) away from me. I tend to dream of a church that makes people say ‘wow, great job Phil’ instead of ‘wow, great job Jesus’. That’s also an addiction, but Jesus hasn’t given up on me yet.

There is genuine sorrow as you see loved friends head off into the spiritual wilderness. Deep sadness when they sell out for some brighter, louder, shinier and more comfortable place. There’s pain as you see your fears and not their dreams come true. You witness stagnation, the loss of vision and they are weaker, the church is weaker and you think, ‘what would it be like if they had stayed.

I’m confident enough in the gospel I trust, the values I hold and even great chunks of the theology that lies underneath, to truly believe that we are a community where people can flourish and grow. Of course, I believe that. You wouldn’t want it otherwise, you just want me to be humble with it. So when friends give up on that journey and turn away or turn and head back for home, it hurts.

Of course, what it often feels like is not that people have given up on the vision or the church but given up on you. For a church planter, they live and breathe the church, they have carried it, laboured and loved it, they have sacrificed for it and sweat blood and tears for it.

You have given and are giving all you’ve got and when friends leave it hurts, it disappoints and it saps your spirit. Keeping going has just got that little bit harder.

It’s easy for the lines where the church stops and you begin to get a bit blurry. When friends leave the church they’re also leaving you. When they say there is something wrong with the church, they are saying there is something deficient in you. And of course there is but no one wants to be told their party is rubbish by people on their way out. All it does is leave you with a bad taste in the mouth.

The only way forward I’ve ever found that has genuinely brought me peace, and I can catch myself chewing on these things sometimes years later, is to pray blessing on those people. To genuinely pray that God would bless them, that they would flourish, that the Kingdom would grow as a result of who they are where they are, that the churches they are in would be wonderful communities of the grace of God, delighting in the gospel of Jesus to His Father’s glory. I have to pray blessing until I mean it, until I have let them go.

Once I have let these former travellers on the road with me go, that I find myself once again standing on firmer ground. The promise of Jesus to build His church is not a burden that has been shifted to my shoulders but a faith filled promise to His people that I am holding Him to. It helps me rise up and welcome the visitor and say to them ‘We are setting out for the place about which the LORD said. Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things…’ (Num 10:29).

Photo by Tupolev und seine Kamera

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