Fire exit light sign

After a few months of exploring options my family chose to change the school that our daughter attends from a public school to a Christian school. I’ve always been pro-public school, and I still am, but this time I’m at a crossroad with our local school system, and my daughter is very much on the same page.

Here’s the thing, before we made the decision we met with her teacher and eventually the principal. As I write this I really don’t want to talk anymore about the change, but I do want to talk about the process of making a change like this and comparing it to something similar that happens in the church.

For a variety of reasons, our churches experience the comings and goings of different individuals and families. While we love gaining new families, we lament watching students and individuals leave. That sting hurts, especially when we consider how much those who have been involved have grown. For me, it hurts that much more when people up and leave without even saying anything to church leadership.

When we made the change at our school, we sat down with the principal and named the things that we were frusterated with. While doing that brought us no joy, it was something that I think was very important to do. It gave us a chance to have a sense of closure, to say what we needed to say, and it gave us a chance to maintain an open dialogue with the administration.

When people or students leave our churches, and we get those opportunities, they at least give us a window to say “thank you” and gather feedback that we can use to better ourselves in ministry.

But…. How do we respond when we don’t get those moments? Do we just brush students off? Do we chase after them? 

For me, I’m in favor of doing as much as I can to follow up on those that leave. This afternoon I was at a gas station and I ran into a student who left a few years back. I think he left because his relationship with his girlfriend, in our group, ended and he felt there wasn’t room for both of them. When I saw him I made a point to tell him that we miss him. This was not the first time I had told him that. My hope is that he knows how much he is cared for.

Over the years, I’ve also had a family or two leave without saying a word. That is frustrating! It leaves so many questions and thoughts. Questions like, “did I fail them?” or, “why didn’t they say goodbye?” 

For me, there are two factors that impact me in how I respond.

1. The recognition of adolescent development and how it shapes the decision making of students.

2. My perspective on the spiritual maturity of the person/persons making the change. If it’s a grown adult who has shown maturity and sensibility prior to this, I am reluctant to pursue the matter, because I’m on the assumption that they have given this great thought, and that at the same time they have chosen either out of fear or ignorance to not say anything.

Here are some questions for you:

1. How have you felt the sting of different people leaving?

2. Does your church or youth ministry have an exit protocol when someone leaves? Does your church communicate to its church family your desires for them to talk to you if they ever are consider leaving?

3. As one who is called to take on a shepherding role, how do you shepherd someone as someone leaves your ministry? 

4. What did you agree with in this post? What did you disagree with?

5. What scriptures challenge, or help you hear? 

For me, Philippians 4:8-9 encourages me greatly. It reads Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Rev. Mark Johannesen is pastor at Word of Life Lutheran Brethren Church in LeSueur, Minnesota.

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