This article is an adapted excerpt from our new book, Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime (TGC/Crossway). What does it look like for a pastor to lay down his life for the sheep over the long haul in a local church? This new work features wisdom from veteran pastors addressing real-life issues that pose serious threats to longevity in ministry. Order your copy today.
Dear Pastor Dave,
They’ve left, and I’m crushed. They were faithful members—good friends I counted on. They were generous givers, committed volunteers, true servants. But now they’re gone. These departures deliver blows that cut me deepest as a pastor. These wounds fester with pain.
I know leaving seemed right to them. And I know God is in control of these things. But emotionally, these experiences feel like “desertions” or “defections” or “treason.”
When they group up before hitting the exit, I hear incessant voices in my head reminding me of how I’ve failed. These voices trigger sharp pangs of grief. I know that my words are exaggerated and emotionally charged. But when a trusted friend or a long-standing member says goodbye, the news breaks over my soul like an unholy AWOL—a mission desertion. And with each parting, my heart grows more brittle.
Sure, I signed on for suffering. But I never imagined ministry would look like this. The person I poured so much time into has vanished. The relative I thought would always have my back is gone. The fellow pastor who preached about relationships abandoned our church for a better-paying ministry job. How should I interpret unexpected departures? How do I handle the spontaneous separations from our congregation, the inexplicable goodbyes from people we love, or the leader who goes rogue and leaves a trail of confusion?
If I can be honest, people can be pretty unthinking when they leave. They can be entirely unaware of the knife that pierces a leader’s soul. They’re unaware of the fact that I lie awake at night, seeking grace just to rise and meet the next day. How do I find grace to keep going in ministry when the departures come like waves?
Dear Deserted Shepherd,
The local church gets the best of who we are as pastors and church leaders. We signed up knowing that. Our sense of calling carried an expectation of sacrifices. In Paul’s own words, we would “spend and be spent” (2 Cor. 12:15) for our people. This was never just a job. It was a sacred assignment.
But when folks leave casually, cruelly, or sinfully, leaders face a unique danger in the wake of their exit. We can lose perspective, take it personally, or even equate leaving our church with leaving God’s will. From there it’s only a hop, skip, and jump to defending ourselves and demonizing those who depart.
Sometimes they make it easy. People can sin grievously in their conduct toward the church or in the way they decide to leave. The flesh catches fire and burns with slander, quarreling, and divisiveness. There’s no hurt like “church hurt,” and there’s no ugly like “church ugly.” Folks can say goodbye with fiery words that torch the bridge, hoping the blaze reaches your reputation. “Alexander the coppersmith,” Paul lamented, “did me great harm” (2 Tim. 4:14).
Alexanders come to us all. When they punch, we want to counter. When they rant, we want to retort. When they accuse, we want vindication.
Paul could relate, but he chose another way: “The Lord will repay him [Alexander] according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). When it came to leadership, Paul played the long game. He didn’t hold God hostage to vindicating him or assume God had to prove his divine goodness by clearing Paul’s name. Instead, Paul followed the path of Jesus:
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:23)
Despite what he had walked through, Paul trusted his vindication to the Lord and let Alexander be a cross on which he consented to be impaled.
In more than three decades of pastoring, I’ve had some Alexanders. Each time they disappear, my heart response is unswervingly predictable. Being right can be way too important to me. I want to be seen as the righteous party. I want to fight for the correct narrative—to be vindicated from harmful slander. Justice, after all, should be served.
This self-righteous attitude can lead me to say really unhelpful things. There have been times I’ve forgotten that once someone decides to leave, the opportunity to convince them of my “take” has evaporated. I’ve burned a few bridges unnecessarily, bridges that if left intact might have helped the person cross more easily back into our church.
They Haven’t Left the Gospel
I hope you’ll receive this piece of council from a grizzled veteran pastor. Don’t confuse leaving your church with leaving the gospel. And never let the fervor that rightfully belongs to the gospel be transferred over to your church or to your version of the narrative. I can fairly assume that my own rightness was the very thing that once separated me from God: “All [my] righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). When I’m clinging to self-vindication, I need to flee to the righteousness that comes from another (Rom. 3:26).
Don’t confuse leaving your church with leaving the gospel.
One important qualifying remark here. Paul wasn’t personally polluted by Alexander, but his sense of responsibility for Timothy and his readers obliged him to convey a warning: “Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message” (2 Tim. 4:15). He gave a clear caution with a simple explanation. For Paul, leading faithfully meant, when necessary, tagging the wolf.
To follow Jesus is to accept the burden of suffering at the hands of people. Paul prepared Timothy for this inevitability when he wrote,
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Tim. 3:12–13).
When under personal attack, the gospel outlines a distinct path of response: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).
We’re able to do this because we are “sons of the Most High, [who] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). But there are times when the evil behavior of a defector like Alexander transcends the borders of personal assault and begins to obscure the gospel or divide the church. In those times, denying or accommodating evil behavior only perpetuates the problem and endangers the flock. Faithful leadership requires immediate first aid. Leaders must follow Paul’s example of clear caution and simple explanation to stop the bleeding and keep infection from spreading to others.
Closure Is Overrated
No one cares to admit it, but in a broken world, closure is hard to achieve. Paul certainly didn’t die with it. It’s hard to read 2 Timothy and believe that all these relationships wrapped up neatly before his death. God did not tie a bow on the pain, the complexity, the ministry absurdities. Do you think faith guarantees delivery on closure? Well, Paul had faith. The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 had faith. But Hebrews 11:13 still says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised.” These faithful leaders died with unfulfilled promises, unsatisfied dreams, and unanswered questions. They didn’t die with resolution. They stood in faith without it.
Pastor, do you have complicated, unresolved, open-ended relationships in ministry? King David did:
For it is not an enemy who taunts me— then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng. (Ps. 55:12–14)
Paul did too. Ministry is messy. Sometimes your best efforts at peace don’t deliver the resolution you desire.
Real faith doesn’t need to trace everything out. Faith doesn’t demand the psychological satisfaction of resolution in our stories. Faith trusts in what God has revealed. And the most important thing God has revealed provides the answer for the closure we so desperately desire.
The gospel represents God’s closure on the most important open-ended matters of the universe. In Christ, we have resolution on the crisis of sin and hope in the great and coming day when all will be made right. When a lack of resolution pollutes the present, we go back to what Christ accomplished on Golgotha and look forward to the promises of a new heaven and new earth.
So when I’m trying to settle the turbulence that swells within as people leave, I must flee to the risen Savior. In Christ, I am reminded that because of his remarkable love, there is an end to my journey of pastoral desertion, a place awaiting me where “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Yes, closure will come. But not today.
God’s presence and power are yours, even when—and especially when—people have left and you’re crushed. It’s all you’re promised for the day of desertion. But it is enough.