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When You Leave the Church You Planted

Ren Wang on Unsplash
Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Boston has been called a graveyard for church plants.

I don’t know who coined the sentiment (neither do I necessarily buy it), but I can affirm that planting a church in Boston is incredibly hard. And this was all I could think of the day I prepared to announce to our church plant that my family would be leaving after five years together.

We’d accepted an offer to join the leadership team of a church in Memphis, which we were excited about. But that didn’t negate the pain of leaving.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and studying what it means to plant a church. but I had no idea what to expect or how to process the reality of leaving the church I helped plant. Here are six things I learned throughout the process.

1. Mourn

Though this was the first thing I needed to do, I resisted. I didn’t want to face the sadness. But grieving the loss of a good thing is a good thing.

To mourn leaving our church plant meant making space to reflect on our church-planting dreams—the ones we achieved as well as those we didn’t.

Mourning, for me, meant taking stock of all the sacred moments of pastoral ministry: the joys of following Jesus with our church family, the answered prayers, the evidences of God’s grace in establishing a new church in an unchurched city, the shared meals, even the pain and tears.

To mourn leaving our church plant meant making space to reflect on our church planting dreams; the ones we achieved as well as those we didn’t.

I needed to look back at God’s track record of faithfulness and say, with a mix of sadness and joy: This run is finished, and I am grateful to God that he established the work of our hands.

2. Give Others Space to Mourn

Part of leaving includes giving others the space to mourn. While everyone was sad to hear of our transition, some felt it more than others did. No church-planting book gave me insight on what to do when someone locked themselves in our bathroom crying during community group once they’d heard we were leaving.

The beauty of church planting is that our lives are intertwined with our people, which means when it’s time for leaders to leave, we experience the peculiar pain of lives going in different directions. And that is painful for those who’ve trusted us to lead and shepherd them.

No church-planting book gave me insight on what to do when someone locked themselves in our bathroom crying during community group once they’d heard we were leaving.

Don’t take it personally when people are sad, angry, or hurt; rather, give them grace and space to mourn. You’ve likely had a greater effect on their lives than you know, and such reactions are in part evidence that God has truly built a gospel family through your work. (A friend had to remind me how hurt I would be if no cared that we were leaving.) 

3. Say Thank You

For one small moment in my life, I felt like the apostle Paul, thanking the countless people who served, prayed, supported, discipled, and helped plant our church with us.

There are people who believed in God’s work among us when our church was eight people in a living room, begging Jesus to do something in our neighborhood. These people are church-planting heroes.

It takes a village to plant a church, so leaving means thanking that village. Our departure was a prime time to make sure, once again, that each person in our church—and our external supporters—knew what they meant to us and the eternal effect they’ve had on our city.

4. Celebrate

This might seem strange, but our departure was yet another opportunity to pause and celebrate God’s power to bear life-changing fruit through church plants that declare and display Christ.

No matter the size or scope of your ministry, there is much to celebrate. Ask for stories, big and small. Comb back through your journals for records of answered prayer. Recount the highs and lows with your church and your family. Remember God’s faithfulness and celebrate with others.

Every church plant that has been built on the gospel of Jesus has been an outpost of the kingdom in its neighborhood—and that is cause for communal celebration and praise.

Every church-planting pastor who has labored for the sake of the gospel in his neighborhood has his own story of God’s faithfulness. Remember yours and celebrate it.

5. Believe

When you leave the church you planted, you need to believe and cling to the gospel you’ve been preaching. If you’re like me, transitions are a peculiar time of excitement and fear, confidence and insecurity, and every other emotion in between.

Expect regret to rear its ugly head. Expect your “blooper reel” of leadership mistakes and humiliating moments to get a lot of mental airtime. Reflecting on these things may enable future growth, but you may also be tempted to justify or condemn yourself.

Whether you leave your church plant with feelings of accomplishment, failure, or a mix of both, Christ is your identity and righteousness.

Remember that the quality, effect, and legacy of our church-planting efforts do not define or justify us. Whether you leave your church plant with feelings of accomplishment, failure, or a mix of both, Christ is your identity and righteousness. And you can trust that your church remains in good hands (John 10:27–30).

6. Pray

Finally, leaving the church you planted also means continuing your best labor for your church plant: prayer. With new understanding and deeper affection, those of us who leave our church plants can pray Paul’s words in Philippians 1:3-11 for the congregations among whom we serve and to whom we say our gospel goodbyes:

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

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