(**Perhaps the most difficult aspect of pastoral ministry is watching people leave the church you pastor. Though people leave a church for a variety of reasons it always comes down to the same thing: The Great Shepherd is moving His sheep. After several recent conversations with friends who are experiencing this difficulty, I felt led to share what I’ve been learning over the past few years.)
Sumner Wemp is like Yoda.
He was already in his 70’s when I had the privilege of sitting at his feet. This man had taught in local churches, at Moody, and was the Dean at Liberty University when my father first met him nearly 40 years ago. He was a wonderful Bible teacher. Of the many truths that I recall learning from this man, I think I will never forget his impassioned plea to pray that God would send laborers into his harvest field. He quoted Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Pray that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers into the field.”
At the age of 90, Sumner passed from this life into the next. But the ghost of his voice still seems to call out to me when I read specific passages in the Bible. Luke 10 is one of these passages. “Keep praying that the Lord would send more workers into His ministry harvest. We must reach more souls for Jesus!” And so my Yoda lives on, not only in the literal Eternal Kingdom of Christ, but also in my memory.
I started praying this when I was a junior in college and for the past 15 years I have prayed nearly every day that God would send more laborers into his harvest.
If You Pray It – It’ll Probably Happen
I love it when the Lord answers this prayer by sending an incredible Christian into the harvest field of Southern Hills! I don’t love it when the Lord chooses to send one of “our” laborers away from Southern Hills and into another part of His field. I know both have happened but it seems as if we see the latter more than the former. Las Vegas is as transient as any big city. We are continually seeing the Lord move great people away for our church. Names and faces flood my mind even now. They came to us broken, we see the gospel transform them, and then the Lord moves them to serve in another part of the harvest field.
This is a beautiful thing. However, it can get rather discouraging when we forget one simple truth. We are here to build His Kingdom and not our own.
God’s Field is Bigger than One Local Church
This I learned from my greatest mentor – David Teis.
It’s one thing to watch God move strong Christians to a new church in different city, it’s quite another to watch God move them to a new church in the same city. This is much more difficult. This is what Liberty Baptist Church did when they “planted” Southern Hills 11 years ago. They actually encouraged their most talented, hardest-working, and godliest members to move their membership to this new church, led by an inexperienced youngster. Southern Hills would never have existed without this sacrificial act.
It’s awesome to be on the receiving end of this transaction but not nearly so exciting to be on the giving end. Yet I’ve realized, the Lord of the Harvest will at times transfer His greatest workers into fields not under my influence, even in the same city. In the last few years God has transitioned some of the greatest Christians I’ve ever known away from Southern Hills so they might better advance Christ’s Kingdom. I think of a dear sister named Marie who led our women’s ministry for many years. About 2 years ago she sat me down and expressed that the Lord was moving her away from Southern Hills. She would take what she had learned and use it to minister to many others in her future ministry. Marie now serves tremendously at a sister ministry in town – Hope Baptist Church of Las Vegas. Tom and Cindy come to mind. She was an integral part of our music ministry for many years with the voice of an angel. They felt God moving them to our mother-church, Liberty Baptist, where she felt the Lord could use her ministry to help others in another part of the city. I think of Kenny & Jeanette who both were saved and baptized at our church. For nearly a decade they grew in grace and faithfully served the Lord at Southern Hills. Last year they felt the Lord’s call to help in an addiction recovery ministry held at another church in Las Vegas. To do this they would have to transfer their membership. They weren’t sure what to do until I assured them that it is always right to follow the Lord’s leading. About 6 months ago they transferred their membership to a church that meets less than 100 yards from our church. They currently serve as leaders in that amazing place and I’m so proud of them!
But Josh, doesn’t this bother you? Honestly, no it doesn’t – at least, not any more. I’ve come to the realization that the Great Shepherd is at work all over this city and He is in a better position to determine placement than I. After all, we’re serving the same Lord, just in different parts of His field.
The Mistakes We Make
The problem comes when we attempt to hold onto that which God is leading away. There are 3 big mistakes that churches make when God moves someone away from their local assembly:
Convincing them to Stay
I too have found myself trying to convince someone to stay whom God has instructed to leave. This is never a good idea. What was once a blessing can quickly become a problem if God is attempting to move someone. Therefore, a pastor must express joy and support when a godly person is being led away from his local congregation. He must also be careful to not be cavalier or disengaged for this can easily be seen as passive-aggressive behavior. Instead, celebrate that God is moving and grieve that you will not see one another as often. Allow yourself to feel these emotions and do not be afraid to show them as they come. But, whatever you do, DO NOT persuade them to disobey God’s leading.
Vilifying those that Leave
Someone is a hero when they choose to follow God’s leading. Sadly, churches, if not deliberate, can create a culture that vilifies those who are being called away. This happens for several reasons. At times the one leaving can become publically critical of their church. This is unfortunate because the church and its leadership are merely human and may quickly become defensive and respond in like manner. This defensiveness can lead to a critical response and the church begins to find itself returning evil for evil. At other times the church can become publically critical of those leaving. This too is unfortunate because it is not representative of the Love of our Lord.
Burning the Bridge
I’ve noticed that if you burn a bridge you’ll never be able to cross it again. Too often this happens when God moves someone. It doesn’t have to be this way. When love is maintained, grace is shown, and mercy is extended both parties will be surprised at the future opportunities the Lord of the Harvest will open to both sides. You may once again minister together!
We have to begin thinking differently – about the vastness of the church of God, about the personal leading of the Holy Spirit, about the good intentions of those we call brethren. We must believe the best about people who God may be calling away. We must believe the best about those whom God is calling us away from. Otherwise we give the world an improper view of the family of God. We are not divisive, self-promoting, and vengeful. No! It is by our love for the brethren that all will the world know that we are His disciples.
If my Yoda were still around I think Sumner would say, “When God moves them away – positive and joyful you must remain.”
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