If you spend even a short amount of time in youth ministry, you quickly discover one recurring theme is that people are leaving you all the time.

If you’re a middle school minister, you say goodbye to your eighth graders. If you work in high school ministry, you send a group off to college every August. The other group we end up saying goodbye to quite a bit is our leaders. How we handle those departures is incredibly important.

Because I’ve had to say goodbye to my fair share of quality leaders, I have experienced this more often than I’d prefer. I’ve found myself asking: How am I ever going to replace him or her? What I’ve learned through time is: One leader’s departure, while disappointing, is an opportunity to see who God brings next.

Sometimes a departure is normal and unavoidable: A leader graduates from college or grad school and moves to a new place, or a new job spurs a relocation. In other situations, though, the leader steps down when he or she could (and from your perspective, should) keep leading. At that point, you need to figure out whether the person can be persuaded to stay. Sometimes leaders step away because of frustration with something related to the ministry, perhaps even with something you’re doing (or not doing). Now would be a good time to probe a bit to determine if there’s anything that could be improved upon that would make the leader consider staying.

If their minds are made up, it’s time to let go. Lyle Lovett has a devastating line in one of his songs: “There’s nothing so deep as the ocean, there’s nothing as high as the sky, and there’s nothing unwavering as a woman when she’s already made up her mind.” The same often is true of leaders. If it’s clear they’ve already made up their minds, then the only helpful thing you’ll be able to do is celebrate and support them. Doing anything other than that will be unproductive at best, destructive and bridge-burning at worst.

I recently talked to a friend who decided after a lot of thought that he needed to step down from a volunteer ministry position. At that moment, his ministry leader first should have ascertained if there was anything he could do in order to make his experience a better one; if the answer was no, figure out how to 1) thank him for his service, and 2) help the students he was ministering to transition to a new leader. Instead, the leader proceeded to make my friend feel bad for leaving, and it left a sour taste in his mouth about his whole experience in the ministry. (Incidentally, this is why it’s important that any small group ministry involve two leaders so if one leaves, the other can step in and ease the transition).

We have to fight the very normal human response we have when people leave, which is to say: Well what the heck am I going to do now?! When we ask that question inwardly (or heaven forbid, outwardly), it’s a signal that you don’t actually believe God is in control and will meet every need, inside and outside of ministry. It may mean you have to work a little harder than you’d like in order to find a replacement leader, or perhaps to be the leader for a while. However, we have to believe (and model this belief for others) that God is bigger than any leader, including ourselves. He will provide. We must be gracious to our volunteers and expectant for what God will do next.

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.

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