Lately people around me have been leaving or talking about leaving. A couple who are older than me were farewelled the other week because they were called to ministry at another church. Another couple (younger than me, but who have been at the church longer than I have) mentioned they were very close to selling their unit and would be moving out of the area as soon as they bought a house. Last week I said goodbye to an old friend who is heading overseas to the mission field.
This sort of thing has been happening throughout the entire course of my Christian life. Sometimes I’ve been the one leaving: I’ve been a member of at least six different churches and various other parachurch organizations, moving on because of things like marriage, ministry apprenticeship and Bible college. More and more of late, I’m one of the ones being left behind. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you have similar stories of people coming and going.
None of this is a bad thing: people leave churches for all sorts of reasons. People get married. People move house. People accept new jobs that take them elsewhere. People heed God’s call to ministry in different pastures.
But when people leave and your relationship with them changes, it can be hard. It’s hard because you feel genuine happiness for your friend who is getting married or purchasing her first home, but at the same time, you feel genuine sadness at the prospect of your friend leaving. It’s only natural: you’ve shared your lives together. You’ve invested time and effort in the relationship. Maybe your families have hung out together and your children have grown up together. If you’re in ministry leadership, you may have also invested time discipling and training them.
A single friend of mine feels this particularly keenly. She told me,
Because you don’t have someone beside you who has promised to never leave, basically any and every relationship you have is a candidate for goodbye, and you need to be ready for it. Recently a single friend of mine wrote, “It’s funny: single people often get accused of being non-committal and just doing whatever they feel like. My experience is the opposite: everyone leaves.”
The temptation is to close yourself off—shut down, not let anyone in and only develop shallow relationships with people. It’s a good method of protecting yourself from getting hurt. But it’s contrary to the gospel and Christian fellowship, where we, like the Apostle Paul, seek to share our lives with the people around us (cf. 1 Thess 1:7-12). No: as members of God’s household and co-heirs with Christ, we can’t operate like this (Eph 2:19; 1 Tim 3:15; Gal 4:7). Fortresses of Solitude aren’t conducive to relationships. God made us relational beings, and if we choose this as our modus operandi, we will end up lonely and sad and we will miss out on the benefits that Christian fellowship brings (e.g. Heb 10:24-25).
Nevertheless, when good friends move on and we are left behind, how are we to deal with our sadness and grief? I don’t claim to be an expert; I still find it hard, even after 30 or so years of being a Christian. But here are a few things that I think are helpful to bear in mind:
As I said earlier, God created us for relationship (Gen 1:26-27). The sadness you feel when good friends leave is a reflection of the strength and real-ness of your relationship with them. So it’s natural that a change in that relationship will result in some form of grief. This is a good thing. An older woman in ministry once told me, “All change is loss”, and loss needs to be mourned. So acknowledge your sadness and be kind to yourself as you sit with it. Grief is a process and the sadness will eventually fade.
Thank God for your friend and the gifts he has given him or her. Thank God for the way your friend has served your church family, acting as part of the body of Christ in his or her own particular way (1 Cor 12). Thank God for the time you got to spend together and the different things you were able to do. Gratitude will not erase the pain, but it will certainly soften it and shift your focus to God and his goodness.
Remember, the relationship has not ended, it has just changed. Yes, you will not be able to see your friend as much and you will not be as close as you once were, but that does not mean you will never see him or her. It may be harder; you may need to be more intentional and organize special catch-ups whenever they’re in town. Maybe you’ll end up keeping up with each other’s lives on social media. Maybe the relationship will slowly fade away. That’s okay; some relationships are like that.
Sometimes, however, you get to spend time with your Christian brother or sister again in a capacity you never expected. That’s always a lovely thing: a pastor friend of mine described the joy he felt upon seeing the people he had ministered to at his previous church come to do mission at his current church. He said it helped him remember that he is not indispensable to their Christian growth.
In the wake of certain departures, it can feel particularly hard to then turn your attention to building relationships with new people. It’s easier to hold back and not give of yourself as freely as you did before. But as a friend of mine said, “I think we need to keep going back to the gospel message that God loved us not as aliens and strangers, but as enemies living in the kingdom of darkness. If he sought us out and bought us with the blood of his Son, then to not give of myself (and a lot less of myself) makes me wonder if I need to remember God’s grace again.”
Wherever we may go—no matter how far away or for how long—we know that as members of God’s extended family, he will gather us together again at the end of the age when the old creation will be destroyed and superseded by the new. Then we will dwell with God forever: we will be his people and he will be our God (Rev 21:3). When brothers and sisters in Christ leave us, the separation is only temporary; the trajectory of history is towards union with Christ and in Christ (Eph 1:9-10; cf. 2:19-22). So remember that Christ is the cornerstone of our fellowship with one another and look forward to that joyous wedding banquet on the last day when every tear will be wiped from our eyes and there will be no more mourning, crying or pain.