Giving Others the Freedom to Leave
Letting go requires compassion and self-discipline
She was leaving. I stood in my kitchen, away from the laughter ringing in the living room, and listened as a woman from our small group explained her decision. Six months earlier, she and her husband had jumped into our group, eager to connect and serve. But now they’d decided to go a different direction.
I could embrace her decision and encourage her onward. Or I could withhold compassion and withdraw myself.
As women in ministry, the struggle confronts us often. Our lives and offices often feel like revolving doors. How do we let others go? How do we keep ourselves open? It’s a process that defines our groups and ultimately dictates our growth.
When others leave our small groups or resign their volunteer roles, we face a choice. Will we extend empathy? Will we heap up guilt? Will we bless their decision and celebrate their service?
Often we enter these conversations unaware or unprepared. A faithful volunteer surprises us with her statement of burnout. A struggling leader shocks us with her tearful explanation. As we weigh our responses, we must let down our walls and let them leave with grace.
We extend empathy, tapping into the times when we were the ones exhausted, ill-fit, or in need of change. We avoid guilt by refusing to heap our hurt feelings onto the other. We celebrate the relationships forged and work accomplished while leaving the unfinished pieces in God’s hands.
Letting go might look flawless, but the ability arises from great struggle. In the months preceding my friend’s departure, God constantly confronted and confounded my desire to control those around me. He pried my fingers open, inviting me into another possibility—letting him take the lead.
As I stood in the kitchen, I peered into an opportunity. I could love this woman well and let her go, entrust her to Another and myself to his care.
Attending to Our Soul
Even with valid reasons, leaving still stings. Instead of shutting down and stuffing the hurt, we must acknowledge it. Perhaps our effectiveness is tied up in people’s investment or approval. Maybe fear surfaces as we question who else might leave.
A day after my conversation, I procrastinated on planning a coffee date with another woman in our group. I avoided checking on a new friend. I sized up other couples, wondering who else might leave. Eventually I realized they weren’t the problem—I was. I had put up my walls and withdrawn. I didn’t want to do life with people if they were going to leave.
When we find ourselves in such places, we must attend to our souls. What feelings motivate our emotional withdraw? What fears press us to push others away? Are previous hurts twisting our present situation?
As I considered my response, I realized my fear of failure fueled my retreat. When someone leaves a group, declines an invitation, or refuses my help, I assume personal responsibility. My insecurities escalate as I revisit other times when people have departed, leaving me alone or feeling inadequate. Without even realizing it, I begin to base my leadership on someone else’s willingness to serve or stay.
As we acknowledge our emotions, they become easier to unwind. Our present situation might not be like the last one. This person isn’t the same as the one who left last time. And even if all things are equal, we aren’t the same. We’ve changed, moved forward, and grown wiser.
Instead of shutting down like normal, we attend to our indicators. We address our hurts. Then we refuse to let them define us. Instead we invite new possibilities and relationships to form.
Keeping the Door Open
Even when we let go and look forward, saying goodbye is seldom a one-time occurrence. It challenges us again and again. So how do we keep the doors to our ministries and hearts open, allowing others to come and go?
We lead from fullness, cultivating our inner life and inviting others to come alongside us. Tim Keller calls this “emotional wealth” and describes it as “a sense of being loved so deeply that when someone wrongs us we can afford to be generous, able to forgive.” What if we allowed Jesus to really fill our dry and desperate places? What if we set aside time to sit with him in silence and solitude?
On the days when I let God into my dark and dusty corners, I lead with more of myself. I don’t take things so personally. I welcome others into my life and encourage them in God’s work.
It becomes easier to relinquish ownership and embrace stewardship. I didn’t create our small group. I can’t make people volunteer or plug in. I don’t direct our future or dictate our growth. As leaders we play a part in ministry formation, vision, and development. But this isn’t our ultimate role.
We’re called to be stewards. God forms our groups. He calls the people. He guides our progress. When we lead out of stewardship—instead of ownership—we release ourselves from the pressure of making people stay and ministries grow, and we allow ourselves to simply join God where he’s already moving.
We find freedom to celebrate change as God’s provision and plan. Sometimes a new face on our leadership team breathes life back into the vision. Sometimes someone leaving is exactly what God planned to keep us dependent upon him.
Three days after my friend and her husband stepped down from their leadership role, another couple joined the team. The pair had wanted to lead and waited for an opportunity. Now the right position presented itself.
I know change doesn’t always happen so suddenly or succinctly. But every time the door swings shut, we can trust it will open again. It may surprise us, challenge us, and even change us. Yet it’s worth celebrating. God isn’t finished with our ministries or with us.
Amanda DeWitt works as a freelance writer, conference speaker, and blogger for Tapestry. She has served as a magazine editor and an associate on a megachurch staff; she holds a M.A. from Dallas Theological Seminary.