Leading The Church When People Leave

Jonathan K. Dodson | August 18th 2022

For the first time in ministry, I was genuinely tempted to close up my heart. I told myself I would love the church, counsel the church, pray for the church, and preach the gospel to the church as best as I could, but I would no longer befriend the church. Friends would be found elsewhere.

Until I read Psalm 62:1: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress, I shall not be greatly shaken.”

I couldn’t get past the first three words: for God alone.

For God Alone

I knew alone alright, but not really with God. I had waited in silence, actually, I cried out in silence, but not with God as my salvation.

Sometimes we want God plus. God plus a spouse. God plus a friend. God plus a job. I wanted God minus. God minus the pain. God minus the suffering. God minus the abandonment. God minus friends treating me like a spiritual commodity—sought after when I’m needed, disposed of when a better prospect comes along.

But the Spirit was saying, God alone.

Friendship isn’t a fortress; God is a fortress, a marvelous one at that. God’s presence is so dependable it enables us to depend on those who disappoint us.

In God, alone, is our salvation. He is our rock and our fortress, not friendship. God was saying: Friendship is not a fortress. People are not your protection. I am your safety;  am your refuge, and I will never leave.

Then I read, “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him” (Psalm 62:8). Don’t board up your heart; pour it out to him. I knew I could trust the Lord, so I let it rip. I shared the pain and he comforted me; confessed my sin and he not only forgave me, but also loved me in my mess. 

You can trust him at all times. There is no better prospect. 

Friendship isn’t a fortress; God is a fortress, a marvelous one at that. God’s presence is so dependable it enables us to depend on those who disappoint us.

When People Leave

Paul’s painful experience with the Corinthians wasn’t a one-off. He describes his prosecution in Rome, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16).

Desertion is an intense word.

Jesus uses this word in the ninth hour of his crucifixion to describe his feeling forsaken by God (Mark 15:34). It is important for leaders to verbalize these feelings to a friend, spouse, or counselor, and especially to God.

Paul didn’t keep his sense of abandonment a secret. His letter is littered with names of people who want poof: Demas, Phygelus and Hermogenes, Hymenaeus and Philetus, and Alexander the coppersmith who “did me great harm” (2 Timothy 4:14).

This is the last letter Paul wrote, and he still writes lines like that. Betrayal stings, even years later.

Superhuman Forbearance

But Paul didn’t close his heart off to the church. No matter how much it hurt. He declares, “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Timothy 4:16).

That is not my first response when I am betrayed. I reach for the imprecatory psalms. I wonder if Paul did too, when the gavel came down and his sentence was announced? Yet, he refused to hold the church’s betrayal against them.

Paul didn’t stew in bitterness, but soaked in grace. He sounds like our Lord, who from a blood-stained cross said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).

Jesus remains when people leave.

How did Paul not hold their betrayal against them? It seems superhuman...because it is. 

Paul forgave his betrayers, and willed no ill against them, because there was one person who did not abandon him: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:17).

Jesus Remains and Sustains Us

The word “stand” is chosen carefully. No one stood up for Paul when he was on trial. But when everyone else left, the Lord Jesus remained.

When people hurled false witness, Jesus stood by him as a witness of his faithfulness. Jesus also stands by you. He is not embarrassed to do so. Rather, he proudly stands next to his faithful servants. Jesus remains when people leave.

When loving the church left Paul with wounds, Jesus stuck around to bandage him up. Jesus doesn’t minister in word only. He serves Paul. He bends down to lift Paul up and imparts strength to his weary servant.

This ministry is not only for Paul but also for us. Jesus bends down to minister to us. When we are low, he goes lower to lift us up. Jesus sympathizes with your struggle. Will you receive his strength and believe his heart for you? Collapse in his arms if you have to and receive the ministry of Jesus!

Paul led through thick and thin because he knew the Lord was with his spirit (2 Timothy 4:22). Instead of boarding up his soul, he continued to long for the church with the affection of Christ Jesus. His longing wasn’t self-manufactured; it sprang from the love of the Holy Spirit who imparts Jesus’s affection for him. Through this intimacy with Jesus—for God, alone, my soul waits—Paul not only received but recycled God’s perfect love. He saw their departure as an invitation into depths of intimacy with the Spirit and the Son. If we accept this invitation, Jesus Christ will love the church through us.

This article is adapted from The Unwavering Pastor, in which Pastor Jonathan Dodson comes alongside struggling, discouraged ministry leaders to guide them into the comfort of Christ, especially in divided times.

Jonathan K. Dodson

Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) Author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He is married to Robie and has three great kids. He enjoys coaching church planters, playing tennis, and listening to The War on Drugs. He is the founder of GCdiscipleship.com which cultivates writers and resources that help make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus. He is the author of numerous books including, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Here in Spirit, and Our Good Crisis.

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