I still remember where I sat. I was facing the black and white tile checkered wall, my back to the door to our local Baja Fresh. He sat across from me. We started with small talk, but then he dropped the hammer: "Steve, we're leaving the church."
His declaration wasn't exactly a surprise. I sensed it was coming, but it still landed like a sucker punch.
He laid out his arguments. I can't tell you what they were. They didn't appear ideological; they felt personal. I got lost in a haze of defiance and disappointment. I had people who I'd turned sideways (critics and haters and church shopping drifters) leave the church I planted before. I responded to their departures with indifference, mild annoyance, even celebration. This one was different. Tim (not his real name) was a friend, a brother, a co-laborer. We were roommates in our bachelor days. I officiated his wedding. We were young dads and husbands trying to figure life out together. So this wasn't an ordinary exit interview for a member; it was a desertion, a no-confidence vote, the deepest form of betrayal, or so it felt.
That was more than a decade ago, but I'm still haunted by the meeting. In its immediate aftermath, I swung between two poles. On the one hand, I pinned his departure entirely on him. "He's not committed to engaging the culture the way we are," I'd say to myself. Or, "He doesn't grasp nuances in a way that allows two people to interpret the same Bible passage differently and still hold a high view of Scripture." Or, "He's just a consumer now. He's more committed to meeting his stylistic worship needs than serving the local body." I'm sure there were more. But on many days, I was convinced he left because he was selfish, immature, and lazy.
Then there were the others days when I slid into a mindset where the only reason I'd lost this family was "I'm a failure—as a leader, preacher, and friend." Somehow, somewhere I neglected to create an environment where he and his wife felt loved and valued. I'd been too defensive to give voice to his concerns when he brought them up earlier. I didn't create the right kind of serving roles that matched his gifts to our congregational needs. I didn't. I should have. I can't. I'm not. The more time I spent in this headspace, the more depressed I became. In the darkest moments, it drifted to paranoia. "Who else thinks I'm screwing up? How many other people have one foot out the door? If I can't lead my best friends, do I have any business leading anyone at all?"
In hindsight, it's a little clearer. No, he's not some community-despising, biblically illiterate, spiritual delinquent who left because he simply couldn't cut it at my noble institution. Nor was I, or am I, a perpetually sorry excuse for a leader who fails every member at every turn, every day. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Was his decision a result of a consumer mentality? Maybe. Did I fail him and his wife? Did I stop short of being fully engaged as a friend and a leader? Probably. Even if he did leave because our church wasn't "meeting his needs," I need to take some responsibility since I likely played a role in feeding that particular beast. Hadn't I asked some people to leave another church to join me? And even though I was as honest in my attempt to connect with unreached young people in our area, I can't deny the "Follow me, because we can do church better" subtext in my messaging.