When Leaders Leave

I heard a leadership talk years ago that compared leading an organization to driving a bus. The bus (organization) has a destination and along the way, people get on and people get off, each with their own set of reasons. The task of the leader is to keep driving the bus, intentionally treating people well when they get on board and politely saying goodbye when they leave. Leading a church, which I have done for over twenty years now, fits that analogy perfectly. In the future I will write about people in general leaving a church and how a Pastor can navigate those tricky situations. Today, however, I want to discuss what happens when leaders leave.

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This year (2016) I have watched leaders (some paid staff, some volunteers) and potential leaders with great upside move out of our organization and on to new places. For some it was as simple as a job transfer or change of domicile. For others, it was a conscious decision based on a variety of factors. Regardless, when leaders leave, it leaves a gap in the organization that has to be filled by new leaders, otherwise, the growth of the organization will stall. Early in my ministry I would have probably had an internal meltdown with such a drastic shift in such a short period of time, but over the years I have learned a few lessons on how to respond when leaders leave.

Look In

As a senior leader, when leaders leave I have to evaluate myself as a leader and ask a series of questions. How did I pour into the lives and leadership of those who have moved on? Were goals and expectations clear? Did I make the leader feel valued and honored? Were there underlying issues that went unresolved? Did I maintain an “open door” policy and give consistent opportunity for dialogue and feedback? What was my contribution to the leader’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the organization? The list goes on, but don’t miss the key point here. Start by looking in. It will grow you as a leader and ultimately bring about a more healthy relational vitality with those you lead.

Look Down

We’ve all heard the expression, “don’t look down,” but in the context of this post, I believe looking down is critical. The Psalmist wrote “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105 ESV). God’s word shows us where we are and also where we’re going. Since most leaders are visionary, it’s only natural for us to focus on the path ahead. The problem with that is, you really can’t know where you are going unless you know where you are. When leaders leave, take some time to evaluate the current state of your organization. Do an honest inventory and assessment. Have meetings with other leaders. Invite their feedback and allow this process to help you see things through the eyes of those who are traveling on your bus. Asking the question, “How’s my driving?” may invite answers you don’t want to hear, but listening to those answers will make you a stronger leader.

Look Around

Many years ago, I heard Pastor Tommy Barnett make this statement: “Everything you need to build a great church is already in your church.” Over the past four months, I have taken this to heart and looked around our organization. The talent and gifting in our church is incredible, and there are so many people who are eager and willing to lend those talents and gifts to the organization to help us fulfill our mission. Right now, the task before our senior leadership team is to build effective on-ramps to make it easy for people to connect and serve. We aren’t there yet by any means, but this year’s challenges have prodded myself and our leadership team to solve this issue.

Look Up

Maybe this should have been first on the list, but ultimately we have to do this when leaders leave because discouragement and disillusionment can easily set in.  Again, quoting the Psalmist: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORDwho made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2 ESV). God is our source of life and strength and while driving a leadership bus can be taxing and make you road-weary, the help you need as a leader to finish the journey is accessible when you look up. 

I have always believed that everything that happens in our lives is an opportunity for growth. As a leader, each level of leadership we attain is gained through patient perseverance and a willingness to change areas of our leadership that need adjustment. Leaders leaving is never easy, but if we are able to Look In, Look Down, Look Around and Look Up, it will help us get to the next level.

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