“I have started going to another church. I can’t worship here anymore.” My heart sank. Not again, Lord, why are we losing yet another one? If I am honest, sometimes when I hear those words, I feel like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, “Go, go, I would not have you back again!” But this time, the revolving church door was hitting me harder since these voices were my mentorees, my teammates, my “disciples,” so to speak. How does a leader handle the letting go of those they have poured their heart and soul into?
In John 1:35-37, John the Baptist was just standing with two of his disciples (John and Andrew). Jesus passed by and John B said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” Immediately, the two disciples left John B and followed Jesus. Just like that! There was no going-away party, no thank you card, no explanations of why it was time to move on, no expressions of appreciation to John B for all the time and energy he had put into training, teaching and loving these two guys. They just up and left. And to top it off, Jesus took them without a word of acknowledgment to John B! He didn’t even try to convince them to stay or care that he might be “stealing sheep.”
Wow. How did John B handle that? I think the key was that he knew who Jesus was—the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, the big cheese, the important one. John B was all about pointing his disciples to Jesus and preparing them to follow Jesus, not himself.
We catch more of the greatness of John B in John 3:23-30. This time, his disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, that man who was with you—the one you testified about—he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him” (emphasis mine). In other words, “He’s taking our people. We’re losing followers. This isn’t fair.”
John B’s reply reveals the amazing leader that he was. Not only did he know who Jesus was, he knew who he, himself, was and his purpose in life. “I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.” John B called himself the “friend who attends the bridegroom”—the best man. Any wedding is centered on the groom. He’s the one who gets the bride, the prize, the attention. The best man’s job is to wait for and listen for the groom and is “full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.” John B recognized Jesus’ voice and rejoiced that Jesus had come and knew his job was complete.
Then comes John B’s famous words, “He must become greater; I must become less.” Amazing. He knew when his job was done. He didn’t try to convince his disciples to stay with him. He didn’t give ten reasons why they had such a good thing going and there was so much more they could do together. He knew when to bow out. He had prepared the way for Jesus and now it was time to fade from the scene. He could rejoice that his disciples had left him to follow the Messiah.
Letting go of one’s “disciples” is hard. We invest so much by way of teaching, discipling, listening, advising, praying (not to mention cups of coffee and tea) into the lives of those we love. We see potential in them and we want them to mature and serve Jesus. But I know that deep down, I also want a return on my investment. I’d like them to stay and help me serve. I’d like credit for their success. I’d like to be able to keep influencing or maybe it’s more like controlling? I want them to do it “my way.”
Oh, Father, forgive me for holding too tightly to your disciples. Teach me to let them go as John B did. May I point them to you and point out you to them so that that when I hear your voice, I can say, “Go follow Jesus. He is the Lamb of God. He is the one who has eternal life.” Show me when it is my time to bow out and fade from scene. May I rejoice that my friends are following you.