Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How To Say Goodbye

Originally posted June 2012.
Odds are that some of your Young Life team members are entering a season of transition.  Maybe they're moving. Maybe they're burned out. Maybe they're called to another ministry. 

Their absence will be noticed. Not just by you or your team, but by the kids. Change is hard. Trust is expensive. Abandonment issues are real.

Would you consider sharing this post with any of your teammates who are saying goodbye?  Hopefully it will help them and the kids they leave behind.

How Do We Say Goodbye To Our Highschool Friends? 

Ten years ago I worked at The Dale House Project in Colorado Springs. It's a residential care facility, started by Young Life for at-risk teenagers who cannot return home. During my one year internship there, the lead counselor on our staff spent some time training us on how to say goodbye. He was firm in urging us to not make promises we couldn't keep. The specific population of kids we were working with had been repeatedly abandoned and rejected by their families and friends. Now we had come into their lives for a short time, loved them in a way they had never experienced, and soon we also would be leaving them. It wasn't easy. It didn't seem right. It hurt deeply, both us and the kids.

Jim encouraged us to speak to the kids in a language that was
honest, loving, and leaving. He prompted us to say things like:

  • I'm so thankful for the time we've shared together and so sad to have it end.
  • Sadly, our relationship is probably never going to be the same that its been this year.
  • I want to keep in touch with you, but I also know that life and distance will not make that as easy as it has been.
  • I will pray for you when I think of you. 
  • I will miss you when I'm gone.
In this digital age we have the tendency to make false promises. We think because we're facebook friends we can be real friends, when in reality its much more difficult when your paths aren't crossing regularly. In our busy lives, it's typically true: "Out of sight, Out of mind."

Dunbar's number asserts that we all have a relational capacity of around 150 people. Yet when I became a Young Life leader I was told to "make friends like you are going to know them for the rest of your life." That year alone I became friends with over 150 high schoolers, and now, many years later, those numbers have continued to grow.

I think I missed one key word during that
YL Leader training. "Make friends LIKE you are going to know them for the rest of your life." As leaders, we are to befriend kids with the mentality that we would love to be a groomsmen or bridesmaid in their wedding one day, to be roasting them at their 40th birthday party, to be old friends smoking cigars together on that "YL Alumni 100th Year Reunion Caribbean Cruise 2041." 

But we must also not be so arrogant to think that without us in their lives, they will never know Christ or have others love them and influence them in the Way of Jesus. God calls people in and out of our lives for specific seasons.

The reality is that we are not going to know all of our high school friends for the rest of our lives. So...we must learn how to say goodbye.

If you are leaving...

You'll Be Missed More Than You Realize
Do not assume kids won't notice that you are gone. Whether you realize it our not, you are one of the only "adult friends" these teenagers have. They most likely feel closer to you than you feel to them. Even though they sometimes act like they don't even know you when you show up in the cafeteria or to a game, they will notice when you are gone. And it will be a loss for them.

Give An Explanation
When leaving, we must be intentional to actually say goodbye. It is easier to just leave without the hoopla, but kids need to know the truth. They need to hear it from you, not someone else. If you asked them to trust you and to be your friend, you at least owe them the time to tell them goodbye. In some cases, it may be complicated as to why you are leaving, but it is important for you to give the kids an honest, clear, and well thought through explanation. You don't owe them all the details, but you at least owe them a reason for why you are leaving them.

Leave With Grace
Maybe you are leaving under not so great circumstances. Maybe you had a fall out with a teammate or a staff person. Maybe you're not a fan of the way things are being run. Even if you are leaving with tension, don't tear down others or verbally attack the ministry. Revenge doesn't mean that you win, it means that everyone loses. Choose your words carefully. Be truthful, but speak with grace. 

Be A Cheerleader
When a kid calls and tells you that "Young Life sucks since you left," encourage them to step up and be a leader instead of a critic. Be positive and support the leadership that is in place. Your voice still carries weight and influences the direction of the ministry. 

Don't Make Promises You Can't Keep
It hurts less initially if you say "I'm not going to be a leader, but we can still hang out all the time." 

But it hurts way more down the road when you aren't at all their games like you were last season.

It hurts less initially when you say "I'm moving, but we'll still talk all the time, that's what facebook and cell phones are for."
But it hurts way more down the road when you don't make those phone calls they were expecting.

It hurts less initially when you say "I'll come back and visit all the time."
But it hurts way more down the road when they see pics on your facebook wall revealing that you were back in town, and didn't call.

Tell them that you are sad that your relationship will never again be the same. Acknowledge the loss and hurt that comes with goodbyes.

Expect Anger
Not from many kids, but probably from the ones you are closest too. They have a right to be angry. You have chosen something else instead of them. But choices are part of life. Jesus chose only twelve disciples. He chose to spend more time with only three of them. Our choices affect others. Many kids have been wounded by one day coming home to find out their mom or dad have moved out. Many of them have experienced real abandonment and they will be angry at you, or even God. As I have moved I have had kids say to me, "You're leaving me just like everyone else in my life leaves me." We have got to trust that God is in control and if we are being obedient to Him, then His plan is for ultimate good, even when it results in anger and hurt.

Make The Hand-off
It is your responsibility to do whatever you can to set up the high school friends you are leaving with another YL leader or someone else who can invest in their life. While it's easier to just roll out, it's worth the extra effort to introduce the new leaders to kids and even create hang out events where the new leader can be set up well to begin to earn the right to be heard. Also, be strategic in introducing new leaders to school faculty and parents of kids that you know. A true sign of good leadership is the success of an organization after a leader leaves. Leave well.

Do you know a YL leader who is moving on? Feel free to share this with them by clicking the Email/Twitter/Facebook links below this post.


  1. I found this to be so encouraging! I will be leaving my team next fall to go away to college and it has been heavy on my heart. I hate that I have to say goodbye to my girls, but this gave me a sense of comfort. Thank you for this post.

  2. I think this is great advice. My one question would be - why do the relationships have to end or change in a negative way? I have found that some of the best times in my friendships with YL students are after they have graduated. While you won't maintain a close relationship with ALL of them, I would encourage staying in touch - you never know when they will need you later in life. One of my old campaigner kids found herself single and pregnant in her 20's and we talk weekly (10 years later). Now would she have found someone else to confide in if I wasn't around, of course - God doesn't need us but He invites us in and I encourage you to stay the course as best you can.