When Leaders Leave the Gospel Team: 7 Lessons for Us Today from the Story of John Mark
Christians are often hurt and confused when problems come up and a leader abruptly leaves. This kind of situation can involve a pastor leaving a church, an executive leader leaving a parachurch ministry, or, in the case of a missionary team like we find in Acts 13, one of its members unexpectedly ending his ministry and quickly returning home.
But, even when there is disappointment and the team gets shuffled around, we can find instruction and hope in the story of John Mark. Even though he left his role and hurt others along the way, he kept serving the Lord and was became useful again to those he had hurt in the past.
After completing the first leg of their missionary journey in Acts 13–14 (cf. 13:4–12), the Bible tells us of a development in the missionary team of Paul, Barnabas, and John: “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13 ESV). (This is the same John from Acts 12:12, 25, also known as Mark.)
What happened here?
We at least know that, when Barnabas asked Paul to let John Mark join them again, he emphatically said no and divided from Barnabas over the matter (Acts 15:36–41). Luke then uses a stronger verb to describe the departure in Acts 15:38 (“withdrawn”; cf. Luke 8:13; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 3:12), indicating that John Mark was wrong to leave.
Of the options that are suggested for why John Mark left…
1) maybe he as a Jew was not thrilled to see a Gentile get saved (cf. Acts 13:12);
2) maybe a trip across the Mediterranean from Paphos to Perga was too rough for him to handle (cf. Acts 13:13);
3) maybe he didn’t want to keep going north into places where there would be persecution (cf. Acts 13:50, expulsion; 14:19, stoning);
4) maybe he didn’t like being 450 miles from home.
I would have to think that, knowing Paul’s call to the Gentiles, John Mark would hardly be displeased with the salvation of a Gentile (option 1). Knowing the nature and potential danger of their trip in advance, I can’t imagine that options 2, 3, or 4 are valid either. Another option seems best:
5) Maybe he didn’t like how his cousin Barnabas (cf. Col 4:10) was once the primary leader in Antioch (note the order in Acts 13:2, “Barnabas…Saul”), only to become secondary in a missionary team that came to be described as “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13) with Paul being its clear spokesperson (cf. Acts 13:16, 45; 14:9, 19).
Whatever our guess at John Mark’s motivations to leave might be, it was not a good thing. But, after a dozen or so years, Paul told the Colossians to welcome John Mark (Col 4:10), called him his coworker (Phm 24), and declared him useful for ministry (2 Tim 4:11). John mark also assisted Peter (1 Pet 5:13) and wrote the Gospel that we know by his name (Mark).
With this survey in hand, what are some practical lessons that we can learn from the story of John Mark? He was a leader who left his role, hurt his fellow Christians in the process, but came back to serve again.
While what follows below is not the primary intent of Acts or the other passages mentioned above, perhaps we could still carefully pull from John Mark’s story some practical lessons for us today.
#1: Leaders sometimes leave.
We are all sinners, leaders included, and sometimes leaders leave a God-given task without good reason to do so. Some years back, I remember Dr. Danny Akin giving one last challenge to those of us graduating from SEBTS and citing a study that showed (if I remember correctly) that 90% of protestant ministers don’t make it to 10 years in vocational ministry. They drop out to do something else. Whatever their reasons may be, it’s a common occurrence that we will probably experience from time to time—one of our leaders will leave, and we will be disappointed by his departure. (And I write this humbly because I’m only in my sixth year as a lead pastor—I pray that, whether me or anyone else, that we as pastors and leaders would serve as God allows until He calls us home!)
#2: Changes in a ministerial authority structure can be hard for some to accept.
We remember that Barnabas and Saul were called (Acts 13:2) to eventually become “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13). Sometimes circumstances can change, or an individual rises to an occasion in which his gifts and burden need to be let loose in taking the lead. These changes can be hard for those who are used to things as they are, especially if they had other plans for the future.
#3: Potential leaders should be tested in an assisting role before becoming a primary leader.
The Spirit called Barnabas and Paul, but John Mark was added later (Acts 13:1–3). Acts 13:5 literally reads something like, “And they had also John, an assistant.” One requirement for a pastor is that “he must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim 3:7). Similarly, for deacons, they must “be tested first” (1 Tim 3:10). While not a recent convert or a pastor or deacon, John Mark did have a significant role on a missionary team, and he failed to carry it out. If this could be considered a test, his failure to follow through obviously showed that he was not meant to lead a missionary team in the near future. He could try again, but not in a primary role (cf. Acts 15:36–41). The Spirit knew best in choosing Barnabas and Paul to lead the work.
#4: A leader’s departure is felt in multiple ways over time.
When a leader leaves, the damage is not done in a day. Barnabas and Paul felt John Mark’s loss over the next few months. Mark was missing when they reported back to the church in Antioch. People probably noticed (cf. Acts 14:27–28). Paul and Barnabas divided over taking John Mark again (Acts 15:36–41). His departure was felt in several ways. Abruptly losing a leader can be like an earthquake that has multiple aftershocks in the months and years to follow. One could write a book here, but hopefully the next two points can give some hope for this kind of situation.
#5: A leader’s departure creates opportunities for others to minister.
While a leader’s departure is not the go-to recipe for how to create opportunities for others to lead, sometimes the Lord gives others the chance to serve when others walk away. The division between Barnabas and Paul created opportunities for others like Silas and Timothy to join Paul. In sports terms, the Lord can pull a player off the bench when his teammate quits and walks off the field.
#6: A leader’s departure leaves wounds that can be healed in time.
Paul wasn’t ready to take John Mark back in Acts 15, but reconciliation took place at some point over the next ten or so years. Scripture does not tell us exactly how that took place, but I like to think that Barnabas convinced Paul over time that John Mark had learned his lesson, showed himself faithful, and could be useful to Paul as a result. However it came about, Paul wanted John Mark to minister to him in prison when the end seemed near (2 Tim 4:11). Patient persistence may bring men together over the course of years when a few months may be too soon.
#7: Sometimes a leader who leaves can serve again.
As already mentioned, John Mark rebounded and finished his course well. Tradition suggests that he was dragged by a horse to his death as a martyr for the sake of the gospel. Whether or not that’s true, for all the beating up on John Mark that we sometimes do, he was a righteous man who got back up and kept on serving the Lord. Even leaders can fail from time to time, and if the sin is not significant enough to disqualify him from ministry altogether, he can get back up again, fight the fight, run the race, and keep the faith as a leader until the end.
A Parting Note
You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve written on John Mark multiple times in the last two or three years, but I never tire of doing so. I preached through Mark some time back, and now I’ve been reminded of his story again as I’m preaching through Acts. Every leader feels like John Mark in Acts 13 from time to time. I hope you find his story encouraging as I do—that even when leaders sometimes fail, God can still use them in extraordinary ways. May we as leaders be humble to recognize our mistakes, learn from them, and continue serving until the end.
About David Huffstutler
David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.