More and more I hear voices in the evangelical world suggesting that wanting to leave your church is wrong. These voices suggest that the “right” thing for every pastor is picking a church and staying put until you retire. I know friends who are doing this. I’ve read blogs, articles, and social media posts that encourage this. When I hear these suggestions, I’m concerned, especially when someone suggests every pastor should pick a church a stay put forever.
Challenges for Pastors
This is a complex issue. For one thing, the job of the pastor is a job that involves people. People mean relationships. Relationships involve emotions. When a pastor changes churches or careers, emotions are involved. When pastors don’t understand the dynamic of individuals, relationships, and emotions that get wrapped up in their “job,” they end up leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
One complicating factor is the reality that there’s always a worse place of ministry. You always know someone who has it worse than you. However, and here’s where the danger really resides, there’s always another place with greener grass than the lawn you’re mowing. There’s always a place that seems like it would be a better fit. Maybe it’s more staff or less staff. Maybe it’s more pay or less responsibility. Maybe it’s more stability or more potential. But there’s always a position out there that seems to have your name all over it.
There’s another problem as you wrestle with the desire to leave. Who do you go to for advice? Of course, you talk to your wife if you’re married. But you don’t want to talk to your kids. Can you imagine the instability and insecurity for a pastor’s kid who had to hear about every time his dad wanted to move to a new church, a new town, a new state? Understand, the same issues of instability and insecurity can cripple the people in your church if they catch wind of your desire to move to greener pastures. So you can talk to your wife. Maybe you can talk to a pastor friend in a different community. But other than that, you’re on your own.
Questions about Leaving
To be clear, there are legitimate, genuine opportunities for pastors to move. Pastors get fired. Others retire. Some change careers. When a church is without a pastor, someone has to step in and lead. Usually, that person is going to be the pastor of another church. That means another church will be without a shepherd, and the cycle continues. It’s sort of like the coaching carousel at the end of every sports season. Someone gets fired. Someone else gets promoted. Someone else is hired to fill the next vacancy, and on and on it goes. This is why you see the typical pattern of pastors “climbing the church ladder.” Sure some pastors are just greedy egomaniacs who want to climb the ladder. But most of us are just caught up in the normal process of hiring firing and retiring.
Another tricky issue is pastor tenure. I’ve heard the stats about the average pastor tenure in the United States. They’re both depressing and hard to believe. Certainly, it hurts a church to go through a revolving door of multiple pastors in a short period of time. On the other hand, I’ve also seen churches hurt by pastors who should have long since moved on or retired. Sometimes it really isn’t a good idea for a man to pick a church and dig in his heels. Sometimes churches get stuck because they’re stuck with a pastor who needs to move on. So somewhere in the middle, there has to be balance and common sense. Is it always good for pastors to come and go like temporary employees? No. Is it always good for pastors to stay put for their entire ministry? No.
Caution about Leaving
Wanting to leave is OK. You shouldn’t feel guilty when you wrestle with the call of God on your life. You don’t have to push the idea of leaving into the back of your mind. You do have to be honest with yourself, and you also must use caution as you face this issue. Here are five warnings to think through as you wrestle with wanting to leave your church.
First, don’t waste hours on the internet dreaming about greener ministry opportunities. Looking at numbers and budgets and websites on the internet and comparing them to your current place of ministry is a dangerous game. It’s sort of like looking at Facebook and comparing the smiling photos and exciting vacations to your boring family life. To be clear, I’m not telling you not to search for other ministry opportunities when you feel that it might be time to move. I’m just telling you to guard your heart by watching the time you spend online dreaming about another job.
Second, be honest about the condition of your church. If you leave, will things really be OK? Of course, there are always struggles when a church is without a pastor, but be honest. If you leave, will things crumble? Have you started to implement change that hasn’t been seen all the way through? Are there things you need to accomplish before turning the job over to someone else? Are there problems you need to deal with instead of running away? Your job is to serve as an under-shepherd of the Lord Jesus. That doesn’t mean you can’t move to a new flock. That does mean you need to protect your current flock even in the process of leaving.
Third, be honest about your personal motivations. I get tired of the same old story of “God moving me on to a new place.” I would never deny the possibility that God would or could move someone on to a new place. I would also appreciate more pastors honestly admitting that they want to move on to a new place. Don’t blame God for what you want to do. Just admit it. Sometimes we move just because we want to move.
Fourth, if possible, seek wise counsel. Talk to your wife, of course. But try to find someone outside of your situation to advise you. Be careful to protect your current church and your future ministry at your current church. If your people find out that you really want to leave, you immediately become a lame duck pastor. If your people find out that you really want to leave but don’t have any place to go, your people will not follow your leadership just because you’re “stuck” where you’re at. So protect your church and keep a tight lip as you continue to seek wise counsel from an outside perspective.
Fifth, to do the previous four things you’re going to have to prepare for the possibility that you might leave from your first day of ministry. As soon as you start serving in a new place, you need to serve in a way that prepares you and your church for the possibility that one day you might move on. This means the ministry of your church cannot be solely driven by your personality. If it is, it will crumble when you leave, and your church will suffer. This means you need to be mentoring and discipling men in your church from day one. If you don’t, the vacuum caused by your departure will go unfilled, and your church will suffer.
I know a missionary in Argentina who has given his life to see the gospel spread in his new home country. This man told me he would be willing to leave his place of ministry in Argentina, but only if God clearly lead him away. He also said, “If I ever have to leave, I want it to hurt.” I know the feeling. When you do your job as a pastor, and you do it right, it hurts to say goodbye. You just can’t walk away from your sheep, leaving them without a shepherd, and not feel hurt. Sure you can keep in touch on Facebook and through regular texts, but it still hurts.
Challenges for Pastors
When you leave you leave one church to go to another church, you leave behind real people and genuine relationships. If you’ve done things right, there will be pain, sadness, and disappointment. You will feel these things, and so will your people. Saying goodbye is not easy.
The timing of your resignation can be challenging. If you’ve dealt with pastor search teams and personnel committees, you’ll probably be asked to preach in view of a call (also known as preaching a trial sermon). The question is, when do you tell your current church what’s actually going on? Do you tell them your plans to leave before you preach in view of a call? If you do, what happens if the new church doesn’t vote “yes?” If you wait to tell your current church you’re leaving after your new church votes yes; you still have a dilemma. What do you tell them about the week you’re gone to preach at another church? Do you tell them it’s vacation? Do you tell them it’s personal time? Do you make up some other story? Personally, I’ve done this both ways, and I’m not sure which is best. You’re going to have to consider your context and your situation, and you’re going to have to pray for wisdom.
Suggestions for Leaving
I wish I could give you advice that applied in all circumstances. I wish I could tell you exactly how to say goodbye to your people. Unfortunately, I can’t. No two churches, pastors, or situations are the same. What I can give you are a few suggestions to think about as you say goodbye.
First, tell your people that you love them. This shouldn’t be the first time you as the pastor express your love for your people. But you should realize it might be your last opportunity to say these words to many folks in your church. Take time to tell them you love them, and tell them why. Even in the most difficult church situation, you should be able to find something praiseworthy and commendable. Encourage your people as you say goodbye, and realize they will be discouraged by the fact that you are leaving.
Second, explain that God has opened an opportunity for you to move. Don’t blame the whole thing on God. Don’t talk about what God has “told” you or how He has “called” you. Just tell them He has presented you with an opportunity. You don’t have to detail the specifics about who contacted who first. Just tell them about the opportunity, tell them you’ve prayed for wisdom, and tell them you’ve made a decision. If they know you’ve prayed about the opportunity, they don’t need to hear you blame the move on God.
Third, don’t stay too long after you announce your departure. Give two or three weeks notice, but don’t let things drag on. Your church entered limbo the minute you announced your resignation. The sooner you’re gone, the sooner they can move on as a church. Also, understand that part of leaving means you really have to leave. Of course, you’re going to maintain relationships with people at the church. Many people will still call you, email you, or text you looking for advice. But eventually, you have to leave so that the new pastor can lead. Be dignified in your support of the new pastor. Even when he changes things you’ve put in place and messes up things you worked to establish, respect him as the new pastor. Be cautious about listening to your people criticize the new guy, and do your best to support his ministry from a distance.
Finally, expect the entire process to be hard, emotional, awkward, and even painful. Don’t be surprised when you have second thoughts and doubts about your decision. If you’ve done your job as a shepherd up to this point, it isn’t going to be easy to say goodbye.