When a Pastor Should Leave a Church and When He Shouldn’t
“Son, pastor like they are going to bury you out behind the building.”
This is how I was mentored to approach the pastorate, and it is how I have felt about each church I pastored.
I am here until God moves me or I die.
The dying part is pretty straight forward, but what about God moving you? What does it look like for God to say that it’s time to go? How do I separate my desire for greener pastures from God’s plan to make me lie down where He has brought me?
Here are 6 trustworthy ways to know when a pastor should leave and 4 bad ones.
Let’s start with the bad reasons pastors have for leaving.
1. The Church is Mad
Sometimes church people get mad. (Although disciples don’t get mad nearly as often.) I have seen church members get mad over everything from reformed theology being preached to changing the color of the carpet in the parlor.
The anger or outrage of your church members doesn’t give you an out, because part of your calling is to help mature the people in your church.
It is important that you teach and model for them how to rein in their emotions and conform to the likeness of Christ while expressing their feelings.
So help Martha say goodbye to the sherbet green carpet with grace. Show Craig that he can be open to the concept of God’s sovereignty as witnessed in scripture by showing that you are open to man’s moral free agency as witnessed in scripture.
The storm that you are facing should refine you. If you leave at the first dark cloud, then how will God grow you? He might send the same storm to your next church. (How’s that for the antinomy of free agency and sovereignty?)
2. You Messed Up
Sometimes pastors make mistakes.
I have made many. I plan to make more, because I am not perfect nor am I paralyzed from taking action.
Mistakes don’t mean you get to leave your job.
Our mistakes have consequences. We don’t get to run away from those consequences. We must face them with humility, learn from them, and hope for grace from our people.
If you have been gracious when others have made mistakes, then they are likely to be gracious in return. If you haven’t made mistakes yet, go ahead and be gracious now because your time is coming.
In the middle of your
mess up learning process, find a good teacher.
Sure, there are a lot of people in this world rooting for pastors to fail, but there are also people who want to see you succeed. Find one of those people and let them guide you.
But whatever you do, don’t let your mistake go to waste.
Learn from it.
Teach from it.
Allow your church members to grow from it. Don’t just make a mess and run away like a badly trained dog.
3. You REALLY Messed Up
Moral failings happen.
Sometimes pastors can’t stand up to temptation. I think sometimes pastors run towards temptations just to be free of the burden of pastoring.
Whatever the case, a moral failing doesn’t give you an excuse to resign.
I know. This seems very contrary to the standard operating procedures of church-world, but hear me out because the way we handle moral failings by ministers has to change.
Confess your sin to the people that it impacts.
If you look at porn, confess it to your wife and beg for forgiveness. If you use the church credit card to buy gas for your personal car then confess to your finance secretary, ask for forgiveness, and repay the money.
However you have failed, find a way to confess and be reconciled.
To fail and run without confession and reconciliation is cowardice.
Let’s not pretend that there is nobility in stepping down after you’ve stepped out of line. A pastor who fails morally and skips town isn’t a king falling on his sword.
He’s just a man who failed to stand and is compounding his failure by refusing to grow.
4. It’s a Great Opportunity
The temptation here is to see an opportunity as a sign from God.
We think, obviously The Lord is opening a door for me because of this amazing opportunity and the interest of this church.
I don’t buy it.
There will always be a better church looking for a pastor.
There will always be churches that have things to offer that your church does not. It may offer a bigger membership, a media outreach, a more attractive building, a thriving community, or better benefits, but none of those are reasons for a preacher to move on.
If you are growing as a pastor then you will get more and better chances to serve. That is how the world works. In any job, you get better opportunities as you acquire skills and experience.
The fact that a church with greater possibilities is interested in you only shows that man looks at what is on the outside.
This is old news—like, Old Testament old news. Search committees are made of wonderful and prayerful people who can’t help but look at what is on the outside of you and me but don’t be convinced that they are arbiters of God’s will for you.
What will your life look like if you take every opportunity that is handed to you?
Your tenures will be brief.
Your family will never have roots.
You will not have meaningful relationships outside your family. You will not grow the maturity that comes with shepherding a people across a generation of triumphs and troubles.
Pastor, is that the life you want?
Let’s take a moment to look at some trustworthy ways to know that it is time for a pastor to move on.
1. Your Family is on the Altar
Being a pastor will always take a toll on your family.
In the right situation, the benefits of being raised in a pastor’s home will outweigh the costs. In the wrong situation your family feels like they are constantly taking second place to the church.
It’s ok if you are busy. I plan my days to be busy from dawn to dusk. I also plan for time with my family every day.
It’s ok if you are overwhelmed for a season. September, Christmas, and Easter are always crazy times at my church. My wife and kids know that during those times I won’t be around as much as I would like.
It’s ok if there is an important project that demands much of your attention. Sometimes buildings need to be renovated or programs need to be started. These things can take extra time.
It isn’t ok if you are always overwhelmed and too busy to give your family the attention they need.
If you aren’t able to take vacations and days off it’s time to consider leaving.
If you don’t have time to take your kids to the doctor or your wife to lunch it’s time to consider a move.
Finances are a consideration for your family, too.
If you can’t afford the basics—food, clothes, housing, medical care— for your family, then it’s time to go or time to change some things about where you are serving.
John Piper has some great wisdom on pastors’ pay here.
There are a lot of churches that can no longer afford full-time staff, but they keep calling full-time staff members.
They remember the church forty years ago. They remember the staff of forty years ago. They long for the results of forty years ago, and they pay their staff like they did forty years ago.
It may be time for those full-time jobs to be filled by part-time employees.
I’ve been through this.
I worked at a church that had always had a full-time pastor.
I wanted to be a full-time pastor.
The budget could not support a full-time pastor.
At a certain point, I had to have a difficult and awkward conversation with the lay leadership. The result of which was I would become bi-vocational and certain responsibilities would be taken off of me.
If you can’t make ends meet, but are certain that you are serving in the place God wants you to be maybe you should start a dialogue about bi-vocational ministry.
2. You Will Never Be Their Leader
There are a thousand reasons why a pastor may not have authority in a congregation.
It may be that you haven’t been there long enough. Maybe there are forces at work undermining your authority. Maybe you just aren’t the right fit for them. It doesn’t really matter.
The most important issue is can you become their leader.
When I took my current position I told my deacons that I would be their preacher from day one, but that it might take me years to become their pastor.
They understood the difference between the two.
That simple acknowledgment went a long way toward gaining the respect and trust that a pastor has to have to effectively lead.
When you shepherd your people, when walking alongside them during their trials eventually they lean on you for strength. After you have proven yourself trustworthy in their distress they should follow you, but sometimes they won’t.
They may have been hurt by the last pastor.
They may have heard lies about you.
They may just think you are too young, too boring, too entertaining, or too likely to leave.
If you have done everything to shepherd them and they still reject your leadership it may be time to start looking for God to open a door to leave.
3. You Will Never Be Home
I once served as a youth pastor in a congregation for one year. I was preparing to go to seminary and knew that I could only serve this congregation for a limited time.
They were an incredibly loving group of small-town people, but they were never loving to me.
We had a church-wide luncheon once a month. Every single month my wife and I sat alone at a table set for six.
One time a couple came up to our table pointed to the chairs opposite us and said, “Can we?”
We excitedly said, “Yes! Of course!”
They proceeded to take the chairs to a table that already had eight people sitting around it.
We were never going to be home there.
I was never going to fit in there. They were never going to accept me as one of their own.
I still taught them well.
I led their teenagers to love the Lord and serve Him better for that year.
There was no animosity and no hurt feelings when we left. They didn’t care about us enough to have hurt feelings.
We knew from day one that this was a short term assignment and that we would never belong there.
Your short term assignment my last for a year or for eight.
You may be there to accomplish one thing that you are uniquely equipped to do, and then the Lord is going to move you elsewhere. For me, it is important to recognize that some positions are going to be short term. I’ll dig into this more below.
Is that how you want to live your life?
Do you always want to sit at the table by yourselves?
Do you want your kids to be on the outside of the social events of the community?
That isn’t the life I want.
I have longed to be in a place where I can put down roots. Where I can know and love people and be known and loved by them for a lifetime.
Last month I overheard a group of people talking about going on a cruise together. I started moving away from the conversation to avoid the awkward, “No, pastor, of course, you’re invited, too,” moment. It’s an awkwardness I try to avoid.
I had taken a few steps away when one of the people in the group called my name and invited me to join the discussion. When I tried to relieve them of the obligation of including me in their plans, people in the group made it clear that they all actually wanted my family to be included.
I knew then that I had made the right decision in coming here and that I could see myself serving here for the rest of my career.
I knew that this place was home.
4. Things Are Going Well
It may seem contrary to the history of many churches and pastors, but the best time to find a new church is when things are going well.
Consider how the transition often goes. In the midst of a rough season, a pastor begins to look for a new church.
He is unhappy and wants to find a better place to serve.
As weeks pass he gets increasingly desperate and only cares that he find a new place to serve.
Then things get worse and he wants to find any place to serve.
What is happening to the church? Their pastor is less and less committed to their care. He has less incentive to make things work. At the same time, the church is becoming less enamored with their pastor.
This often culminates with the announcement that next Sunday will be his last.
He is thinking of greener pastures as they whisper good riddance.
What if instead of this cycle we dedicated ourselves to leaving when things are going well?
The church would be in a better place to start looking for a new pastor. Every aspect from finances to attitude would be in a better situation for connecting with a new person to lead them. They wouldn’t get the reputation of running pastors off. Their search would be for a biblical pastor not just for one that was different than the last.
You would be able to interview with a new church with less anxiety. There wouldn’t be fear of anyone contacting leadership at the church you’re leaving because things are going well.
You would be genuinely missed and appreciated by the church you left.
You wouldn’t have sleepless nights wondering if you had abandoned God’s people to wander without a leader.
The next pastor would have an easy transition. Imagine moving into a church that didn’t have half a dozen messes to clean up.
There’s no one that needs to be removed from a position.
There are no financial issues.
The building is in good shape.
The church appreciates the role of pastor because they still appreciate the man who last filled that role.
5. There Is One Last Thing
I know that things may not be going well for you right now.
Google likely sent you to this post because you have problems and need a reason to look for a new church. Something isn’t going well and you are thinking of bailing.
Hold on. Can you work the situation out?
Will you being obedient to the LORD solve the problem?
Is it something that will ruin the next guy’s ministry?
If yes, then work it out before you go.
I know a fantastic music minister who is looking to retire in a couple of years. Part of what he is doing in this season of his ministry is thinking about the future of the church after he retires.
Will this church bring back the choir robes and organ after I leave? Probably not.
Will they want to hire a 19-year-old guitarist in skinny jeans? Probably not.
So, he is working for the future of the church, today. He sees the trends and he is using his influence and time to move the church the way that it will need to go in the future.
You know what your church needs.
The Lord makes it clear to us, if we ask and sometimes even if we don’t. If you know that something needs to be done, don’t run away from it.
If your youth minister is a really nice guy who is painfully lazy, fix it.
If you are exposed to being robbed blind because of bad money handling practices, fix it.
If your children’s ministry is lax about security, volunteer screening, or even just cleanliness, fix it.
If fixing a situation is going to cost the pastor, then choose to be the pastor that pays the price. Don’t leave the mess for the next guy.
Every few weeks I want to call the interim pastor who preceded me and thank him for fixing what he did.
I know that it cost him.
He paid the price of dealing with hurt feelings and animosity.
His reputation took the hit so that my path here could be easier to walk.
6. God Has Made It Clear
There have been two times that God has made the decision to leave very clear to me without any external circumstance.
In both instances, things were going well. The youth ministry and the church that I was responsible for were excelling. Every metric was overwhelmingly positive, and yet I felt a longing to leave.
I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, but I knew I was supposed to leave.
And it wasn’t just me.
My wife felt it too. The first time, she said, “It’s weird. I feel like we are supposed to leave. It’s like God is saying that there is another way for us to go.”
Within a week of that conversation, we were approached by a church to come and preach.
We decided to ignore what we both felt very clearly. We had a plan after all. She would finish her degree, then we would go to seminary, and then I would start preaching. Besides, it would have been a pay cut.
It should come as no surprise, that things slowly fell apart for us.
I was encouraged by my newly hired pastor to take a severance package and leave.
My wife lost her job.
We got pregnant and then miscarried.
We both struggled with depression.
Over the course of six months, our life became a strange alien landscape.
Maybe it was always going to be that way, but I think it would be naive to think that disobeying a clear message from God would go without consequence.
The next time that we felt God leading us away from our safe place of ministry we listened. We took a pay cut and moved eight hours away to do a harder job in a struggling church, and it was wonderful.
There won’t always be an external motivator. Sometimes our heavenly Father will simply whisper that it’s time to move on. You may be in a place where your family is adored and you are respected, well paid, and happy.
When you hear the whisper, you obey and let God take care of the consequences.
The consequences of disobedience are far worse.
What are some other ways to know when it is time for a pastor to leave?
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