Pastor, When Should You Leave Your Church?

Every pastor has wrestled with the question of when to leave his/her church.  Discouragement, a recent conflict, a feeling of failure, or a growing desire to move on are some of the causes of such a question.  I recently had a young pastor call me, asking whether he should leave his church.  His first several years had gone well, then someone made an accusation against his wife.  At first the elders stood with them, but as the attacks continued, several elders slowly shifted their position.  No matter what he and his wife did to appease her accusers, the attacks continued.

He had quietly begun looking around and candidated at a church in another state, which extended an offer to become their pastor.  His wife wanted him to accept it as she was weary and wounded by the conflict.  But he had no peace in his heart about leaving.  His question to me was, “When should a pastor leave a church?”  What would you tell him?

Two things to understand

I told him there are two things pastors need to understand.  First, the call to pastor is a call to suffer, or as Ajith Fernando wrote, “To Serve is to Suffer.”[1]  If you are not prepared to suffer, you’re not prepared to pastor.  God’s greatest lessons always come through suffering and hardship.  To run from before God says you can go is to miss a lesson he has for you to develop your character and to equip you for even greater challenges in the future.  The sweet taste of victory comes by staying in the battle, not running from it.

Second, the work of a pastor is to develop Christ-like character in your people.  This happens in them as they see it happening in you, and Christ-like character grows in you as you overcome the struggles you encounter in your calling.  Leading a congregation is as much a growing experience for us as pastors, as it is for the people we are called to serve.  No one begins the care of souls fully trained and equipped for all we will face in the years ahead regardless of what our degrees or ordination certificates might declare.

Causes for leaving

I’ve left four churches.  In each situation, different circumstances led to my resignation.  In my first church, I resigned ahead of a vote of confidence, which I doubted I would win.  The church had become polarized, some for me and some opposed to me.  At a special church meeting, those opposed were extremely vocal with legitimate criticisms but also unfounded accusations and slander, while those who supported me boycotted the meeting, leaving us defenseless.  I spent the next three days praying, weeping, and making three lists: those against us, those for us, and those in the middle of whom I was unsure.  This last list was the largest, and I realized that even if I won the vote I’d have a significantly-split congregation, which I wasn’t capable of leading.  I resigned.

The only issue in my second church was my inability to adequately care for my family on the compensation they gave me.  No one expressed any dissatisfaction with me.  During our time there, we saw many good things happen: a church split healed, a teen ministry begun, a Monday evening Bible study begun for new people, and an increase in both giving and attendance.  I repeatedly expressed my concern over the inadequate pay package, but church business meetings came and went with no increase in my salary.  My wife became frustrated and angry because she couldn’t make the money stretch, no matter what she did.  We wanted to leave but knew God had put us there and he would let us know when to go.

His permission came following a special “no holds barred” deacons meeting, when one couple showed them I was so poorly paid, I qualified for food stamps.  They finally relented and gave me a pay increase.  I was thankful but deeply discouraged over the attitude of the deacons.  The next day the Lord told me I had been faithful to his call to stay there, and I was now free to go whenever I chose.  Two weeks later, I received a call from my mentor, the senior pastor of a large church, asking me to join his staff.  My starting salary was exactly double the one I was leaving.

A painful but necessary departure

I served several joyful years as his associate, along with two other staff members.  But in my fourth year, I sensed my mentor was increasingly uneasy with my evangelistic training work.  After one particularly difficult evening, in which I had invited him to address my lay witness teams, I went home and told my wife it was time for me to leave.  Reading between the lines that evening, I heard him say he did not agree with the program.  I could have ignored his subtle messages and leaned more heavily on the strong support I had developed within the congregation, but that would only have led to a division within the church and the loss of my relationship with a man whom I highly respected and to whom I owed so much.  It was his church built on his philosophy of ministry and I had no right to change that.  I quietly put my resumé out.  Several months later I became pastor of the First Congregational Church, Hopkinton.

Two signs

Through the experiences, lessons, and hardships of my first three churches, God had prepared me to step into a congregation which had been extremely liberal for decades.  Without my pastoral history, I would never have succeeded there.  I led this congregation for 30 exciting years and would joyfully have stayed for many more.  But two things happened almost simultaneously, letting me know it was time to leave.  First, I had accomplished everything I believed had to be done to bring this church fully back into the kingdom of God.  My last goal was to restore the congregation to its original covenant of 1724.  This was fulfilled the Sunday we invited people to “own” the covenant, and 300 came forward to sign the document.  When I left the building that Sunday, I felt something far beyond my comprehension had taken place.  Within a few weeks, a feeling of panic begin to rise in me.  For the first time in 30 years I didn’t know where to lead the congregation next.  I no longer had a vision.

Then the second thing happened. God spoke. “You have done what I asked you to do here, I have a new work for you.”  Now I understood why I no longer had a vision for the church – I had fulfilled everything that had to be done to bring the church back to him.  If I hung on I would be going against the Lord’s will and would begin to undo what had taken 30 years to build.  I had seen this happen to my mentor and didn’t want it happen to me.  This was Christ’s church, not mine.

There is no magic formula or standard set of criteria for knowing when to leave your church.  But if God has called you to where you are and you leave before he gives you the freedom to do so, you will miss out on the great works God wants to do both in you and your people.  1 Peter 1:6 says: “… Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Our Lord’s commendation comes after we have proven our faith and obedience to his call to shepherd his people.

 

[1] To Serve Is To Suffer, Christianity Today, August 2010, pg 31

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