Do I stay, or do I go?
It’s one of the toughest questions a pastor has to face.
Pastoring isn’t easy. There will always be difficulties to address and bad history to overcome. But most pastors are in it for the long haul.
Next month I celebrate 21 years in my current church. But before I came here, I left two short-term pastorates. One with great sorrow, wondering why the Lord hadn’t called us to stay longer. The other in great pain, wondering why God called us there to begin with.
The reasons for both have become evident as the years have passed. Including the opportunity to help others by sharing them now.
Staying Is the Default
So how do we know which issues are worth fighting through and which ones are signs that it’s time to leave? I don’t know if there are any hard and fast rules for that. But I know what I’ve experienced and I’ll offer you that.
In order to protect the innocent (and the guilty) I won’t identify the churches. And I’ll leave some details out in order to cause as little additional pain as possible.
I’m offering a list of reasons to leave a pastorate, rather than a list of reasons to stay, because staying should always be our default choice. For me, these 7 would be deal-breakers.
7 Reasons It Might Be Time to Leave
1. You’ll never be more than a hired hand
The shepherd has a relationship to the sheep. The hired hand doesn’t. Jesus is our example in that.
When a pastor comes to an existing church, it can take a several years to become a true part of the family dynamic of the congregation. But you should know within a year or two if it’s moving in that direction or not.
Some pastors remain hired hands by their own choices and emotional bearing. But most want to be true under-shepherds, becoming an integral part of the church family.
Some congregations won’t ever let the pastor in emotionally. Many churches do this out of deep hurt. It’s a defense mechanism they’ve adapted after being burned by too many pastoral departures.
The problem is, if they won’t let the pastor in, they won’t be welcoming to guests either. So they’ll never obey the Great Commission and will never be a healthy church.
This can be especially true of smaller, more rural churches and towns (sorry for the stereotype). In many of them, if you don’t have a generational connection, you’ll always be an outsider. They may treat you wonderfully, but you’ll always be more like a guest in their home than a member of the family.
I don’t believe the true role of pastor can be fulfilled as a hired hand. If it becomes obvious that’s all you’ll ever be, it’s probably time to leave.
2. You can no longer trust the leadership
I won’t work with people I can’t trust.
In one church, I started as most pastors do, with very little salary. The church had been through tough times. Tithes had dried up. But I was told, in writing, that if I hit certain fiscal goals for the church, they would pay me a wage on which I could support my family.
When the time came, the church hadn’t just hit the goals, we had exceeded them. But the church leaders broke their promise to me. One of them told me, “I don’t care what you have in writing. You’re not getting an extra penny.” Yes, in those exact words.
It’s not about the money. It’s about trust. And no, suing them didn’t even enter my mind. God save us from displaying that tragic spectacle to the world. I’d rather be cheated.
If I can’t trust the leaders, I won’t work with them. At some point their lack of truthfulness would undermine my integrity, too. That is something I will never allow. And neither should you.
3. Your family would pay too steep a price
The details of this one are still too painful to relate, but I’ll say this. Disagree with me all you want. Tell me to my face and let’s deal with the issue. But when you do something to hurt my kids because you disagree with me…
My ministry is, and always will be to my family first. Touch my wife or my kids and we’re done.
4. You don’t like the people
The “should we leave?” meeting is one of the hardest conversations a pastor and spouse will ever have. Shelley and I have had two of them (three, if you count the assistant pastor position I left to become a lead pastor).
At one of them, after agreeing that the turnaround would be long, painful and costly to us and our family, I blurted out. “Well, that’s it, then. I don’t like these people enough to do that for them.” I didn’t know I felt it until I heard myself say it.
I didn’t say that to the church, of course. That would have been hurtful and unloving. I haven’t told anyone that until now – at least not in writing.
Yes, we’re supposed to love one another as believers. But that doesn’t mean we’ll like everyone. And no, a pastor doesn’t have to like everyone in the church. But pastoring a church is hard enough when you do like everyone. It’s unbearable – and maybe impossible – if you can’t bring yourself to like the people you’re sacrificing so much for.
5. Your leadership has lost its moral authority
One of the saddest episodes of pastoral leadership I’ve ever seen, happened when a pastor gave away his moral authority.
The pastor had come to a church that had been dying for several years. He was asked to lead a turnaround. One staff member remained from the church’s glory days, so the new pastor graciously agreed to keep the staff member on.
From Day One, the old staff member undermined virtually everything the new pastor attempted to do. The pastor was patient, but eventually did the only thing he could do – he fired the old staff member. Most of the church backed the decision. But a segment of the congregation raised such a stink about the termination that the pastor gave in to their demands and re-hired him.
Months later the pastor told me the story and the predicament it had left him in. Then he asked my advice about what he should do next.
“Resign,” I told him. “You’re done there. The moment you re-hired that staff member you gave him and the rest of the complainers complete control. You will never be accepted as their pastor.”
I know that sounds harsh. But he needed to hear it. He ignored my advice (not the first time, won’t be the last) and tried to stick it out, but things got worse. At one point, the “new” worship service, led by the pastor, was actually relegated to a back room while the traditional service, led by you-know-who, stayed in the main chapel.
Pastoring isn’t about exerting your dominance. But leadership matters. Once people have lost respect in your ability to lead, it’s time to go.
6. Your gifts don’t match the church’s needs
As I mentioned in The Grasshopper Myth, there are megachurch pastors who couldn’t pastor my church as well as I can. And I couldn’t pastor theirs.
Our leadership gifts have to match the leadership needs of a congregation. If they match, the church and pastor can weather almost any storm together. If they don’t match, even a dynamic, gifted pastor in a healthy, loving church can’t make it work.
Examples of this? Too many to get started on.
7. Your ministry was scaffolding
Some pastorates are not meant to be long-term. Like scaffolding on the outside of a building under construction, they provide support during critical times of construction or restoration, then they move on to another task.
One of our pastorates was that. We took the church as far as we were capable of, then left it for others to build upon.
I have a friend who was scaffolding at a Small Church in a racially transitional community. The city, which had historically been mostly white and middle class (like him), had become mostly Filipino and working class. But the church stayed mostly white and was dying.
My friend pastored there long enough to help the congregation open its doors to the neighborhood. He mentored Filipino leaders. In a few years, the church became heavily Filipino. So he left it in the hands of the Filipino leadership. Today, it’s a thriving church that reflects the racial mix of the community.
Give the Long Haul Your Best Try
Sometimes what works for a while, like the above scaffolding, changes over time. But in most situations, the church and the pastor grow together, pulling each other forward as God guides each one.
That’s what has happened in my current church. When I think back to how naïve and inexperienced I was 21 years ago, it makes me wonder why they hired me. But if I thought too long about the mess they were in at the time, it might make me wonder why I took the job.
We suited each other then. We’re both different now. But, like a good marriage, we became different together. They’re better because of what God has done for them through me. I am certainly better because of what God has done for me through them.
The path hasn’t been easy. But it’s been worth it.
If your situation is hard, that’s not enough reason to leave where you are. Ministry is supposed to be hard. But if you’re wondering whether-or-not it’s your time to move on, don’t use this post as a final word on anything. Pray about it. Seek wise counsel.
Ultimately, it’s God who puts pastors in churches. And it’s God who removes us. At their best, my suggestions might bring some of us one step closer to knowing what God’s will might be.
Stay if you can. But if you need to leave, do so with grace, love and integrity.
So what do you think? Do you know any other deal-breakers that tell a pastor it’s time to leave a church?
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