On January 10, 2013

Inspi(re)ality #13: When To Leave Your Church

One of the questions I get asked often is by young ministers who are thinking of leaving their current church for greener pastures. I always refer them to Wade Hodges ebooks. Wade is the preaching minster at the Preston Road Church of Christ and for this blog series he adapted the following from his ebook When To Leave: How To Know It’s Time To Move On (Before You Stay Way Too Long) 

Meet Wade:

How I Stayed Way Too Long (Twice)

Once upon a time there was a pastor who moved to a small church when he was 25 years old and stayed there for 40 years until he retired.

No, this isn’t the beginning of a pastoral fairy tale. I can think of several pastors, like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Bob Russell, who have served only one church throughout their distinguished careers. Warren and Hybels started the churches they currently serve. Russell moved to his church as a young preacher and during his forty year tenure helped it grow from 120 members into one of the largest churches in America.

I admire those guys.

For the longest time, I aspired to be one of them.

When I signed on to work with my first church at the tender age of 23, I had Bob Russell in mind as I dreamed of helping a struggling church of 75 people become one of the largest churches in the world during my 40 year  career.

Six years later I still had Russell in mind when I accepted a call to work with a church of 750 in need of a “turnaround.” Her glory days were well in the rear-view mirror, but there were reasons to believe in a hopeful future. I moved there at the still naive age of 30 and figured I had the next 35 years to make a name for myself.

Six years later, at the seasoned age of 36, I had Warren and Hybels in mind when I embarked on an adventure to plant a church I could pastor for the next thirty years.

At age 38, I was writing books and counseling pastors on how to have a more realistic appraisal of their gifts and vision for ministry, while also trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. (Six months ago, I was graciously given an opportunity to return to a full-time preaching ministry with a great church. I hope I took my own advice about ministry transitions!)

I stayed at my first two churches longer than I should have. Maybe a couple of years too long in both cases.

As I was staying too long at both churches, I would have told you that I was trying to be faithful. Faithful to God, to the church, to my conviction that one shouldn’t run away from a difficult ministry assignment, and faithful to good ole conventional wisdom.

One of my guiding principles was a proverb I picked up from one of my favorite college professors: A lot of hard work is wasted for lack of a little more.

I couldn’t stomach the possibility of quitting only a couple of months before a major breakthrough. It would be like bailing out of a marathon at the 25 mile marker. One reason I stayed way too long was because I didn’t want to waste a lot of hard work for lack of a little more.

I was also fearful that whoever followed me would step in, take advantage of all the hard work I had done, and be wildly successful. This was a terrible, immature attitude, and it got me forever barred from the John-the-Baptist-Prepare-the-Way-for-Someone-Else-Club, but I didn’t want another minister enjoying the fruit of my labor because I quit too soon.

Faithfulness can be a great disguise for darker motives.That’s why one of the easiest ways to stay way too long is to confuse faithfulness with arrogance. After a few years in both churches, it was obvious that what each church needed from its pastor was not what I did best. Instead of admitting that I was ill-equipped to provide these churches with the kind of leadership and pastoral touch they needed, I persisted.

I stayed way too long at my second church because I refused to believe that I couldn’t get the job done. More than just believing I was the best man for the job, I was convinced I was the ONLY man for the job. If I couldn’t make it work, no one else could either. So I stayed longer than necessary because I was arrogant.

During a particularly difficult time, when the church was seized with more conflict and plagued by lower morale than usual, one of my mentors asked me if I was thinking about leaving. I told him I didn’t think I could because I wasn’t sure the church would survive if I left. He gently reminded me that unless I had learned to walk on water I was overestimating my value to the church. He was also kind enough to refrain from suggesting that the opposite might be more accurate–the church’s health might immediately improve if I were to leave.

I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but in the midst of a difficult situation, I started taking myself too seriously, thinking I was more capable and more important than I really was.
When I finally left, I was suspicious of others, lacking confidence in myself, and cynical about the way churches worked. (I’m doing much better now, I promise. Nevertheless, please don’t forward this to anyone in my current church. We’re enjoying a wonderful honeymoon and I see no need to bust it up just yet.)

Those sympathetic to my plight might be tempted to praise me for my faithfulness in tough circumstances or blame the church for mistreating a young minister. The truth is, it was my arrogance that led me to remain in an emotionally destructive and faith draining environment far longer than necessary.

To quote William H. Bonney in Young Guns 2, “Yessir, I have my scars.”

And most of my wounds have been self-inflicted.

If you can’t imagine leaving your current church because you don’t think it will survive without you, there are two possibilities to consider, and neither one of them is any good.

1. You’re right. If so, you’ve led in such a way to make the church totally dependent on your energy, gifts, and personality. If you’ve managed to make yourself more important to the church than Jesus, then you’ve got some explaining to do.

2. You’re wrong. Which means your arrogance is clouding your perception of what’s really going on around you. This makes you a danger to yourself and to others. You need to get some distance from the situation to refresh your perspective. You also need to be reminded that you are not that important. Both would be accomplished by stepping away for a sabbatical or moving on and then watching the church do just fine, if not better, without you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you discern if it is time to leave. I unpack each of these in greater detail in When To Leave.

Have you lost the support of the Cronkite in your congregation?
Has the church lost your trust? (Notice I didn’t ask if you had lost the church’s trust)
Can you hire someone without lying?
Does the work still require your best?
Are you bored?
Are you tired of having to be consistently excellent?
Does your family hate the church?
Have you slipped through the communal membrane?
Are you saying “they” instead of “we”?
Are you tempted to schedule a guest speaker on Easter?

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