When is it time to leave?
by Dan Reiland
It's difficult to know when its time to leave, especially if you love your church. No pastor assumes leadership in a new church with the idea that it's a short term gig on the way to something better. Yet, any leader who believes they will never change churches is naïve. We don't accept a new church with conditions and “out-clauses”, but the reality is that most pastors make between three and ten transitions to another church over the course of their career. When to make a transition is a tough decision.
Jason has served as senior pastor for five years. He was warmly welcomed and the church grew for the first two years. The church has plateaued for the last three. Should Jason stay and give it all he's got -- praying for a breakthrough? Or is it time to leave? Should he stay until the church begins to decline? Does that position the church well for the next pastor?
Jennifer is on staff as director of small groups. The church averages about 400 in attendance and is pretty healthy in general. Jennifer is sharp, well liked, and a good leader. However, she is a frustrated with the senior pastor because of his lack of support for small groups. Jennifer understands that he is under pressure to focus on other things, but he made a strong commitment to small groups clear when she joined the staff team four years ago. Jennifer is a team player, but this has gone on for a long time and the pastor doesn't seem to have time to meet and talk about the situation. Two other churches are courting her to be their small groups pastor, but her heart remains with her current church. And her family is all nearby. Should she stay or is it time to go?
I know you want more information to render an opinion for either of the above stories. But you can connect with the circumstance enough to be reminded that it's not easy to make the decision to leave.
The irony of the local church is that if you stay too long you may get invited to leave. So you ask yourself. . . “Am I being irresponsible about my commitment and abandoning the flock if I leave now? Or am I doing the right thing by opening the door for God to bring the next right person here, and spiritually positioning myself to hear from God for my next assignment?”
The following are a few questions and principles that may help you wrestle through the tough decision of when its time to leave.
Three important questions you need to answer:
- Why are you leaving?
This question is simple on the surface but runs deep when you examine your heart and motives. Is it about vision, chemistry, opportunity, competence, frustration, ego, personal / family, insecurity, or just the right thing to do? Knowing why you're leaving gives you confidence and puts others at ease. It you are unclear others begin to question “what's really going on?” That's one of the most common ways churches can get into hot water during staff transitions.
- Are you discerning the circumstances correctly?
It is common for a staff member who is “looking” for another position to begin to view their current church with less than positive eyes. This can erode to becoming critical of the current church, and interpreting the next church through rose colored glasses.
We all know the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, even though it sometimes looks that way. Nonetheless, we are still tempted. Whatever the issue is, from leadership to culture and morale, take the time to really understand both sides of view. Get wise counsel and seek insight from a small number of people you trust, who are objective and mature. This small group of people should not be limited to your close friends, fans and colleagues. Get honest answers!
- How can you make the greatest impact for God's kingdom?
I love to play guitar and I have always wanted to play in a cool band or worship team. But if I did, I would have a negative impact and, well, it's just not going to happen. I must be honest about my skill level and just play for fun. It's not so different in the local church. I meet too many pastors who have not accurately assessed their skills and abilities. I'm not referring to how good a leader they are in general, but their ability to find their sweet spot and play to it. For example, there are many senior pastors who are good and godly people, but average senior pastors. These same people would be incredible staff members. Ask yourself if you are in the spot where you can make the greatest impact for God.
Three helpful points of guidance:
- Listen for the voice of God's spirit.
Romans 8:14 states that “because those who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God.” What a gift and blessing to have the assurance that you are not required to make these decisions blindly. Instead, you can ask God to guide you and He will. The answer doesn't always seem clear, but more often than not it's because we all cloud the issue, not God. Our personal experiences, desires, hurts, insecurities, successes etc., make it difficult to set everything aside and hear the voice of God's Spirit with clarity. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is ready to speak if we can properly prepare our hearts to listen.
Personally, I have found that the way I cloud the answer is by not being prepared to say yes to whatever God asks. I like to hear what He has in mind first! But He wants my obedience before He tells me what it is. When I say yes, “no matter what”, the cloudiness is removed and the decision is clear.
Don't confuse a clear decision with being free of challenges or difficulties. That's not part of God's promise. God tells us the right thing to do, He doesn't guarantee it will be an easy road to travel.
- Pay attention to your inner sense of being released from the work.
Being “released” (I don't mean fired) is common language but sometimes difficult to know for sure. When God starts to release you from a ministry, He begins to disengage your heart, lift the burden, and your sense of ownership begins to fade. It's not that you no longer care about the people, but no matter how you slice it, you don't feel the same as you once did. The reason this is difficult is because we all have some of those thoughts from time to time on a temporary basis. When God releases you, it is a permanent thing, and you know you are done.
- Timing is everything.
Do you wait to land another job first? Do you step out in faith not knowing where you are going? Is it the right time for you and the church to make a change? These are important questions. Perhaps the church is in the middle of a building campaign and if you, as the senior pastor, left now it would really hurt the church. You might be a staff member sensing God's prompt for a change, but a couple other staff changes just happened so you need to hold for awhile to help the church stabilize. It might be that you want to go but God wants you to stay! Or maybe you have served well and its just time for you to go. The possibilities are endless. The point is for you to be sensitive to timing.
If you are diligent to listen to the Holy Spirit, then trust your heart. And remember, wherever you serve, it's not ultimately about you. It's about God and His redemptive plan to save the world. It is simply a privilege that you and I get to be part!