On Leaving and such…

Well, it’s time for my annual post on ET. As patterns hold, my posts are decreasing in frequency (longer than 12 months between posts) and in quality. Today I’d like to ask a simple but perplexing question. How do you know when it’s time to leave a church as a teaching pastor? Before anyone from our church reads this and sends frantic emails – I’m not planning on leaving, I’m just asking a question.

I ask simply because I’m on the downhill side of 5 years in the pulpit. It’s much different here than I anticipated. And I’ve had “feelings” of doubt about effectiveness and impact. At those moments I’ve asked, “Is is time to leave?” At those moments I remember the many friends, some of significant ministry status and expositors of the finest order, who have said to me upon leaving a church, “It was time for me to go” or “God was done with me there” or “God told me to go.” Yet as I sit here, having returned from T4G and heard this comment from other pastor-teachers, I am still at a loss for how precisely to know this. In each of the cases where I’ve had the courage to ask these dear brothers how they know God is saying go, the answer I get is less than helpful. To put it more bluntly, I do not think they would apply the same birth to someone leaving their church with the same “feelings” rational.

Qualifier: There was not issue of sin or failure to put food on the table or some massive dividing issue. From a reasonable perspective, everything looked pretty good at the church and leaving seemed not needed.

My post was accelerated by this video which I ran across today. View at your own discretion. Francis Chan

So I ask you brother-pastor (HT to Mark Dever for that phrase), how do you know, if at all, when God is moving you on? And how to we interact with those who offer these perspectives (esp. if we think the decision is not a wise or biblically founded one)?

13 responses to this post.

  1. I think this is a very hard question to answer, yet it is made really simple by the Lord. I think for the most part men move because they want to rather than God is leading them. I have wrestled with that question in the fact that I have resigned two churches. Once, due to pride, frustration, some anger – in retrospect I wish I had never resigned. Yet, God worked through it and me. The second time because I felt unqualified with a problem with a child. Thank God that is way behind us.

    I have wresteled with getting back into full time pastoring for a couple of years. Now I am really ready and anxious. I have been teaching adult sunday school for almost three years. I knew at some point I woujld have to resign the class and free me up to actively look for a place to serve. Yesterday, I finally resigned effective 5-31. It was hard, I love those people and the opportunity to teach is a privilege beyond words.

    I think gut checks, time with the Lord and real evaluation of a number of things can help a man determine when it is time to leave. For example, are the people really responding to the teaching and is it impacting their lives by measurable growth? Are they really maturing? Are they living the biblical principles being taught from the pulpit? Are both the pastor (s), teaching pastor and body on the same page and living out the vision of the church? Has the vision been cast? Has it been fulfilled? Does it need to be re-adjusted? Has the vision of the pastor and people changed? Are we just doing church or is God being exalted, people being edified, and the lost being saved? Is the word and pulpit fresh? Is it a burden to study the word and develop a message from God of hope and healing and live changing principles?

    I think a man should plan on staying for life. I think as he develops other men around him they can help him keep from stagnating, desiring change, falling into a rut, becoming mundane, etc. I don’t think problems, budget, buildings, people, or tensions should cause a man to begin to think the grass is greener elsewhere. I think short sabaticals, refreshing and enriching conferences, opportunies of furhtering education should all be built into the “agreement” of a man and a church. This way he can stay for life.

    But there are times when a man can overstay his time. Some men can only take a congregation so far. An evangelist should plant, stabilize and call a teacher. When an evagelist stays to long he has young, immature, people. When a teacher comes how far can he take the people in their next growth level. When people stagnant what have the elders done to evaluate the situation? Where have they been? Why are people stagant? What needs to be done?

    So, having thought these things when should a man leave?

    1. When he has a clear vision from God to do so.
    2. When his effectiveness has been compromised and can not be regained.
    3. When he and his people no longer share the same vision and mission
    4. When it is evident the people will no longer follow or grow under his ministry
    5. When it is clear from God that a change is necessary for the well being of His flock
    6. When godly counsel from wise and godly men in unity believe it is time
    7. When you can no longer joyfully watch, feed, guard, guide, lead, teach, tend, shepherd, protect, and oversee these people in a manner that will magnify the glory of the Chief Shepherd.

    • Greg,
      Let me say upfront that this was a really good post, overall. Your thoughts were helpful and thought provoking for me. Thanks for such a well thought out effort.

      This comment captures well the underlying current in my post. “I think for the most part men move because they want to rather than God is leading them.” It’s also poignant that you’re in the middle of what we’re talking about here. I prayed for your return to full-time ministry.

      Where I am still a little fuzzy is the last half of your post. In this paragraph you make a lot of helpful suggestions for evaluation but I think the problem is, should a guy leave if some of those things “appear” to be not happening? Maybe put more clearly, how can he really know that? (i.e. “are the people really responding to the teaching and is it impacting their lives by measurable growth? Are they really maturing? Are they living the biblical principles being taught from the pulpit?”). I think every pastor can honestly say that there a LONG seasons where that does not appear to be happening. Maybe it’s mostly because we’re not in touch with our people on a day to day basis. I know it’s a constant struggle for me (our church is about 270 adults on a Sunday).

      I think your advice for a pastor to have close and quick accountability to his fellow elders is spot on. At moments of deep discouragement my fellow elders have been a huge blessing. They’ve also been willing to speak hard words to me when I needed them. They’ve helped me redirect the ship of my life and preaching. I’ve tendered my resignation in principle a number of times and they’ve handed it back before the meeting ended.

      The end of your post was the most challenging for me simply because it seems very subjective. I do not doubt that men feel this way and/or make decisions by these ideas, but I struggle to evaluate them in a way that is free from my own sin and preferences.

      You state, “But there are times when a man can overstay his time. Some men can only take a congregation so far.” To that I would reply (without trying to be a contrarian), who says? Are “they” taking the congregation forward or is God? In your thoughts below that there seems to be a sense where the pastor stops growing himself. I would suggest that as long as the pastor is growing, then the congregation can grow. I’m afraid too many pastors, in my opinion, fail to grow or fail to be humble so they inappropriately use your list below as some sort of good, theologically sounding justification for their own patterns of arrogance and ungodliness. I don’t mean to be judgmental in that. I just know a number of guys who would castigate their people for leaving their church if they used that subjective criteria but will use it themselves for their own exodus. That is just deplorable to me.

      I guess what I am shooting at is that I don’t hear many pastors who consider leaving, for all the reasons stated, say that God is using it to change THEM. I know God has broken me in times where I feel I “can no longer joyfully watch, feed, guard, guide, lead, teach, tend, shepherd, protect, and oversee these people in a manner that will magnify the glory of the Chief Shepherd” because God was growing me through it. It’s not that I wanted to fail to glorify Christ but that I was drawing my sufficiency from the response of the people, not from Jesus alone.

      Maybe as a follow-up, did you think you used these criteria when you left your first church? Would you disagree with your assessment at that time? If so, what has changed?

      Thanks again for your interaction. I noticed that we’ve had a number of reads on this page but not many replies. I think there are guys reading this and wanting to hear how others work through this but not willing to enter the fray. I hope we can keep the conversation going.

      By Grace!


    • I would also add, ‘If you have been a part of either raising up someone to take your place” or you have helped them to find your ‘replacement’. (In an elder led system this is essential).

  2. I think the above post is a good one. I suppose I would also ask:

    the question how does my wife feel about this? (Is it just me?)

    If I took a break for a month, would I feel differently? (am I just drained?)

    Have I seen change in the last 5 years (am I just lacking patience\perspective?)

    I think we all feel disappointed at lack of perceived effectiveness and impact, and the desire for fruitfulness is a very healthy one, but really our part of the work is to preach the word and just pray that the Lord use it in the way and timing of his choosing. Maybe discouragement is part of the suffering we must learn to endure well as we fulfil our ministries?

    I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

    For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

    As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

    2 Tim 4

    • Ross,

      I’m coming to conclude that this a big part of it, “Maybe discouragement is part of the suffering we must learn to endure well as we fulfill our ministries.” Paul was pretty discouraged quite often, but not defeated. Something that I ask myself a lot is, “Where in my own life am I being slow to change and how is God dealing with me?” That always helps me put my expectations of others in perspective and helps me model God’s grace to me, to others.

  3. Thank you for your assestment that I left a “really good post overall.” I realize now as I go back and read it again it sounds inconsistent, but your interaction will help me think throught his more clearly.

    I still believe that for the most part men move from ministry to ministry because they want to rather than God wants them to. This comes from both personal experience and talking to men who were both mentors or friends in the ministry as the made frank admissions after they moved.

    You are right to question my thought process and I am glad that you did concerning the last half of the post. I agree, we as men do not move our people forward, God does through His Holy Spirit and Word. As I think a little harder, may I add this: if those things do not appear to be present or happening then I believe a hard evaluation by the elders are in order to seek the mind of God.

    It is possible, and I should have thought of this – that it is difficult to determine when God is really at work and not at work in the lives of our people. Yes, primarily becasue we are not involved with them 24/7, also, their could be sin within ourselves or the congregation that has not been detected yet; God could “withdraw” His movement to further break and humble both pastors and people; God could use these seasons to further demonstrate the absolute need to trust Him in all things.

    I desire to return to shepherding God’s people and am seriously considering planting a church. What concerns me is not that the church won’t grow but that it does. As it develops numerically, it is harder to watch for their souls and to effective shepherd God’s people. Of course that is why God developed and designed the elders plural to help shoulder the burden. 270 souls is a lot to effective watch over and wrestle with God for their well being and growth.

    Thank you for comment about elders and our need to be constantly accountable to them. What a blessing to have like minded men who are soul-mates, partners in ministry, men who come to love me as much as they love their own families. These are men, God’s men who can help redirect the ship.

    I am sorry the last part of the post was the most challenging. I certainly want to stay away from subjectivity. I think you would agree it is dangerous. I don’t want to seem to be double minded or inconsistent, but looking at them again, I wonder if they are all the wrong reasons to consider leaving. We can’t always see these things nor can we measure them this side of heaven.

    Will you allow me to rethink some of them?

    The statement that some men can overstay thier time comes from a few experiences where from a human stand point, growth and development could be charted. I will say that it is God who takes congregatgions foward, but sense each man is gifted differently, God uses those gifts for different reasons to further his purpose.

    Unfortunately pastors do stop growing. My heart breaks with the condition of a few flocks that I am around. There are many men in leadership who are probably their by their own doing rather than God’s. It is amazing that God will permit this, that He will permit a Diotrophes and such.

    As you know it is very easy to become lazy and sloughful in the ministry. If we don’t continue to feed ourselves and continue to grow we can’t lead our people in further growth. I will not dispute and will give a hearty amen to your assessment that many men will use things on the list to justify their own sin, wickedness, laziness, ineptness, and failings.

    I do not take it as judgemental, I take this as an opportunity for me to grow further and add to my life truths from mentors, like yourself to guard me against ever blaming my people for poor decisions on my part. You are right, it is deplorable. Here I thought I had some good thoughts and now I am thinking I would like to retract them and go for a do over.

    Wow, you are right on! God can grow me and break me only when I draw my sufficiency from Him and Him alone. The flock does not make me nor define me, He does.

    To answer your question concerning follow up:

    I was asked to go assist a church in a small rural area that had been virtually torn apart by the founding pastor, who was an ultra-fundamentalist, who rode herd with spurs and whips forcing his flock to comply with lists, rules, and regulations.

    After his departure and my arrival, God began to do a work in that body. [It wasn’t until long after I left I discovered that was only because He is such a good God, He was really doing a work in me]

    Prior to his departure he made his dad deacon. As a result almost every Monday or Tuesday I would get a call from the former founder about watch I taught Sunday, decisions or practices that were being adopted. Of course they were being relayed to him by his father.

    A point came where I began to think I could do better than a problem riddled, rural ministry, where the founding pastor was still trying to run the church through his father. By the way, the founding pastor “took” a church near our church. As my frustration with him grew my pride began to tell me their were other places that would be easier and more responsive. I listened to that little pool of poison until it grew deep in my heart.

    Then one particular Monday, after a phone call from the founder harping on something taught the prior day and threatening to come down to the church and talk to me, I told him it sounds as if you want this church back, you can have it, and I resigned.

    How tragic! Even though I didn’t have peace, God had replaced sgtrife in the church with peace. People were coming back to the church and responding to the expositonal teaching they had never heard. A couple who visited responded well, and I was able to baptize them, marry, them and disciple them, which after a year or so they went to bible college and when he graduated he planted a church.

    So, I didn’t have that “list” at that time. I was younger in my early 30’s and due to the type of training I had up to that point, the lack of elders and mentors, and spiritual immaturity on my part, I was broad-sided by the enemy and my flesh and I departed.

    If I had it to do overagain, famous last words, I would not have left. I would like to have found a way to reduce or remove the interference of the founder, or used it to further my growth. Those people were God’s people, not the founders nor mine. I let them down and I failed them. I failed God and I failed myself. Fortunately in God’s wise, loving, sovereign purpose He uses failure for His purpose and glory. I will give an account of that period – I am ashamed of my response.

    Here is my reall struggle and maybe you can help me with this. Sometimes the things I think are what I was taught and what I hear repeatedly.

    I think a man is given a definite call and desire from God at some point to shepherd His people. I think the congregation and existing elders should recognize that call and desire. They should then evaluate the call, evaluate his qualifications [I Tim & Titus & I Peter 5]; give him opportunites to serve and be tested, be further discipled and developed. If he is truly and elder he is then recognized as such and added to the council of elders. The elder from the council who has the gift of teaching serves as the main vision caster and teaching elder. So, if this is the case how does a man leave the flock to begin with?

    I struggle now, not in the past, but now with the concept that a man can even leave a flock. If he has been a part of the flock long enough to grow, develop, demonstrate character, be proven and then serve, how could he even consider leaving?

    Since men do, and you asked the question, I sat and thought through somethings and offered an opinion. No wonder there was some seemingly inconsistencies becasue I can’t conceive of a man leaving and so I chose to think of some things that would be acceptable to me for his leaving. What I forgot was to ask God if these things were acceptable to Him.

    I have wrestled with these things in regards to a “simple” Adult Sunday School Class. I love my class, I worked hard to study weekly to give them an expositional study of the gospel of I Peter and then the gospel of John over the last three years. It is hard to leave them.

    But what is harder is delaying the burning and compelling desire to shepherd God’s people, the compelling desire to cast a vision and teach His word by His power for His glory. I am thinking I want to plant a work to God’s glory.

    Now I feel after reading your wonderful comments and my original thoughts that I should shut my mouth, put my hand over my mouth and learn some more.

    In His Grip for His Glory,


  4. Posted by Richard on April 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    I asked these questions in my last pastorate and now in my new one. Neither Church was as it said it was and both answered all my questions seemingly with the right answers, only to find out things were not as anticipated.

    Who called me to the Church? God or men, or God through men, or men alone?
    If God calls me to a Church how does He uncall me to a Church?
    What is Paul’s command to Timothy when there seems to be a divergence between him and the Church?

    As I read, read, read and reread the Pastoral epistles, I had no comfort in leaving. My task was to endure as a faithful soldier, to preach the word in season and out of season, and the only way that I would leave is if the Church which called me uncalled me, otherwise, how would I know it was God’s will. That is what happened, thus I am in my 2nd pastorate, and here I will remain until either I die, or the Church uncalls me.

    Missionaries move around, but Pastor’s are called to shepherd a specific flock, and unless the Lord makes it obvious to me through uncalling me, I will not be tempted by the weekly Monday morning thought of “it’s time to pack it in.”

    May seem naive or simple, but I don’t find any other direction in Scripture for the pastor.


  5. Posted by Scott on April 20, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I read the comments to this post hoping someone might say something from the perspective of a church goer. I pray that I can ask a question here though.

    As you said, would a pastor accept someone saying they were leaving because they felt God was saying they should?

    Briefly I will say I’m a deacon and for a few years taught children and was thrust into the roll of youth leader when the former youth minister became an ultra- fundamentalist and sentenced everyone in the church to hell.

    I refused to be paid for either of these positions and never officially held the title for either. I just did what was necessary. Two deacons that support the former youth minister have helped him put strife in the church using me as the catalyst. They have helped spread rumors to try and damage my character, going so far as to even attack my children in these rumors. I have also had physical harm threatened with the pastor as witness. That was what lead to my resigning as youth leader.

    I have felt called to preach but God has not made it clear whether He wants me to plant or go to an existing church. So I wait. Believing that I shouldn’t leave the church until God has made it clear that is what I am to do. Yet, I sit every Sunday in a church where I am persecuted if I serve it.

    So, I humbly seek Godly counsel here. Am I giving in to satan if I leave this church and go to another? Is my not feeling comfortable at a church because of two families a sin on my part? How do I know if God is telling me to leave or if satan is trying to make me leave?

  6. Thanks Rich for the thought-provoking question and everyone’s comments. I do not have much time to dwell here so I will offer a few random questions and thoughts on the matter:

    1. Could it be that the question is difficult because the “tone” of Scripture assumes elders rarely abandon their posts?
    2. Think of the word pictures that are used in regards to leadership (e.g., farmer, soldier, bond-slave, fellow-sufferer, shepherd). All of them conjure images of longevity and fortitude.
    3. I can think of a few reasons to leave: a congregation and it’s leadership unwilling to listen to sound doctrine, compromise of leadership qualifications, elders unwilling to follow scripture or support the ministry thus fomenting disunity and schism. In time I could think of some other reasons (e.g., rare times of financial hardship).
    4. I think many men are confused on when to leave because they are equally confused as to how they got there. The theology of the “call” is one of the areas where biblical ignorance flourishes.
    5. It seems unwise to consider leaving in the midst of difficulty. Those are times when Scripture clearly exhorts us to buckle-down.
    6. I think one man’s “leading” is another man’s excuse. Be careful of following the example of popular pastors (e.g., Chan). You have no idea why such a one “really” made the decision.
    7. What are the practical ramifications of our actions to the flock? In other words, how are we counseling them through our example?
    8. With all deference to my charismatic brothers or warm-fuzzy brothers, the Lord has not spoken to you apart from the words printed in your Bibles. Read Scripture carefully and be careful of assigning something to the Lord (e.g., “God told me” or “The Lord spoke to me”) that He has NEVER said. I love you and I want you to make wise decisions but don’t hide behind a subjective impression and assign it to the category of God’s speech.
    9. Read some good books on biblical decision making and have a brother help you apply what you learn to your situation.
    10. Check your thinking with those that share leadership with you in the church. Don’t candidate in secret behind the backs of your leadership.
    11. If you made a commitment when you arrived and #3 is not an issue then keep your commitment and nail your feet to the floor.
    12. Take a break. Take your family on vacation and refresh your sails. Don’t make decisions during that time but simply refresh your soul and renew your past commitments.
    12. Read solid, seasoned, godly pastors who have walked in our shoes before us. Be encouraged by their trials, sufferings, joys, and triumphs (Baxter, Spurgeon, Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, MacArthur). If you don’t know who these men are then you need to mail your degree back to your seminary and open an account with Amazon because you have some reading to do.

    If you’re still reading this, please know that as a “brother-pastor” with you, I know the hardships and joys of the pastor’s life. Our lives are just a vapor and then they’re gone. The best advice I can give you is to give your heart to shepherding God’s flock. Quietly, patiently, lovingly, and faithfully tend the sheep because if you don’t who will? Forget about being successful, forget about being the next mega-pastor, forget about being cutting edge, and forget about trying to do everything like it’s never been done in 2,000 years. Stand on the shoulders of thousands before you and feed the sheep.

    Blessings to your ministries!

  7. Posted by Scott Christensen on April 21, 2010 at 11:17 am

    I recently listened to C. J. Mahaney’s message, “Oridnary Pastors” from T4G. He addresses some of these issues indirectly and I found the message very encouraging for us ordinary guys who struggle daily in our minitries and often suffer discouragement. It is worth the 66 minute viewing.

  8. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on April 30, 2010 at 9:17 am

    I would agree with most of what has been said above. You should never go to a ministry with the selfish intent of using it as a stepping stone to the next big thing. That has happened way too often in the past 25 years.

    The goal is to remain in your church ministry as long as God would have you be there. That often means staying put during difficult hardships and challenges. John MacArthur recently said during a 9 Marks interview that he actually wanted to leave GCC 2 times but no one was interested in him or something to that effect. Now we know that John was simply being humble with that point but it was interesting to hear him share that.

    If you read good Christian biographies however you’ll note that God often does lead godly pastors to leave one ministry for another. I think of Iain Murray’s great bio on Lloyd-Jones as one such example. In my recent biographical reading of J Edwards i see another example of this…I am somewhat concerned that what is en vogue now is to idolize the concept of a lengthy tenure at one place as if that is the expressed will of God for each and every pastor/elder. Each situation is unique as is the calling and leading of God for individual Christians.

    To answer Paul’s question 1 “Could it be that the question is difficult because the “tone” of Scripture assumes elders rarely abandon their posts?” To say anything definitive on this point would in my humble opinion be an argument from silence. Enduring hardship is obviously a major part of the pastoral ministry. Many men leave their posts too early but the Scripture says nothing about accepting a life time call to one ministry. I think the testimony of church history supports the points i’ve made above.

  9. I enjoyed the post and the comments. Having been in one pulpit for all of my eighteen years in the ministry, I often wonder if a time will come when I am supposed to move on. For now, I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, but I would hope that I would be sensitive to the Lord if He were moving me on.

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