Mary Gauthier is a Grammy-nominated folk singer whose first stage appearance was less than what she had hoped for. Far less. She bumped the mic with her teeth, forgot the words of her song, and was thoroughly humiliated. The experience fed what she calls the bully in her head, who raged at her saying that her song was horrible, she was horrible, and it would be better if she killed herself before she ever set foot on stage again.1
Pastors know that voice, or a milder version of it. Most of the time we find ways to silence or ignore it. And yet there is a very real question left unanswered. When is it right and necessary for pastors to leave a church or pastoral ministry altogether? We agree that such a question should be answered based on more substantive criteria than bumping one’s teeth on a microphone, or its pastoral equivalent, but what are those criteria?
Some pastors, those abusive or scandalous, stay too long. And some, irresponsibly, leave too soon. A church member once observed to me that some pastors, after having made a mess of their churches, suddenly would find themselves “called” elsewhere, leaving the church to put the pieces back together.
Count the Years?
Some suggest tenure be measured in raw years. One pastor told me that no one should stay in a church for more than twenty years. He said he had data to back it up, but I’m not persuaded. The number “twenty,” like most numbers tossed around in ministry circles, seems contrived. Besides, few make it that long anyway.
Listen to Leaders?
Soon after I began to pastor one of my seminary professors, a man who had kindly stayed in contact with me after graduation, urged me to listen to my elders regarding longevity. God would speak through them, he insisted. And he has. There was a time when I formally submitted my resignation, and the elders insisted I stay. I was blessed, of course, with godly and trustworthy elders. Not all pastors are so blessed.
Out of Ideas?
Years later I posed this question to a pastor of a large church in Delaware. He said, without hesitation, that the time to leave is “When you run out of ideas.” Boredom, complacency, or hopelessness, none of which are good for a pastor, are the result of the lack of ideas. It would make sense to move on.
Sometimes pastors still have ideas, but their leadership capital is so depleted that they lack the support they need to act on any of them. According to my friend Mike Osborne2 that is the time to leave.
One late afternoon I was with one of my elders. We were driving home from a meeting when I asked him for his thoughts on when a pastor should leave. He said that pastors should leave when they are clearly called elsewhere. If not used as an excuse to run, that can make sense. But such calls are not always clear. Immediately after that conversation, I received an email inviting me to pursue a new ministry opportunity. “A sign!” was my immediate deduction. My wife’s assessment was less enthusiastic, and in the end, more wise. Clearly pastors, if married, need to process these questions carefully with their spouses.
After nearly twenty-five years, I left my first church because of irreparable divisions in the leadership. Having such division was unhealthy for the church, and it became clear that either I or the elders needed to step down.
During those difficult days leading up to the decision to leave, I was on the phone with my daughter, a nurse, offhandedly telling her that I had been getting sick every six weeks, which was unusual for me. Her response was something along the lines of, “Duh. It’s stress, Dad.” I had not realized it, but my health was in play.
Now there are those called to plunge into dangerous missionary settings, placing their lives on the line knowing that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”3 Sometimes a call is unto death. But even Paul on occasion left town when ministry got dicey. When staying in a church, or in the ministry itself, threatens our physical or mental well-being, we have permission to be lowered down the walls of the city in a basket,4 if that is what it takes.
Every one of these scenarios involves a judgment call, and such decisions will always require prayer. But they also demand a community who will speak into our lives with unhesitating honesty. I will always be grateful for my friend Dave Sturkey, a wise fellow pastor, who found a way to tell me that I’d be a lousy church planter when I once floated that idea in front of him. He was right, and he was gentle, but it was hard to hear. Nevertheless his counsel kept me from foolishness.
When we cloak our decisions with hyper-spiritual language such as “God has led me to leave” or “God has lifted my call” we erect barriers preventing the very input we need. Those who may sense that our decision is really being motivated by fear or ungodly ambition are stymied. Who dares challenge the voice of God? Such language is pretentious, anyway.
So, after we have done everything, will the path be clear? Probably not. But that’s okay. We’re aiming for wisdom, not some perfect understanding of the so-called “will of God.” We make a decision, in community, as wisely as we can. And whether that decision is to
Pack it up and tear it down
. . . stay just a little bit longer5 . . . .
we can know that the grace of God remains unchanged and unrelenting. The love of God for you is undiminished by your decision, no matter what the bully in your head will try to tell you.
Thanks for reading Greatheart’s Table. If you’d like to help support this work, you can do so by dropping a few coins in my tip jar here. Thanks!
Mary Gauthier, Saved By a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (United States: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2021), p. 24.
Michael E. Osborne, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership (United States: Wipf and Stock, 2016).
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. (Acts 9:23-25)
Jackson Browne, “The Load Out / Stay”