By James Bryant
Often pastors ask, “When do I know God is calling me to another church?” I asked a pastor that question once. He had been pastor of the same church for forty-two years and eight months before he retired. I asked him if he ever thought of taking another church during that time. His reply was humorously profound. He said, “When I wanted to leave, no other church asked me. When other churches asked me, I did not want to leave.” If all pastors found the question that simple, there would be far fewer pastors changing churches.
The rule of thumb is to stay where you are if you can. As one minister told me, “At least I know what the problems are in my church. I don’t know what they are in another church.” One pastor’s wife noted that the problems are the same in every church. Just the faces change. There is a lot of truth in that. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. But it isn’t.
The secret to staying where you are is twofold.
First, just say no. If a church asks for your résumé, just say no. If God really wants you at that church, they will come back to you. When pastors send out their résumés on a regular basis, they become double-minded, and this leads to instability (James 1:8).
Second, recognize the eighteen-month rule (the time varies depending on which book you read). This rule says that every relationship tends to reach a plateau about every eighteen months. This is true of marriages, families, jobs, and churches. In other words, adjustments need to be made to enable you to continue moving forward. This is why organizations have strategy planning meetings at least every year or two.
A wise pastor will review his relationships at least every eighteen months. Could it be that one of the reasons there are short pastorates is that the pastor does not recognize the eighteen-month rule? About every eighteen months he will run into opposition. If it is not opposition, it will be lethargy. The relationship between a pastor and his church is much like a marriage. He must find ways to improve this relationship or it will stagnate. That leads to ineffectiveness at the least or conflict at the worst. Adjustments must be made if you want to stay.
The pastor’s preaching can be adjusted and improved. Many seminaries offer continuing education courses to help the pastor do the same with his administrative skills. There are seminars on church growth. Many churches have annual pastors conferences to help pastors learn how not only to survive, but also how to prosper in their calling and career. An alternative to leaving a church is to improve yourself and your relationships.
Some pastors say, “But I want a larger church.” Then grow your own. Almost any church can grow, regardless of its location or history. Stay with it. Tenure is power in leadership. The longer a pastor stays at a church, the more the leadership of the congregation will belong to him.
Hitting the Road
When a pastor is asked to consider accepting the pastorate of another church, how does he know God’s will in the matter? Charles Spurgeon told of a harbor with three lighthouses. When a captain was able to line up the three lighthouses, one directly behind the other, it was safe to enter the harbor. There are three lighthouses in a pastor’s life that should line up in determining the will of God: the Word of God, circumstances, and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.
First, there is the lighthouse of the Word of God. There is a lot in Scripture about determining the will of God. One powerful point is, “Everything that is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). While the immediate context has to do with eating meat sacrificed to idols, the principle behind it is applicable to the will of God in anything. If a pastor does not believe it is God’s will for him to accept another church, he would be wise to turn it down. It is always unwise to act out of “unfaith.” In fact, Paul says that such an act is sin. Applied to this situation, it would be a sin for a pastor to accept a pastorate without fully believing it is God’s will. The Word of God gives us this guidance.
Second, there is the lighthouse of circumstances. God does guide through circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances have to do with remuneration. It is uncomfortable for a pastor to talk with a prospective church about salary. There is a way to leave money out of the consideration until the very end of the process. If a pastor senses that God is leading him to consider the church, when he is asked about his salary he could reply, “Let’s not talk about that now. Let’s wait until the committee and I agree that we should pursue the matter further.” Of course, you will have to talk about it before you preach in view of a call.
Most churches vote on calling a man as pastor and on his initial salary in the same action. If you are invited to come to a church and preach in view of a call, you can say, “If I were single, I could just take whatever the church has budgeted for my salary. But I have a wife and children to think of. This is what I am being paid where I am.” If the committee replies that they cannot afford to match your present salary, you should think a long time before accepting that church. How the church deals with you initially is how they will continue to deal with you financially.
Another circumstance is the strength of the call. This author’s conviction is that the pulpit committee should be unanimous in recommending him as pastor. Not every church has this rule in its bylaws, but the pastor can have it as his rule. If a pastor cannot get a 100 percent vote by the pastor search committee, he should think seriously about withdrawing his name from consideration by the church.
What percentage represents a strong call from a congregation? Some churches have a 90 percent requirement. Even if they do not, that is a good rule of thumb. I suppose if you got an 89 percent vote, you might still want to consider accepting, but if the call were no more than 75 percent this should tell you the church has fellowship problems. Unless God has gifted you in the ministry of reconciliation, you should pray long and hard about accepting a divided church.
The third lighthouse is the inner witness of God’s Spirit. God’s Word never changes. Circumstances are usually fairly evident. It is the inner witness of God’s Spirit that is sometimes difficult to ascertain. This is the third lighthouse that must line up. Is God leading you to this new assignment? No one can tell you how to ascertain this. In the several times I changed churches, no discernible pattern of this inner witness emerged. This is why pastors must have a close walk with the Lord. This inner urge must come from Him. “Whenever you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear this command behind you: ‘This is the way. Walk in it’” (Isa. 30:21). If you do not have this inner leading, you had better stay where you are.
A pastor moving to a new church needs a firm belief in the sovereignty of God and the wisdom of Jesus in making the assignment. This does not mean every assignment will be pleasant. Think of Jeremiah. He was assigned to serve in Jerusalem when it was under siege and when the people were rebellious and disobedient. What makes us think that every assignment must be pleasant? I knew a minister once who thought that his happiness was the barometer telling whether he should stay at a church.
But God’s happiness is the barometer—not ours.
Adapted from The New Guidebook for Pastors (B&H Publishing Group, 2007)