By Craig Thompson
In my last article, I encouraged pastors to work toward a long tenure in their ministry settings—to hang around for the long haul. That article prompted a good bit of debate, several good conversations, and a few disagreements.
Those who pushed back against my argument followed two patterns: “But, some churches are just toxic,” and “But, sometimes pastors stay too long.”
Both of those are very legitimate concerns and neither represents the kind of situation I was writing about in my last article.
However, it’s important for all of us to keep in mind that we’re all interim pastors to one degree or another. Unless the Lord chooses to return or call you home before it happens, every one of us will one day have to leave the church we pastor.
With that in mind, I don’t only pray for God to give me the courage to stay; I pray that when the day comes, God will give me the courage to leave.
We inflict great harm on our churches when we choose to stay too long. Though I believe short tenures are a more prevalent malady for churches, a pastor who stays beyond his prime can create a disaster.
Here are four observations I’ve made of pastors who had the courage to leave their churches before it was too late.
1. Be Self-Aware
Sometimes it’s time to leave a church because the community around you has changed or the culture of the church has changed to the point that you’re no longer able to connect.
Maybe, by God’s grace, the church has grown, but you’re not the right guy to lead a larger church. Know yourself, your strengths, and your limitations.
Leaders who leave well are usually self-aware leaders who take an honest look at the person in the mirror.
2. Be Realistic
I was surprised to hear a friend was retiring. He’d always thought he could be effective in ministry until at least 70 but at age 65, he announced his plans to retire.
Why? He knew the church needed to go through some significant changes and felt those changes would take at least five years.
This pastor knew he had a couple of good years left but wasn’t sure about five or six more years. He was realistic about the situation and as a result, put the needs of his church ahead of his ambition.
3. Be Prepared
If you’ve pastored in your current situation for ten years or more, know that there will be a huge hole to fill when you leave.
Good leaders who leave well have transition plans in place to make sure important things don’t fall through the cracks.
You may not want to talk about leaving, but by thinking carefully through that process today, you’ll help equip your church for the future.
4. Be Willing to do the Hard Thing
Those of you who’ve pastored a long time in the same place have church members who’re faithful and loyal to you. These members will fight and bleed for you.
Even if your leadership falters, they’ll be hesitant to urge you to look elsewhere. They love you.
Part of our loving leadership as pastors must include the willingness to step away from our ministries if they become unfruitful. In doing so, we insulate other leaders from having to make very hard decisions regarding our futures.
I think long tenures can be a solution to turn the church in America around, but staying is not always the answer. Pray for the courage to stay but also be willing to pray for the courage to leave.
It may just be that in a few situations, walking away is the most pastoral service you can provide.
CRAIG THOMPSON (@craig_thompson) is the husband of Angela, father of four, and senior pastor of Malvern Hill Baptist Church in Camden, South Carolina.