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In spring 2014, I made one of the most gut-wrenching decisions of my adult life: I resigned as pastor of a church that had called me little more than three years before.
After months and months of prayer, soul-searching, sleepless nights, and seeking advice from wise men with decades in the trenches of ministry, I grew convinced that the church’s future was not my future.
It became clear that there simply was no path forward that would benefit the church or my family. Thankfully, I was able to leave on good terms, and I enjoy numerous warm friendships within that congregation today. God used that season to reveal many shortcomings in me and to prepare me for the congregation I am privileged to serve today.
If there’s anything more difficult than discerning the call to a church, it might be deciding the proper time to leave it.
The decision took many weeks and much prayer, and I made it with a deep sense of fear and trembling. If there is anything more difficult than discerning the call to a church, it might be deciding the proper time to leave it. It’s difficult because there’s far more involved in the decision than merely staying or leaving. Am I running from difficulty? Am I wanting to leave for sinful reasons? How will I make a living for my family? Will we have to move to another place?
How, then, does a pastor make this decision? Here are eight diagnostic questions that helped me.
1. Are the people responding favorably to your leadership?
If the answer is “no,” then there are other questions you should ask, the first being: Are the people responding unfavorably because I’m leading in an ungracious manner or in a way that violates the call for humility among the elders in 1 Peter 5?
As I once heard John MacArthur put it, if you’re trying to lead and no one is following, then you’re merely going for a walk. But this does not call for automatic resignation; there are few circumstances that lead to such swift action. Weighing the answer to this question requires prolonged Scripture-soaked prayer as well as careful reflection and discernment.
2. Have you misunderstood your calling?
Often, pastoral ministry can clarify a man’s calling and demonstrate that God has fitted him for another venue of ministry other than the pastorate. The heavy weight of suffering often reveals the cracks in the bridge of a man’s call to ministry. Yet it can also confirm his calling. Leaving my church ultimately made me more certain God had called me to the pastorate.
3. Do you have substantive support in the church?
Do godly people in the church have your back? If there are even a few, you might consider staying and asking God for patience and persevering grace. I had a friend who was recently forced to leave his church after one year because virtually the whole church was upset with him for a sermon he preached on God’s sovereignty. Even though he’d been careful and gentle in his teaching, there was virtually no support for him. Sadly, it was a church known for rejecting good pastors.
4. Is this ministry chewing up your family?
You must not let the ministry make your wife bitter or cause your children to hate the church. As hard as it is on you, a difficult season in ministry may take a worse toll on your family, particularly your wife. If it’s tearing her apart, it may be time to go. You are first a husband and father. As Mark Dever has said, “Your church can find another pastor, but your wife can’t find another husband or your children another dad.”
5. Is this ministry taking a toll on your marriage?
A tough season of ministry can tell you a lot about your marriage. Pastoral afflictions can strengthen your marriage if it is already strong, or weaken it to a breaking point if it is already weak. Paul makes clear in his qualifications for elders that if the little flock at home is not in order, then you are not qualified for ministry. This is an important consideration for number four as well.
6. Do mitigating factors prevent you from staying?
One example here might be that your church is financially broke and you are unable to find supplementary income. This certainly does not mean you must leave, but it could be God’s way of providentially removing you. External, mitigating factors such as this need to be handled carefully. A financial crisis was the main reason I had to leave that first full-time pastorate.
7. Have you sought the counsel of other mature, godly pastors?
It is almost certain they have walked more than a few miles in your shoes. If you’re relatively new to pastoral ministry, this is especially important, and you should take seriously their counsel. After all, the writer of Proverbs reminds us, “There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors” (Prov. 11:14).
8. Will your continued leadership help or harm the church?
This is not so much a factor if you have plural leadership, but it can be an important notion to ponder if you are a single elder. I would recommend pairing this one with number seven—seek help from other godly, veteran ministers who can walk with you through this.
Perhaps your leadership style needs to move toward closer fidelity to the biblical model of patience, humility, and servant-heartedness. Instead of removing you, a season of hardship may well be God’s gracious means of producing these fruits in you—so don’t neglect your present suffering as a means of sanctification.
No doubt other questions may need to be asked, but these eight helped me make this solemn decision.