There are biblical and justifiable reasons for removing a pastor. But what happens to those who are unjustly forced out or feel they have to step down for reasons that aren’t their fault? How should they think? What should they do?
When I was in this situation, after overcoming the shock, my thoughts immediately turned to what to do next. Initially, I considered starting a church. When that door closed, I submitted my resume for positions at other churches. It didn’t take long to obtain initial interviews, but these revealed I was in no place mentally, emotionally, or spiritually for an immediate return to pastoral ministry. As the calendar turned, I wondered if I would ever return. I began to question if I even should.
Here are five questions to consider that helped me determine if and when I was ready.
1. Do I desire to pastor?
The apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy writes, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). Most pastors are naive to the “noble task” we aspire to upon entering ministry. Time and experience slowly remove the naïveté and reveal its realities.
If you no longer aspire to pastor, don’t. You can faithfully serve the Lord within a local church while working in any number of professions. If the desire to serve and shepherd a flock remains, though, explore the motivation behind your desire. Is your desire a paycheck, or to preach Christ? Is your desire to pastor, or to regain a platform? There is a distinct difference.
2. Does the Bible affirm I’m qualified to pastor?
Desire is admirable, but desire alone doesn’t qualify you to pastor. Previously qualified doesn’t equal presently qualified (1 Tim 3:1–7). It’s important to ask yourself if you’re qualified.
One key indicator is whether you’ve searched your own heart for any sin you should repent of. Your former church may have treated you unfairly, but you are not without sin. Respectable sins may still disqualify you if true repentance doesn’t take place. Now is the time to identify and take responsibility for how your sin may have contributed to the problem.
Previously qualified doesn’t equal presently qualified.
I found my sin lurking behind the guise of good intentions. I was guilty of loving the health of the church more than the church. I saw the congregants as projects to be fixed or obstacles in the way of my church-health goals. This is evil. People aren’t projects to be fixed; they’re image-bearers to be loved. Church health is important, but not at the cost of loving the members themselves.
My sin was also rooted in identity. I found my identity in my title as pastor, not in my loved-by-Christ status. Through the sanctifying season that followed, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin and brought me to repentance. I’m not just a better pastor today as a result, but I would not be qualified otherwise.
3. Does my wife desire for me to pastor?
Simply put, if you are married, and your wife’s not ready, you’re not ready. Don’t assume her desire for ministry matches yours. While you no longer have the responsibility to shepherd a congregation, you are responsible for shepherding and managing your own household well (1 Tim. 3:4–5).
The spiritual and emotional welfare of your wife and family is paramount to your fitness for ministry. Pastoral ministry and leading your family are both noble tasks. Your wife and family have also experienced the trauma inflicted by church hurt. Allow them the time and space to heal and to acknowledge their own sin. Trust the Lord will renew their desire and love for the church, just as he has yours.
The spiritual and emotional welfare of your wife and family is paramount to your fitness for ministry.
Your wife knows you better than anyone else, so talk less and listen more. Listen to her insight and wisdom, even if she doesn’t offer the response you desire. If or when she is ready to re-expose herself to the vulnerability tied to pastoral ministry, you will know. Only once your wife and family share in your desire and deem you qualified are you potentially ready to return to ministry.
4. Does my current church family affirm my readiness to pastor?
Active participation within a local congregation is essential to the Christian life. Have you joined and are you actively participating within a local church? If not, why? The local church is God’s primary means of affirming your qualifications and serves as a barometer to evaluate your readiness.
Submit to the seasoned pastors the Lord has placed in your life and listen to the wisdom they offer. These men should know your life and understand your heart. They will help you identify sin you have yet to acknowledge, and identify areas within your heart and life where healing is still required. Do they see you as a wounded sheep in need of extra care, or as a shepherd ready to humbly lead?
5. Does a viable opportunity exist?
An affirmative response to the four previous questions is good, but a viable ministry opportunity must also exist. Don’t allow your desire to cloud your discernment and rush the process.
The perfect church does not exist. Yet if the Lord is truly calling for your return to pastoral ministry, he will provide the right congregation in his perfect timing. Invite your family, pastors, and those who know you best to join you in the process. Listen to what they say. If and when it comes time to interview, be honest about the trauma you’ve experienced—and the sins you’ve committed—and acknowledge the overall healing and growth that has taken place. The right church isn’t looking for a perfect pastor, so don’t pretend to be one.
The right church isn’t looking for a perfect pastor, so don’t pretend to be one.
Waiting is hard. No one can place a timetable on this process or know if it will produce the outcome you desire. Regardless, your experience has shaped you, in ways you may never fully understand, by exposing your own vulnerability and sin. As difficult as it is to accept, count this season as a blessing. What you have experienced will make you a better pastor—if you allow it.
Your experience may thicken your skin, but may it soften your heart even more. Most importantly, I pray it gives you a greater desire for Christ than for the pastorate. Once this becomes the case, you’re one step closer to a potential return to pastoral ministry.