When Leaving Is the Most Shepherding Thing You Can Do: Impeding Service

Longevity is a characteristic we often gravitate toward in pastors, missionaries, church planters, and just about anyone who serves in a ministry-related role. We look for faithful folks who will not easily disappear when the going gets tough, and will march steadily before and beside us as we stumble through the intricacies of life. Frequently, the duration of a pastor’s ministry within a specific church is mistakenly used by onlookers as an indicator of the health of that church or leader. If a pastor leaves, many people conclude something “unhealthy” must be happening within the church or with that pastor.

 

The Longevity Mindset

Until recently, I also subscribed to this line of thinking. From the get-go, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing faithful men lead faithful churches over the long-haul. The man who pastored the church my family attended before I could walk was still faithfully ministering there after I returned from college.

In 1973, one of the men who discipled me through my call to ministry, and eventually church planting, planted the very church that sent my family out over four decades later. He was still actively and faithfully shepherding the flock at the same church, when God saw fit to bring him into eternal Joy in February of this year.

Longevity is in my blood, so naturally, my plan after ordination was to faithfully march forward while pointing the church to Jesus day-after-day until my frail body forced me to retire. However, God’s plans are always higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9), and I began writing this post just one week after I submitted a letter of resignation to my fellow pastors at the church I helped plant four years ago.

 

When Plans Change

You might reactively wonder what changed. Did I fall into a disqualifying sin or moral failure that forced me to resign? Were there deep disagreements among the leadership or church body? Praise be to God, none of the above were deciding factors. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at some of the interconnected reasons I felt God calling me to leave a church I thought I’d pastor in for decades. We’ll also dig into other reasons a pastor, particularly those with specific giftings, might be called to leave his church, as consideration for all of us as we go forward in ministry.

We’ll begin with the most compelling and convicting reason for my departure: I was preventing members of the church from serving each other with the gifts God gave them.

 

Through Love, Serve One Another

God calls each believer to serve one another (Galatians 5:13) using the gifts they’ve received (1 Peter 4:10). Oftentimes, when there are no “holes” to fill and no apparent needs to be met in the church, those gifts go unused and the whole church, as well as the believer, inadvertently suffers. This was the case at my church.

As with any church plant, there were prevalent needs in the church from day one. I decided to temporarily fill them until God sent or raised up gifted folks to serve. Over the next three years, He did; however, many of these gifted believers did not serve the church consistently, if at all. I would later come to understand my presence was part of the reason why.

In God’s great Providence, He placed me in deeper conversations with some of these believers. Because I was already filling these gaps (and being paid to fill them at that), many folks felt their service and gifts were mostly unneeded. When people did step up, I was always seen as their “backup plan” so they were more apt to flake out instead of committing wholeheartedly to serve the body.

I took inventory of my responsibilities, and was surprised that almost everything I did, aside from spiritual shepherding, could easily be accomplished within the confines of the body, if gifted folks stepped up to serve.

Knowing the church had other gifted and strong leaders to spiritually lead the flock week-in and week-out, I felt the most loving and shepherding thing I could do to spur the church to serve one another as God’s Word calls them to, was to remove their stumbling block–me.

 

Getting Out of the Way

As a shepherd of God’s flock, our greatest desire is the spiritual health of His fold. We focus on leading people to know Him, worship Him, serve Him, and proclaim His great love to an onlooking world. If we are tied up doing everything for everyone rather than focusing on our primary calling, we’re both obstructing others from using their gifts AND neglecting to be faithful to what God called us to do. We’re thereby sinning against our brothers and sisters and sinning against the One who gave us this calling.

If you’ve done everything possible to “stir one another up in love and good works” (Hebrews. 10:24) and you still find people “warming the benches”, I’d encourage you to evaluate whether YOU are the one standing in their way. Is it time for you to give up your “gap filling” responsibilities, or even step aside altogether, so others might flourish?

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