There are times when leaving a church can be the most shepherding thing a pastor can do for the body. While longevity in a single church is ideal, it may not be what God has for that pastor or that church.
To be clear, I’m not advocating pastors step down from their post for any and every reason they see fit. The Apostle Paul calls believers to “persevere” (Eph. 6:10-18), and pastors, of all people, understand this means you don’t stop when ministry gets tough or when difficult situations arise. It means you don’t stop preaching Christ crucified when the church shrinks a little in membership. It means you cling to and proclaim the Truth of Scripture and biblical doctrine when it’s not culturally popular or politically correct. And it means leaving the post only when it is God’s will you do so.
In the previous posts (Part One, Part Two) in this series, I discussed two prominent reasons I resigned from a pastoral role in a church I helped plant and why it was the most shepherding and loving thing I could have done for that church. This post will highlight other situations where this could also be true.
If your church “makes disciples who make disciples,” you’ll multiply yourself by identifying, training, and mentoring men who become strong teachers and gifted pastors, themselves. Eventually, those new leaders will need an opportunity to truly “lead”. Sometimes that opportunity comes when that leader takes on a component of another leader’s role or they are sent to a like-minded church in need of a pastor. Other times, that occasion arises when God gives you the external opportunity and the new leader steps in to fill your role. Rather than clinging to “your” church, you can faithfully follow God’s call to another of His churches.
No Longer Qualified
Another instance when leaving would be the most shepherding thing for a pastor to do is if they have chronic issues with unrepentant sin. While this may seem blatantly obvious, many pastors who fall into unrepentant sin and/or moral failure often continue in ministry for many years before it finally surfaces. Many internally deny an issue exists or don’t feel their personal struggle affects their overall ministry to the church.
Now, I know there isn’t a pastor out there who is sinless or perfectly holds up to the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 on a daily basis. But there is a difference between a pastor whose character is sound, but struggles as any sinner in need of grace would and a pastor whose character is crumbling due to daily issues with hidden and unrepentant sin. If they truly love the church as Christ loves the church, they must lovingly and graciously step away from their post to save their sheep from a whirlwind of spiritual harm, and by God’s grace turn from their sin in true repentance.
When Unity in Ministry is Impossible
The final situation I want to address is somewhat controversial because many would argue it is no reason for a pastor to resign. I encourage you to prayerfully consider this circumstance and the reasoning given.
Imagine you’ve spent years diligently preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God’s Word and pleading with the church to take the message and mission given by God into the world (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8) only to have it fall on deaf ears. You’ve spent many evenings inviting folks into your home and having one-on-one discussions with families you’ve grown to love, but they treat you like a stranger. You’ve worn out your knees pleading with God for wisdom on how to confront folks who are constantly stirring up division, without harming the church, and their behavior worsens. You’ve spent years mulling through the same disagreements over the same doctrines and beliefs with the same people, yet the church is equally or more divided than it was when you stepped into the role years before.
I’ve personally seen this a number of times when called men of God step into a so-called “church” and pour out their lives, only to be met day-after-day by hardened hearts and contention by the very people who brought him there. Here’s the truth: if the preached Word of God doesn’t soften hearts and unify the body after a period of time; if hearts aren’t being changed to serve the church and its mission; if evangelism is dead in this group (aside from your own efforts), it’s simply NOT a church by Scripture’s standard — it’s an improperly named social or civic club. Continuing to pour out oneself for such a gathering is essentially disobedience to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:6 (ESV):
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
Be On Guard
Whether you end up being a pastor who is called to stay at a single church for a few decades or a few years, my hope and prayer is you are sensitive to where God would have you serve his body. That you go first to prayer, your family, and your elder team whenever you’re experiencing a feeling it may be time to go. And that you are on your guard for your fellow elders to encourage, speak truth, and pray with them if they wrestle with any of these considerations. Finally, remember to model and teach God’s people about the mission of His church and that sometimes, for that mission to go forward, leaders, fellow congregants, friends, or family may be called away. And that can be a loving and good thing.