A man 3,000 miles away whom I had never met, the chairman of a pulpit search committee, came to the point quickly on the phone: Would I consider meeting with his group to discuss becoming senior pastor of their church?
This unexpected phone call propelled me into a deep, soul-searching phase. Without any prior experience, I was suddenly faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my ministry career: Should I stay or should I go?
It's easy to think it's God's will to move on when the invitation is to a larger church, the salary and benefits are better, and you're having problems where you are. But greener pastures are not necessarily God's will. He may simply be using that invitation to test our resolve and determination to carry on.
How Long Is Long Enough?
We are all aware that some pastors accomplish a great deal by staying in one church a long time. My father-in-law's most productive years came near the end of a 24-year pastorate. It's significant that most larger churches have been established and built by those who have stayed for decades.
Knowing this made me want to stay longer in Montreal. Shouldn't I be the leader who would take this church on to greatness?
But on the other hand, some pastors stay too long. They hang on when in fact their ministry has peaked or been completed. Some are incapable of leading the church to its next plateau. They fail to recognize their own limitations. Their ego says they can do it all.
There is no simple formula for how long to stay before moving on. Who of us can declare unequivocally, "So-and-so stayed too long" or "left too soon"? We may have our private opinions, but we also know we could be mistaken.
If we are less than sure about the other fellow's tenure, how much more about our own? Rural, suburban, and inner-city churches differ. Our ministerial gifts vary. The person with a teaching/pastoral ministry will tend to last longer than someone whose ministry is more prophetic or evangelistic. Still, we can't plug all the descriptors into a computer and get a divine print-out.
Factors in God's Timing
So how do we decide? Do we discover God's will only on our knees in a quiet office, or does God use other ways to tell us to move on? Does he not frequently indicate his plan through circumstances and then later confirm it with an inner spiritual conviction?
I believe God's will, usually, is the logical thing to do. Therefore, here are some factors I consider when evaluating a possible change.
Major problems in the present church. I don't mean routine snags. You can't run away every time things don't go your way. Problems are challenges to overcome. By handling them, our ministry grows and our relationship with God becomes more precious. One chronic troublemaker in a church usually isn't reason for leaving. Every congregation has its quota of grace-builders, and while it is a delight to leave them behind when you move on, the Lord has prepared more of the same in the next congregation!
But major personality conflicts, congregational dissatisfaction, or tension with a board may mean something more. If I need to take a vote of confidence to know where I stand with the people, chances are it's time to start packing. Taking a vote will likely only divide the people further. I'm already in trouble!
Ministerial exhaustion. Every ministry position includes stress. But there are times when we are called to deal with unusually tough situations that tax all our spiritual and emotional strength.
A close friend of mine went through such a situation. An adulterous relationship in his church involved a senior board member and a woman from a prominent family. The pastor dealt with them prayerfully and wisely. Innocent parties were protected, hurt spouses were counseled, and the offending parties confronted. But the process of discipline, counseling, and rehabilitation took a year. When it was over, though my friend had performed admirably and had retained the people's confidence, he was emotionally and spiritually drained. There was nothing left to give on Sunday mornings. He needed a fresh start.
Others have felt the same at the end of a building program. The months of worrying and wrangling with contractors, blueprints, and committees have taken a heavy toll. The pastor quietly vows to work smarter next time. He knows he should stay for at least another year and help the congregation cope with its new mortgage. But he is out of gas.
Some young preachers tell their people everything they know in 18 months. Though they study and search for sermon material, because of their inexperience, they come up with little. To carry on indefinitely can hardly be God's will when additional training or perhaps an assistant pastorate is indicated.
Financial pressures. If you are struggling to keep bread on the table, God may reward faithfulness by raising a new opportunity that will provide for the family. It's time we got off the guilt trip that a move to another church where we will be better cared for is all wrong. We are not in this work for the money. But God does know our needs and takes note of our faithfulness.
Family circumstance. Our ministry location affects not only ourselves but also our families. The decision to leave a community is a big factor in both the education and social development of our children. Any father, ordained or not, who does not consider the implications of a move for his family is neither loving nor true to the Scripture.
Some of my friends suggest that if it's God's will for you to move, he will take care of your family no matter when or where you go. That is true—if the move is his intention. What some forget, though, is that the social, spiritual, and educational needs of a pastor's family can be an indicator of God's will! God can speak through the needs of a wife or a child as well as through times alone in the prayer closet.
Larger opportunity. First, let me state that the concept of promotion or career advancement is a secular notion and is foreign to the New Testament concept of ministry. There is no spiritual totem pole to climb. God is looking for faithfulness where we are. More than one pastor, however, thinks that if a larger church beckons, it must be a signal that he is God's man of faith and power for the hour. It's not always so.
However, as our ministries mature, God does place us in positions of greater responsibility. As our ability develops to handle larger churches, administer more complexity, and speak to more diverse congregations, God does open up new areas of service. And that frequently means calling in the moving van.
No place of ministry should be belittled. No location is insignificant or deserving of less than our best. But as our ministry gifts mature, we can become frustrated if there is not a sufficient outlet to release them.
Hearing God's Voice
After weighing all the factors, there is still one intangible element. It is the most important. We can list all the pros and cons on a sheet of paper (as I have done occasionally), but if we want to function in the pattern of New Testament ministry, we still have to hear God's voice.
It's difficult to explain that subjective conviction. Yet as surely as God's Spirit directed Paul away from Asia and Bithynia but on to Macedonia, so God guides his people today.
I learned this after finishing my theological training. Faced with the choice of beginning pastoral work or furthering my education, I sought counsel from friends and competent leaders. The advice split right down the middle.
After much prayer, I knew what I should do. There was no bright light flashing. A bird did not come and whisper a divine message in my ear. But there was a burning conviction that I should go back to the university. And there was peace in my spirit.
My mother taught me another good lesson in decision making. Once I had two options to consider. Both were challenging situations and presented exciting possibilities. For some time I couldn't make up my mind. My head said one thing, my heart said another. In talking with my parents, my mother commented, "I don't know what you will do, Cal, but I know you will do the right thing."
At first I brushed it off as the confidence any mother would have in her son. But that wasn't what she meant. She went on to explain, "If your motives are right, and you are prayerful in making the decision, God will not let you make a mistake."
That doesn't mean all will turn out glowingly. There may be hard times ahead in the church to which we are sure God sent us. Our ministry may even be rejected there after a while. But we will not be outside the larger channel of God's purpose for our shaping and growth.
Ultimately this is a step of faith. The world calls it biting the bullet. For most of us, it is a difficult time. There is no joy in it, but it is part of God's calling.
At some time prior to entering public ministry, most of us had a confrontation with God. We dealt with self and pride. If we were serious about our faith, we made Jesus our Lord and entered a servant-Master relationship. From that point on, it doesn't matter where we're located geographically. What others think is not important. Personal comfort is secondary. Prestige and large crowds are not determining factors. Loyalty and obedience are. Doing God's will is all that matters.
"The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10:3-4).
After a difficult month of wrestling through this decision-making process, the choice was clear. We were on our way to British Columbia!
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