Knowing when it’s time to leave
“Is it time for me to leave my church?” Many pastors find themselves asking this question. The challenge is to make the decision based on solid Spirit-led discernment, not short-sighted impulse thinking.
There is no easy answer to this question. There are, however, factors to consider when deciding to stay or leave.
Why pastors leave
There are many reasons why pastors leave, such as:
- Dismissal with no explanation.
- Unresolved conflict that results in an exit.
- An invitation to plant a new church.
- Downsizing of the staff and/or cutbacks due to financial constraints.
- Family needs that require relocating or leaving in order to deal with it.
- Moral failure or some other form of misconduct.
- Burnout or health issues that require leaving.
- The realization you don’t fit your current role.
- Acceptance of a denominational position or different ministry role
Some reasons why pastors leave are outside of their control. This article deals only with the pastor’s choice to leave, and not those times when a pastor is asked to leave.
Questions to help in the discerning process
Two critical skills underlying a timely departure are self-reflection and a teachable spirit. “Leaders thrive by understanding who they are and what they value, by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them, and by cultivating the habit of continuous self-reflection and learning,” Chris Lowney explains in Heroic Leadership.
Self-reflection and openness to outside input are your friends when discerning whether it’s time to leave or stay. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Have I lost my focus and gotten distracted?
Pastors get distracted by more exciting pursuits than the hard work of leading a congregation. They speak and teach internationally, consult with other churches and compete in Ironman competitions. These pursuits are not wrong, but they can distract from focused ministry, and lead to ineffective leadership and the feeling that it’s time to leave. The real solution could be refocusing on the work you were called to do.
Am I exhausted and need to rest?
The desire to leave can be brought about by a depleted life. The remedy isn’t leaving but rather stepping back for a while to rest. Sabbaticals are God’s idea after all. Like Elijah, there is a time to rest, eat, sit by a stream and hear God’s quiet voice reassuring you of His love and call on your life.
Am I leaving because I’m frustrated?
Deciding to leave when you’re frustrated can lead to regret. I had grown exhausted and frustrated as a pastor after five years of hard work and little fruit. I was ready to quit and go teach at a Bible school. As I reflected, prayed, fasted and listened, however, I heard God speak and challenge me to stay where I was. A harvest came just months later and I’m so glad I stayed to see it.
Am I leaving because I’ve been offended and won’t let go of a hurt?
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). If you have had a falling-out with a leader or church member and are hurt, leaving without having it resolved will only bring that hurt with you. You can’t control how others respond or react to you, but you can choose to seek peace and reconciliation when offended.
What are those closest to me saying?
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). It’s important to ask those who know you best for their perspective. The disclaimer is “those with wisdom who are close to you.” Spiritually wise and discerning people can speak with the voice of reason and a fresh perspective when we need it most.
What does my family say about leaving?
A pastor’s family does have a unique set of challenges. To succeed as a married couple in ministry, you need to be singing off the same song sheet. If, for some reason, your spouse is near the breaking point or unable to hold up (physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally), it may be time to consider leaving or, at the very least, getting some help to bring healing and renewed hope.
Is my work here complete?
Pastoral ministry has seasons where a unique skill set and a collection of gifts and talents are required. Pastors do need to keep growing and changing with their churches, but sometimes new leadership is the right choice. This question is best asked later on in the discernment process.
Is it time to focus my ministry in a new direction?
Pastoral ministry has many different facets and expressions. Some pastors are called to serve in denominational roles, coaching roles, consulting roles, chaplaincy and other specialized ministry areas. In my journey, God led me through a long discernment process from being the pastor of one congregation to an “alongside” ministry with church leaders and congregations. There was freedom (and trepidation) as I made this transition, but as I look back, I can very clearly see God’s hand throughout.
Is God leading me to leave?
God’s guidance is at the core of knowing when it’s time to leave or stay. However, it’s important to not let this be your only filter. Pastors sometimes say, “God is leading me to leave,” without realizing they are actually exiting prematurely. If there are emotional, physical or relational issues unexplored, the deeper work God wants to do may go unnoticed. There’s a reason this question is last.
As I scratch the surface, I hope these questions will help you when you are reflecting on your future. May you gain greater wisdom and insight into who you are and into what God has for you when faced with the urge to leave.
Cam Taylor is with Outreach Canada and is a leadership coach and director of Transitional Leadership Ministries.