When is it time to leave?

By Steve Witmer

Goodbyes are difficult. Typically we prefer the joyous times of greeting, rather than experiencing the challenging emotions associated with leaving, even if the parting is graced with love and meaningful relationship. Leaving, it seems, is an occupational hazard for all clergy, ministers and missionaries, and seldom do we feel equipped to safely navigate the emotional whitewater rapids that accompany it.

How do I know when it’s time to leave?” is a frequent question we hear at Kerith Retreats. While there is never a simple or singular answer, here are seven scenarios that are worth consideration:


  1. When leaving is a forced upon you

Unfortunately, many leaders will experience the painful reality of an unexpected dismissal.  While the minister really has no choice, leaving is nevertheless fraught with disappointment, personal pain and profound confusion. When the housing crisis of 2008 hit central California in 2008, one denomination reported that 40 per cent of their licensed ministers were given layoff notices. These were gifted and faithful men and women, yet painful change was forced upon them, and they experienced deeply painful loss.


  1. Chronic leadership conflict

When a ministry assignment becomes toxic due to chronic tensions on the leadership team, and attempts to bring reconciliation and outside remediation are unsuccessful, perhaps it’s time to consider leaving. The Apostle Paul said: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Remember you can’t be at peace with individuals who choose to be irreconcilable, and you can’t lead people who resist being led. While leaving, in this scenario, would not be a preferred outcome, there are legitimate times when it is best to transition to a new place where your leadership gifts are needed and valued.


  1. Fatigue

When a ministry culture places unrealistic demands on time, energy or abilities, the resultant stress can trigger a deep soul fatigue. Soul fatigue cannot be satisfied by an afternoon nap or an occasional day off. It often manifests in symptoms that affect our physical health, emotional health (diminished sense of self-worth), relational health (evidenced by irritability or withdrawal), or spiritual vitality (you’re just going through the motions). When the things that used to bring you joy now fail to do so, it’s time for a change! A sabbatical may alleviate some of the weariness, but if the patterns of personal behaviour that caused this fatigue have become entrenched, a fresh start – with a more disciplined approach to ministry – may be necessary.


  1. Family morale

Our first – and priority – focus must be our family. If the current ministry environment threatens family health and harmony, the minister should wisely assess the situation and make godly changes that serve to strengthen the family unit.  Does your spouse feel neglected or used because of unrealistic ministry expectations placed on you? Are your children showing signs of becoming embittered because Mom or Dad are preoccupied or distant? If family harmony and morale are seriously flagging, it may be time to consider leaving for a fresh assignment.


  1. Educational opportunity

When educational opportunities require a greater focus, or an extraordinary time commitment, consider changing some aspect of your ministry. Often we underestimate how much we can jam into a day, a week or a month. Leaders who are engaged in full-time ministry may find the rigorous study schedule of pursuing a degree places them under duress. When we experience significant stress, we tend to become the opposite of ourselves with an attitude. Consider a study leave, an educational sabbatical, or adjusting roles and responsibilities to relieve some of the pressure.  You may not need to physically leave your ministry location, but you may need to vacate some of your customary duties.


  1. A new ministry opportunity

When God begins to stir our heart, directing us to a new ministry opportunity, we may find it simultaneously stimulating and confusing. How does one know for sure if this is right or a figment of my imagination? While incomplete, the list below provides a brief “guidance checklist”:

  • I have an inner sense that something new is needed.
  • God opens a door of opportunity.
  • Prayerful consideration leads to an inner peace.
  • Your spouse affirms and supports.
  • Other respected leaders confirm and encourage.

God, our loving Master, does reserve the right to place his servants where he wishes!


  1. The age factor

For some ministers, retirement, with its promised freedoms, is eagerly anticipated. For many others, it is unwelcomed or altogether shunned. Perhaps you have witnessed colleagues who have built thriving ministries, but stayed at the helm too long. Failing to hand off the work to younger leaders, they actually dismantled, in a relatively short period of time, what it had taken decades to build! As we age, we must consider God’s purpose for each season of life. Though mid-life, our primary contributions are largely inspiring vision and vital activity. In the latter seasons of life, our contribution focuses on godly influence, wisdom gained from intimacy with God and our life experience. If we take time to prayerfully implement a God-guided exit strategy, leaving may be less painful and may actually open exciting and new ministry opportunities to mentor those who follow.


Leaving for any reason is emotionally challenging, but help is available! Great materials have been published which address this issue, both online and in print. Mature men and women who have experienced the dynamic of change can be a wonderful support. Additionally, Focus on the Family Canada has gifted counsellors who are skillfully equipped to take your call, listen to your heart and guide you to beneficial resources. Call our clergy line Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 1.888.5.CLERGY.

Remember, dear fellow labourer, as you journey through difficult transition and change, the Lord himself has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. He is your faithful and comforting travel companion!


Steve and Becky Witmer have served together for more than 35 years in a variety of ministry roles. After five years with YWAM, they served in roles such as senior pastor, missionary director, and pastoral care coordinator for their associated network of churches. Sensing that they were entering a new season of life after 14 years as senior pastors in their church, Steve and Becky transitioned to the role of associate pastors for the same congregation. This new role enables them to invest time and energy into both missions and the care of pastors and emerging leaders. They serve as contract retreat leaders with Kerith Retreats, a ministry of Focus on the Family Canada.


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