One of the hardest decisions for a pastor is to leave a congregation. When there is a call to a new field there must also be a release from the present minister setting. This can be one of the most difficult decisions to discern in ministry. When is the Lord calling you to leave and go to a new call?
Yesterday, there was an official press release announcing my new position at Erskine Seminary as the Director of Student Admissions and Church Relations. This email represents weeks of wrestling, prayer, and seeking Godly wisdom from good friends. It represents the incredibly hard decision to leave the congregation I have pastored for over 17 years. They are not just church members, but dear friends who are as close as family. I have gone through the ups and downs of life and ministry with each of them. These people are the only church that my three youngest children have known. They love and care for us well. So the question becomes, why did I make this choice?
Last Sunday evening, the Director of our local chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes spoke to our church about how we could engage the young people of Lancaster. He said, speaking from the Parable of the Talents, “There is an expectation to use the talents and gifts that God has given you.” While I have been questioning if I had the best gift set for our congregation going forward, I could see that I did have unique gifts and qualifications for this new position at Erskine. In some ways, all the experiences of my life have prepared me for this new call. The lessons learned in playing basketball, serving in political organizations, Inter-Church committee work, as a Synod Officer, and 20+ years of pastoral ministry have given me experience and skills I hope can help Erskine Seminary and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church grow and flourish in the coming years.
Even knowing this truth, it was still a hard decision. There are several potentially wrong reasons to leave a congregation. I tried to make sure that none of these were the reason I would leave.
The first wrong reason to leave a call is for more money. Now there is a time that you might need to leave to provide for your family. We do not take a vow of poverty as ARP ministers, but we also know we will not get rich either. As pastors, we are not professionals in the sense that we are always looking to market our skills to the highest bidder. In my case, the Lord had always provided for our needs. It has been humbling and encouraging to see my congregation be so generous to us over the years and believe in the work we were doing.
The second wrong reason is frustration with the church. Again, if you are completely ineffective in leading a congregation then leaving might be the best for both you and the church. However, you can work almost any job for 17 years and you will have some frustrations, even in a job you love. A pastor leading a congregation will have his frustrations and other ministry settings can look appealing most every Monday morning, but these are not good reasons to leave a church. While I am not immune to frustrations in the ministry, I loved my call in Lancaster and the people I pastored.
Self-advancement is another wrong reason to leave. One of the great problems we have in the reformed world are pastors wanting to be famous. While this is a great honor to be hired in this position, it was not something I was looking for at all. It was not a move to promote my brand. Do I want to do great things for the Lord? We all should. But is there anything greater than being a long-serving pastor of a local church? While many have told me that I will enjoy the break from the grind of 24/7 pastoral ministry, I fear I will miss it greatly.
Leaving the pastoral ministry in a local congregation was especially hard to wrestle through in the last few months. I love being a pastor. I have loved pastoring the three churches I have served. To take this job, I knew I had to leave my call to minister daily in a local congregation. It was a hard decision.
Some years ago, HBO produced a mini-series about the 506th Parachute infantry company in World War Two called Band of Brothers. At one point, Captain Dick Winters is promoted to Major. In taking that promotion he leaves his command of the Company. It changed his role and place in the war. I know that taking this new position will change my role and place in the church. I am excited to work with students and churches in this next phase of ministry, but I know that I will miss being the pastor of a local congregation along with all the joys and struggles that come with it. I will miss being in a local community.
So why did I choose to go? I have told people the Lord opened a door and as I stuck my head in to look around and He kicked me through it. The ultimate reason for you to leave is that you become convinced that it is God’s will. There is peace that comes with conviction. If I was only thinking about my comfort or my desires then I probably would have chosen to stay in my present call. However, in considering all the factors and all involved it was the right decision to leave. So even if there is sadness and excitement with the move, there is peace in knowing I am following what I am convinced is the Lord’s will. The sadness over the change helps me to know how special a time the last 17 years have been for me. I am excitement because the Lord is calling me to a new field with new people to know, new ministry opportunities to explore, and new ways to serve the Lord.
When you hear of a pastor leaving a church pray for them as it is much harder than changing jobs in the secular world. If you are a pastor thinking about leaving, consider why you want to leave. Make sure you not only have a call to a new field, but also a release from your present call. Double-check your motivation to leave, and don’t leave for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, make sure and seek the Lord’s will. Let that be the reason you stay or go.