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Healthy Exit Strategies:

How To Know When It’s Time To Move On and Best Prepare for It

A pastor’s ability to determine whether he should continue at his present place of ministry or leave will give wisdom its severest test.

By T. Ray Rachels

Max DePree, chairman emeritus of Herman Miller, Inc., a member of Fortune Magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame, author of Leadership Is an Art, and a Christian, says “the fundamental task of leadership is to define reality, and to say thank you again, again, and again.” These ingredients are profound for people in pastoral leadership.

A pastor’s ability to determine whether he should continue at his present place of ministry or leave will most often give wisdom its severest test.

Good times in ministry do not have the same Richter quotient, as do tough times. Good times take place when church attendance, offerings, congregational good will, and spiritual life are high. This is pastoral nirvana. And unless an unusual situation arises, or God’s voice for you to leave your pastorate is unmistakable, then it is probably best for you to continue to build God’s work where you are.

But what if those positive elements are not present where you are now serving? Is it time to leave? How do you know when it’s time? And how do you leave a ministry gracefully when relationships have failed and your spirit is wounded? Defining that kind of negative reality and then taking positive steps (if you can find them) may require the spiritual artistry of a Barnabas.

For many years Roy Oswald directed Training and Field Studies at Washington’s Alban Institute. These studies provide resources for clergy and congregations. Oswald says that recognizing the history and background of a congregation is an important factor in determining whether a pastor, when under attack, should resign or stay. For instance, if a church has perpetually solved its problems by getting rid of leadership, pushing yet another pastor out will not serve its welfare. That simply repeats the negative cycle. Sometimes pastors need to hang in there with the support of their denomination.

Suppose, however, you miss the warning signals and are asked to leave. What happens at that point? And how do you recover?

When You Are Asked To Leave

Oswald believes that fired pastors are deeply wounded. This often begins a downward spiral, sometimes ending even in a divorce. These pastors may have neglected their own growth and their family’s well-being. Despite the emotional shock, a pastor must seek an objective answer to this question: Do I still have a valid ministry? Consider the following scenario:

Circumstances change: and even after a pastor’s long tenure at a church, the congregation wants a change in leadership. Sometimes the pastor did nothing wrong. It may have more to do with restlessness within the church, and the notion that new leadership will bring fresh ideas.

I watched a pastor face such a situation after over 20 years at a fine church. He had done nothing immoral. He had not pilfered the cash drawer. The first sign of a seismic tremor came without warning. The board told him they had lost confidence in his leadership.

This pastor responded by telling the board that he had spent years trying to build the church and would not spend a single day tearing it down. He would go quietly and take the high road during his last few Sundays. He reminded the board that any negative consequences would be their responsibility.

As the board attempted to also take the high road and put the best face on the pastor’s departure, it became increasingly difficult for them to answer the questions the congregants were asking. Rather than listing their grievances, the board became silent. They did not wish to air the issues leading up to the pastor’s termination, but found themselves in an uncomfortable situation trying to placate the restlessness within the congregation. Even the plans for a farewell celebration were filled with tension. Some demanded answers; and when they did not get them, they left the church. Offerings diminished. Other staff members lost their focus on the mission of the church. A heaviness settled over the services, and speculation took root as rumors blossomed in the absence of explanations.

Guidelines for Leaving

Wayne Kraiss, former Vanguard University president, and now an interim pastor to churches in difficult transitions, offers guidelines to pastors on how to leave with grace. He suggests these acts will empower your legacy and will probably be the most important sermon you give to the church.

Do not attack the board or any group in the church regardless of how unfair you feel you are being treated.

Do not misrepresent the truth by telling the church you feel it is God’s will to leave at this time if you do not believe that. That compromises everything you have said and taught.

Do not whine or act as if you are the victim of some plot. Even if you feel abused in the process, follow the example of turning the other cheek and giving up your coat.

Tell the congregation you love them and want the very best for them and the church.

Be a peacemaker. Tell the congregation you want to leave an example of what peacemaking looks like. Let them know the youth of the church are watching. This is the most important teaching opportunity you may have had in all the years of your ministry. Make it count for good.

Share your dilemma with the board and congregation. Tell them you are committed to being a peacemaker. It is better not to discuss some issues and not answer some questions. Remind them that even Jesus told His disciples there were things He would like to share with them but they were not able to bear them.

Contact your district leadership and share the facts openly with them. If you need someone to vent with, vent with them. If you need someone to feel sorry for you, let them be the ones to feel sorry for you. If you want to be sure people know you did nothing wrong, tell them.

Advise the board to request assistance from the district leadership. This is a very critical moment in the church. District leadership can be a tremendous blessing to both you and the congregation.

Never use the pulpit to set the record straight. Exalt Christ and preach about how much He loves the Church and His desire to see it built. Recall some of God’s promises to never leave or forsake us. Remember the lost in the community who need a strong and vibrant church. Do not forget that people in the congregation have their own problems and should not come to church to hear about all of its problems or your personal issues.

Ask the board to become involved in transitional prayer groups. It is difficult to throw stones very far from your knees. While you are still at the church, provide prayer lists for the groups to use each week. Make the lists positive and focused on the future. Never use them to leak information about the unjust treatment you have received.

Assist the board by suggesting they choose a vice-chairman to lead them in your absence if they do not already have one. Look carefully at the bylaws to see the process for pastoral transitions and help them get organized for that.

Discuss the appropriateness of a timely departure. Generally, sooner is better. Do not labor the process or unnecessarily drag it out. Give the church an appropriate opportunity to plan a farewell and organize for a transition, but then get out of the way. Also consider your children’s school schedules.

Do not assume it is your responsibility to provide the next pastor with a list of people you trust and do not trust. The next pastor may seek your assessment, but do not offer it. It is best not to attempt church discipline at this time. Leave that to the district and/or board once you have agreed to depart. Anything you attempt in this area will usually cause injury. There are often at least two sides to most stories.

Suggest the church appoint an interim pastor.Depending on the size of the church, this may be a great help to the board and congregation. It may providetime for healing. Sudden change is hard on a congregation and often hard on the incoming pastor.

Pray for grace. Ask the Lord to remove any bitterness, anger, or hatred from your lips or attitude. Ask for a pure heart.

Minister to your spouse and family. This is a dangerous time for you and your spouse. Do not inflame the situation by dumping all your anger and bitterness on your family. They need encouragement and confidence in God’s grace and guidance. Be aware of your words and actions if you have children in the parsonage. Do not let others turn them into cynics and rebels. Shield them as a shepherd shields his flocks. Lead them beside still waters and into green pastures.

Relocate. As difficult as it may be for your family, trust the grace of God and leave the area. This will greatly enhance healing for you and your family. You will create far more good will by leaving the area than staying where people constantly drop in and where people frequently ask where you are now worshiping.

Remind the board and congregation that everyone will vote on the next pastor. A minority of most congregations will use ballots. The rest of the congregation will use their wallet and feet.

Closing Well

Someone asked Roy Oswald to give an example of a pastor who closed well. He answered: A friend of mine in a church near Washington, D.C., accepted a call from Michigan. Before he left, we sat down with a tape recorder and I asked him what was good about this ministry, what had been painful, and what things he had to let go. He expressed feelings in that exit interview that surprised even him.

We distributed the transcript of that interview to the church board. His candid comments encouraged them to be candid, too. He set a healthy atmosphere by visiting key people.

Just before his departure, the congregation held a roast in his honor. With humor, drama, and songs, they recalled his faux pas — he was a terrible administrator, never on time, often scatterbrained. All this came out, but the tone was affirming: “It was worth it because you are a loving person, and we are going to miss you.”

Closure is important even with the people who may have signed a petition against you. You can learn a lot by asking these people, “Where did this relationship get off track?” and “I’d like you to hear my point of view before I go.”

No matter what the situation, every pastor has supporters. These people will be upset over what the congregation did, and the pastor needs to get closure with these friends, too.

Spiritual depth makes the difference through all pastoral battles. The only way a pastor can negotiate through these hard times is to have a deep sense that God cares for him and that he is nurtured by God’s grace. The pastor must be convinced that the Church belongs to Jesus, and he is Christ’s servant.

William H. Willimon is dean of the chapel and professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University. In his book, Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life, he says: “Paul spent much of his pastoral time attempting to referee in congregational squabbles. In 1 Corinthians he pleads for love and unity among the baptized. He tells them that they are all members of one body. He urges them to agree in the Lord.

“But it is clear that one thing Paul values even more than unity, peace, and love is the gospel. Community can be demonic. Not all unified, internally loving communities are fruitful communities. Even better than community is gospel. Gospel, for Paul, means cross and resurrection, and perhaps predominately, the cross. For the sake of the crucifixion gospel, Paul was willing to provoke division, call names, condemn, accuse, and judge. Paul reminds me as a pastor that I must be tethered to something more significant than peace and harmony if I am to be faithful to my vocation.”

Staff Pastor Terminations

What about the staff pastor who is being forced out or feels — because of disappointments or a sour relationship with the senior pastor — that he needs to leave?

Warning signs for staff pastors are usually unmistakable. They may include:

When these signs become visible problems, it is time to adjust. You simply cannot lose respect for your pastor and remain effective. If your concerns are valid, it might be time to leave, but make sure your judgments are based on something substantial and not simply differences of approach. The right thing to do when your relationship with your senior pastor is sinking is to have well-thought-out and respectful conversation with him. Tolerating extended frustration and emotional anguish toward your leader creates cynicism and bitterness. The clean heart for ministry becomes toxic; your words and attitude betray the shadows in your soul; and your prayers and dreams for serving God and people will suffer loss.

In the meantime, and while the Lord is helping you formulate a Christ-honoring response to your pain, express your concerns in prayer and patience.

When Should a Pastor Leave?

I have been inspired by the writings of Gordon MacDonald, whose pastoral experience bridged five churches in 38 years. He pastored Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, on two separate occasions. He talks about leave-decisions:

When should a pastor leave? What signals might be present, either with the congregation or in your own life that suggests the best timing for a leave-decision? MacDonald offers seven hints.

1.Incompatibility. Good church, good pastor, but a bad fit. The congregation needs a form of pastoral leadership that the sitting pastor does not possess.

Take, for example, the pastor who wants to use the church’s resources for reaching people outside the church, while the people who are already inside the church want to concentrate on holding steady with where we have always been, and what we have always had. Suspicion, then confrontation, is inevitable.

2. Immobility. A stymied, ossified congregational system that is trapped in an ecclesiastical whirlpool — lots of programmatic motion but little sense of direction. This system shrewdly neutralizes fresh leadership. In this situation the congregation is a closed community that plays church as a way of meeting the social needs of its constituents.

3. Organizational transition. Healthy organizations inevitably reach growth points where a new kind of leadership becomes necessary. Not every pastor can effectively adapt to new and needed changes, says MacDonald. A wise and humble pastor learns where he is best suited.

4. Stagnancy. Growing pastors develop in their giftedness and leadership effectiveness. When a congregation stands in the way, or somehow prevents its pastor’s personal growth, the result will be boredom and mediocrity for everyone. But when the congregation shows its appetite for following a Christ-honoring vision with solid, biblical preaching, then renewal happens.

5. Fatigue. A pastor’s life has a 24/7 job description. He needs to set boundaries, but he often does not. However, his batteries run down. He becomes exhausted; he cannot please everybody; and who protects the pastor?

6. Family Morale. Unrealistic expectations are real. Ignoring your spouse and children will yield an unhealthy harvest of bitterness, strain, and loss. A pastor has gained nothing if he is successful in the church and a failure at home.

7. The Age Factor. Sometimes a pastor is tempted to hold on too long. This casts a large shadow over the reasonableness and good sense of letting go at the right time. It’s not easy for a pastor to see clearly, even when more damage than good may be happening when he overstays.

A pastor is probably wise, says MacDonald, to wrestle with the leave-decision annually. He should spend a few days in self-examination, and seek the insight of reliable, godly counselors for their candid evaluation based on his previously set goals and intentions. If he pursues this discipline, it is likely that when the time to leave does come, he will do it in confidence that God has spoken, that he has completed a good work, and that he has new opportunities ahead.

William Willimon talked about a pastor he knew who called it quits by standing up without warning in a Sunday meeting and announcing he was leaving the ministry. After the initial shock, an older member of the church asked, “Don’t you think you owe us an explanation?”

He replied that he had entered the ministry to preach the gospel and to support the people of Christ in their discipleship. Yet over the years his ministry had become little more than a boring matter of housekeeping and dull routine. He could not take it anymore, so he was leaving.

“Did it ever occur to you that many of us are bored too?” the church member persisted. “None of us have asked you to preach dull sermons. You do the things you do in ministry because that is what you do, not because we have demanded it. If you have some higher, more interesting, or bold idea of what church ought to be, tell us. Some of us feel the same way you do about what this congregation has become.”

Too many pastors passively acquiesce into dull, theologically indefensible forms of ministry that trivialize their vocation, cause them to neglect their marriages and families, and ultimately lead to despair. One pastoral task is to form congregations whose vision of the church gives dignity and validation to the sacrifices we make in being pastors.

Gordon MacDonald recalls Wheaton College President V. Raymond Edman, 40 years ago speaking in chapel. Edman had just finished telling about the time he had carefully rehearsed for his audience with the then Emperor of Ethiopia.

His application for the students, whom he felt had slipped into a spirit of irreverence in their worship, was simple: You must always be prepared to respectfully conduct yourself in the presence of the King of Kings.

Having made his point, Edman suddenly slumped to the floor and died. Having spoken of entering the presence of the King, he did it himself.

He left at the moment of God’s choosing, who, we trust, watches over our leave-decisions,too.

My friend, Bill Dogterom, left his Glendora Foothill Christian Center congregation of 27 years to become university pastor, associate professor of Pastoral Ministries and Spiritual Formation, and chair of Leadership Studies (School of Religion) at Vanguard University. His final letter to his church is a model of grace and sensitivity.

“As I step aside from my role as your pastor, my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude — to you, and to the Lord. You have truly been His hand extended to me in so many ways over these past 27 years. I can’t properly thank each of you – so let me try a more universal approach.

“Thank you, perhaps most of all, for your prayers — both for and about me. I have benefited from a team of men and women who have met regularly on Thursday mornings, and more recently on Sunday mornings, to pray. There is no more important ministry, and I thank you for your faithfulness.

“Thank you for creating a safe place for my family. While the pastor’s kids can never fully escape their identity, this has been our sons’ church — and family — and it has been a haven for them. Thank you for loving them as they are, without demand — but with encouragement. Your care for our sons ministered more to us than we can possibly say.

“Thank you to all of you who served on the board over the years. I am grateful for your willingness to risk the kind of open communication and community that are part of what it means to be in the kingdom of God as it is expressed here. Your steady, faithful commitment to pray and make sometimes difficult choices with grace and charity is a model of how it ought to be.

“Thank you to the scores of you who have served in ministries in and as the church — ushers, greeters, teachers, sound, sight, music, outreach, sponsors, commanders, and on the list goes. You are truly the body of Christ — Foothill is what it is, and what it will be, because of you.

“Thank you for your faithful and generous giving over the years. The ratio of those giving what seems to be at least a tithe is more than double the national average. Our missions giving is, likewise, in the top tier of churches our size. That kind of trust is exemplary.

“Thank you, finally, for teaching me how to pastor. Your patience, prayers, and love have made it possible for me to grow and learn, to make mistakes, and to succeed. Words are insufficient for what is in my heart. Thank you for calling me, and allowing me to be your pastor. Judy and I are very grateful for Foothill Christian Center. For you.”

That’s a great way for a pastor to say goodbye.

T. RAY RACHELS, currently executive presbyter for The General Council of the Assemblies of God, Southwest Region, and former Southern California District superintendent, 1988–2010.

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