Is It Time to Leave?



My friend Ray had served as senior pastor of the same church for decades. At breakfast together, I came right to the point: ‘Ray, how do you know when it’s time to leave your church?”

He began to laugh. “I’ve been asking that question for years.”

I found his response encouraging. I was not alone. But he didn’t answer my question. Since then, prayerful observations have brought me to some conclusions about this key question for any church leader.

I. Signs Not To Leave (some signs can be misread)

1. Opposition. We are in a spiritual war, and as leaders we are marked men and women. The Enemy is out to destroy us and our
credibility. Opposition is not a sign to leave. It means only that we are in the fight.

2. Pain. Being a leader means taking a lot of shots. We are called not only to believe the gospel but to suffer for it (Phil. 1:29).
Jesus’ ministry included the pain of rejection and the agony of the cross.

3. Depression. When we expend high levels of adrenaline, we are going to feel a letdown — especially when things aren’t going well. David had a major bout with depression when he returned from battle to find the Amalekites had raided Ziklag and taken all the wives and children. I hardly ever feel like quitting — except on Mondays, or right after a board meeting, or when my self-esteem is threatened. Some depression is not a sign to quit.

4. Not enough money or staff. A shortage of money and staff is simply how it is in most churches.

5. Your church is not growing just now. Churches grow in spurts. Like in a good mutual fund, it’s the long-term growth that counts. Now may be a pruning time for your congregation. It is probably not time for you to leave.

6. Self-doubt. “Can I really do this? I’m so inadequate.” That’s true. Now is the time to “be strong in the Lord and the power of his
might.” Your weakness is not an excuse to bail out. It qualifies you for God to work through you in a way that will astonish other people.

7. People have left. Some folds need to leave. The people who resist all change will stand in the way of what God might be doing. Some are never going to be happy unless they are in power. Having people leave is never fun, but it is not necessarily a sign to leave.

These problems are real . They often drain us. But they are not sure signs to leave. They represent something of the cost of ministry we are called to bear.

When the pressure is on, many of us leave too quickly. There is strong evidence that the most productive years for a pastor are after fives years with a congregation.

II. Possible signs to leave

1. You are obviously not the leader. All of us lose some issues we think are important. When we lose too many of these, it may be a sign to leave.

It was not a happy day when I began to realize that a respected man on my board was opposing most of my ideas. He was part of a small but strong group of people not following my leadership.

There are times when it’s up to us to stop a rebellion. Once, when my district superintendent was aware of the power struggle in our congregation, I told him I was thinking of leaving. “Not until you get this one settled,’ he responded. Sometimes we have to correct a situation before someone else can follow us.

2. You don’t see growth for a sustained period. If the church has been in decline for three or more years, this may be a significant
sign. If the people are showing no signs of maturation, this is saying something. Lack of personal growth may also be a red flag. Long-term stagnation is not God’s norm.

3. You are not fitting in. When there is a cultural mismatch, someone must change. If I’m not adjusting, I become an obstacle.

4. Your voice is no longer fresh. sometimes folks become so accustomed to our voice, they turn us off. A fresh voice can provide new motivation.

I led one church through three building programs plus property acquisition. Even with three Sunday morning services, we needed more facilities: all agreed. But the people had heard it from me too many times. A fresh voice was needed.

5. Your gifts are needed in a new context. It may not be a bigger church but a place where my passions and gifts are needed. Leaving Salem, Oregon, after 23 years wasn’t easy. The new congregation in Canada was only half the size of the church in Salem. But the move was right. Our gifts seemed suited for the younger congregation in British Columbia. It was the most responsive and stimulating church we served.

6. Your family will be injured by staying. We cannot move simply because they would like it better someplace else. But when their
physical or spiritual welfare is at stake, I must carefully discern God’s best for them.

7. You have failed morally or ethically. You and the church need time to heal. You need to resign and place yourself under accountability.

The Cost of Ministry

We tend to be subjective in our decision making. I need to remember that the Scriptures are clear about God’s will for me:

1. To become Christlike. He wants me to live righteously.

2. To invest my life in people. To love people and to use things, not the other way around.

3. To stay close to the church. To not become a critic. Doing the Father’s will has its cost. I’ve been rejected by people I loved, and
persecuted for doing what I believed to be right. But even if the people mean it for evil, God will use it for good. Part of that good may be a move I don’t want to make.

Don’t be afraid to look at the signs. Seek the counsel of godly people. Another church or even another role could be God’s great
surprise for you.