Sometimes you have to walk away.
That’s a painful truth in ministry. Sometimes you’ve worked so long, fought so hard, influenced to the extent of your capabilities, and had all the difficult conversations that are necessary and there’s no sight of growth or change on the horizon. It could be an unchangeable systemic problem, nearsighted leadership, entrenched members, persecution, overwhelming political interests, or some combination of all of these external problems that prompts a minister to move on. Or, it could be a change of life circumstances, a heart that is pulled toward a new ministry focus, a family need, or some combination of these internal conflicts that prompts a minister to move on. Whether the root cause is internal or external, sometimes the only solution is to shake the dust off your feet and walk away.
So, if change is inevitable, how do you know when to leave? First, let’s consider what not to do.
Five mistakes when leaving becomes an option:
1. Allowing difficult circumstances to damage your heart, family, or friendships.
Some people are able to leave work at the office. Some bring it home with them. And, many ministry families have suffered because of the residue of struggles at church that have been allowed to creep in. By all means, preserve your heart, family, and friendships. They’re too important.
2. Believing the grass is greener.
It’s not. I’ve known ministers who regularly move from church to church. Either they leave when their bag of tricks is empty or they skip to the next more-prestigious assignment that comes their way. Sure, some churches are healthier than others, but simply moving on in order to avoid problems is not a solution that honors the church or deals in solid logic. Don’t jump over the fence just because you believe you’ll graze better.
3. Leaving too soon.
Friction and traction are inseparable. Way too many church leaders view friction as a sign that they ought to give up rather than conceiving of it as the precursor to the traction for which they strive. There will always be difficulty and discomfort. Great leaders push through and love people along the way. Don’t make the mistake of leaving too soon and miss the opportunities that are often just around the bend.
4. Staying too long at the expense of your character.
Wrong is wrong. Sin is sin. And, sometimes staying too long means that you actually perpetuate problems, endorsing them by your presence. And, it is quite possible to simply inherit guilt by association. Rise above. When it becomes clear that there is a deep-rooted moral impediment, you’ve done all you can to lovingly expose and heal the issues, and sin is allowed to persist, have the character to walk away.
5. Creating a mess on the way out.
Once the decision is made, it’s done. No good can come from being a disruption, making accusations, or fouling things up on your way out. Be gracious. Be slow to speak. Give up the right to defend yourself by casting aspersions on others. Just go. Speak well of Christ’s church. And, throw your heart into leading her elsewhere.
So, if you’re working hard to avoid these mistakes, how do you know when it’s really time to leave?
How to know when to leave:
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. But, there are a few signposts that you’ll see along the way.
1. The Spirit prompts, nudges, or provides opportunities.
I’m not talking about open doors or outrageous circumstances. I’m talking about the Spirit’s still, small voice. What is the Spirit placing on your heart? What Scriptures is the Spirit bringing to your mind? Tune in. If he is the catalyst, he will also be the guide, comfort, and provision. Lean on him and step out.
2. The godly voices in your life encourage you to move on.
Who are these voices? Well, I’d begin with your spouse. Then, I’d include your accountability partner, ministry peers, godly counselor, concerned friend, or fellow small group member. Most of the time, assuming you aren’t quite hearing the Spirit’s voice, these will be the voices the Spirit will use to get your attention. Listen to them. Weigh what they’re saying against your experience and against what God’s saying to you in his Word. Don’t discount the observations they share or the wisdom they provide. Take stock. If the godly people in your life are unified in encouraging you to consider moving on, it might be time to brush up the résumé.
3. You’ve done all you can do to live at peace with others.
I love Paul’s advice in Romans 12:18. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Living at peace with everyone is obviously the objective. But, I love the qualifiers: if it is possible and as far as it depends upon you. Do all you can. Be above reproach in your thoughts, attitudes, motives, and actions. (Read all of Romans 12 if you need some tips.) You still might reach the point at which peace simply isn’t possible. It doesn’t all depend upon you. It’s OK—regrettable but OK—to walk away if this is the case.
4. You’ve handed off ministry to capable hands.
This is a different point from what I’ve listed above. But, if ministers take seriously their calling to equip God’s people to do the work of the church, there may come a time when your services simply aren’t needed. You’ve replaced yourself. That would be a success! And, assuming there’s not another role to step into, it might be best to move on and to continue equipping others elsewhere. If this is the situation in which you find yourself, congratulations! You’ve done well.
It’s never easy to leave a ministry into which you’ve poured your heart and life. But, there’s one truth that can provide immense comfort during times of transition:
It’s God’s Church. He is still loving, leading, and guiding her whether we’re present or not. We’re leaving her in capable hands.
What about you?
Have you ever had to make a transition? How did you know when to leave?