How to Know When to Leave

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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?

Back in the Saddle, Part 2

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I recently wrote about the journey our family has taken over the last 12 months. Now that I’m back in the saddle, I want to share the lessons God has been teaching me in the process.

1. God never changes.

It doesn’t matter what craziness is going on in the world—and there is so much of it—he never changes. He is always good. Always present. Giving us grace upon grace. Forgiving. Leading. Guiding.

In the same chapter in which he encourages us to be joyful in our trials, James reminds us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” (James 1:17). It’s not a coincidence that James reminds us about God’s constant nature in the same context in which he talks about painful trials. The weight of God’s unchanging glory is the ballast that keeps our ship upright during all of life’s storms.

There have been so many times when I’ve been amazed by God’s presence and provision during the last year. And I’m so grateful that he doesn’t ever forget about his people. That’s been crystal clear.

2. God’s people are amazing.

It has been truly humbling to be on the receiving end of so many prayers, gifts, and notes of encouragement. Seriously! How does anyone survive difficulties without God’s people surrounding them? For all the flak that Christians get in our cynical culture, try having a struggle or a need in their presence. Then, try not to be overwhelmed by the help you receive.

Our families pitched in to make sure our ends met. Neighbors’ parents dropped off boxes of groceries and an envelope full of gas money. Anonymous gifts appeared in our mailbox. People dropped by to offer help. Countless people prayed on our behalf. Coworkers (Kelly’s, not mine; I was out of work!) showered us with gift cards.

God used his people to continually remind me that he would “supply all [my] needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:19).

3. God is a Redeemer.

God must leap for joy when he encounters an outcast, a down-turned, cast-away, broken, bruised or damaged person. He never delights in our pain. Rather, he thrills to roll up his sleeves and to set about redeeming and restoring. He’s the champion of lost causes.

It’s incredible to see. It’s even better to experience.

God has reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love [him] and are called according to his purpose for them,” (Romans 8:28). If you’re hurting, keep waiting and watching. I can’t tell you what he has in store for you but I know that he’s at work and that, in the end, you’ll feel the same way I feel.

I’m back in the saddle

It’s been a wild ride. But, now that I have the privilege of being able to look back over the experience, I wouldn’t change it. I am right where God wants me to be. My family is thriving. Ministry is getting more and more exciting every day. It’s great to be back in the saddle!

Responding to Change, Part 2

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about a major change I was preparing to experience. I was leaving the familiar (i.e., safe, predictable, stable, comfortable) for the unknown (i.e., scary, unpredictable, uncertain, uncomfortable). At that time, I observed:

“In my mind, there are two main postures I can choose to embrace toward change. I can be a tortoise. Or, I can be a caterpillar … I want to be a caterpillar.”

In the face of danger, a tortoise withdraws into his protective shell, his little world. He remains still, waits for the danger to pass, and slowly continues at the same pace and in the same direction. A caterpillar, however, lives to change. She always moves toward it, preparing for it, embracing it. And, when the time is right, she emerges, transformed.

On Monday, I began a new career. And, as a bonus, I got a view that’s beautiful enough to make a butterfly jealous! It is refreshing to be on this side of this change. But, one of the unexpected experiences is that I have been contacted by a number of people who are struggling through significant changes of their own. Many of them have asked me the same questions and thought the same thoughts as me. The key question for all of us going through sometimes painful changes is:

Will we chose to be tortoises or caterpillars?

I have made a few observations about responding to change through this process. I want to share them in the hope that they might help some of my friends:

1. Changes can alter you outwardly without altering you inwardly.

When the caterpillar emerges from metamorphosis she looks completely different. But, inside, she’s still made of the same stuff. I entered this season of transition uncertain about what I would experience or what I would look like on the other end. But, I remained absolutely sure about who I was, what I believed, and what was right, true, and good. I have begun anew in entirely different surroundings but I feel just as certain—no, more certain—about God’s love and plan for me as well as how he wants to work through me.

2. Changes open the doors to incredible opportunities.

I’ve never seen a flying caterpillar. Without metamorphosis, a caterpillar would never experience the thrill of flight. That describes my experience. Instead of being dull, boring, and depressing, I count this as one of the most exhilarating seasons in recent memory. Instead of being nervous to meet new people and ask for help (more on that below), I found it thrilling to network, ask questions, secure leads, and make new connections. Each phone conversation, email correspondence, and coffee meeting led to even more connections and left me feeling energized and charged up about all of the opportunities around me. And, all of those conversations have started some great things.

3. Changes are wonderful at providing clarity.

Stability and predictability have the uncanny ability to lull us into complacency, blur our focus, and make us forget what is most important. Changes force you to take inventory of what—that is, who—is most important to you. For me, that answer is simple: it’s my wife, my son, my family and my close friends. This season afforded the most wonderful opportunity to spend huge amounts of time with the people who are in the center of my world. Knowing what is most important is incredibly freeing when you’re going through change. Change provides the gift of clarity.

4. You’re not in it alone.

I’ve never been good at asking for help. This situation has forced me to break through that barrier. And, I’ve been overwhelmed by the willingness—even eagerness—of people to do whatever they could to help. Family and friends prayed, fasted, and offered godly advice. Network connections shared wisdom and sent letters of introduction. Connected friends stuck out their own necks to provide their endorsements of my character and ability. And my wife—Oh, wow, my wife!—has been a force of nature, going above and beyond to do everything within her power to aid me through this process.

Change is difficult. Nobody chooses to go through painful and uncertain transitions. But, when they happen, we must realize we’ve been given an incredible gift … if we chose to be a caterpillar and not a tortoise.

What about you?

What changes are you experiencing? What are you learning?

Knowing Our Kids Outside and Inside

We experienced a milestone as a family late this morning. We had a swallow study at the hospital. It’s a fascinating procedure. Owen ate and drank barium-laced food and drinks while a technician, speech therapist, and radiologist watched a live x-ray picture of the chewing and swallowing. They wanted to be sure that Owen—a kid who had a tracheostomy until he was four years old—was able to chew and swallow safely. This was his best swallow study yet. He’s getting stronger and more coordinated. And, over time, it’s getting safer and safer for him to eat table foods.

As I watched Owen’s skeleton chewing a barium cookie, I chuckled and thought, “We know this kid both outside and inside.” For us, that’s literally true. We know every square inch of his body both outside and inside.

I pray that it’s also a spiritual truth.

What do I mean by that?

Parents—us included—know all about our kids’ outsides. We observe and scrutinize constantly. And, let’s be honest, so much of our parenting focuses upon questions like these: Are they playing well with their friends? Are they sitting up straight in church? Do their socks match? Are they using their manners? Are they getting good grades? Are they behaving? Are they disobeying? Are they acting out inappropriately?

All “yes” or “no” questions. All focused upon externals.

What would happen if we spent more time focusing on our kids’ insides? What if we examined the underlying causes for the behaviors we witness? Why are they acting out? Is it because of fear or guilt? Why are they struggling in school? Are they coping with a learning disability? Are their friends teasing them? Why are they rebelling? Is it because they are crying for attention or validation? Why are they refusing to go to practice? Is it because they fear failure when it’s game time?

Questions of this type could be difficult to answer. They require time, careful thought, and prayer. All of them hinge entirely upon the relationships parents have cultivated with their kids, relationships in which the truth can be spoken in love, relationships of trust, relationships of faith.

Why is it so important for us, as parents, to commit to knowing our kids outside and inside?

When we focus exclusively upon our kids’ outsides, their behaviors, we create little legalists. We raise conformists, performers who learn how to look good on the outside while pride and rebellion reign on the inside.

When we focus on our kids’ insides, their hearts, we establish a context in which grace can flow freely. We get to partner with the Spirit in shaping their little hearts, turning them toward their Father.

That’s the entire goal of parenting.

By the way, if we’re struggling with where to begin, we can take our cues from our Heavenly Father. After all, isn’t he more concerned with our insides than our outsides?

To Trust or Not to Trust?

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I remain idealistic enough to believe that the majority of people are worthy of my trust.

I admit it; I’m a trusting person. Too trusting? I guess that depends. I am realistic; I’ve come across people I haven’t easily trusted. I’m secure enough not to allow myself to be blindly taken advantage of. But, I simply refuse to become jaded and cynical. You can call me naive. You can call me a pushover. But, I want trust to be my default setting. I want to believe the best about the people I know and even the people I have yet to meet.

I read an article last night that caused me to question my perspective. According to research cited in the article, more than four out of five Millennials—those who were born during or after 1981 and reached young adulthood around 2000—believe that, generally speaking, most people cannot be trusted.

I find that to be both disturbing and sad.

It’s disturbing because I wonder what happens to the social institutions that form the basis of society when people decide they can no longer trust. What happens to institutions like marriage, family, the school system, the business world, the church, and, yes, even the government, when people quit trusting one another? It’s disturbing.

It’s sad because people who refuse to trust miss out on some of the most beautiful things this life has to offer: see the above list. Those who refuse to trust harden themselves against the vulnerability necessary for marriage to survive, the most effective tools in every parent’s repertoire, the capacity to learn from their teachers, the ability to do good and lasting work, the experience of relationships with God and his people, and the good things that can be built in society when people work together. It’s sad.

Although we may believe that trust is not an important cultural currency in an age in which you can do almost everything you want without ever interacting with a human, I believe that it is, and will remain, far more important than we might allow ourselves to believe. Without the willingness to trust, simply put, we forfeit the opportunity to love and be loved. And, no matter where we might find ourselves, that is the most important thing in life.

Do you find it easy or difficult to trust people? Will you decide to trust or not to trust?

By the way, although I’m technically a Gen-Xer (born in ’77), I scored a 78 on this “How Millennial Are You?” quiz. How Millennial are you?