There’s one question that everyone in ministry will be faced with at one point or another: the question of whether to stay or go. It’s one I asked myself at various times after planting a church (around year 7- stay for another season, around year 14- let go and let others lead), it’s one I’ve coached numerous other pastors through, and it’s one that if you aren’t asking right now, you probably will be at some point in the future.
The first thing to realize about the question of staying or going is that it’s a normal and even in some ways a necessary question. Like many things in life, ministry (and our growth in it) tends to happen in cycles. Around 7 years into a position, again at 14 years, and again at around 21 years, most people begin to feel the desire for something different, something new, something more (or sometimes less) challenging. As I’ve coached a number of others for whom this question was beginning to surface, I have sometimes detected a certain amount of guilt around even asking the question, as if simply by contemplating moving on, they were somehow being unfaithful to the community in which they were currently serving. It always comes as a relief to hear that it’s a natural part of our growth in ministry, and more, that it’s something we ought to be asking.
I say “ought” to be asking, because I know that if we’re not watchful and mindful of our own growth areas, and the needs of the community we are leading, we can end up trying to lead in a community that has (praise God!) grown beyond our capacity as a leader. At that point, the first challenge is to see what’s happening, and then decide if we have the capacity to learn, grow, and change our own leadership to meet the needs of the church, or if it’s time for someone who’s better equipped to step in. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith: “What got you here won’t get you there.”
Now, knowing the question itself is a natural and even necessary question to ask, the second thing we need to be mindful of in asking it is that answers to that question will come from many, many directions, and we need to be careful about which ones we listen to.
For instance, a tough season in ministry is not an indication that it’s time to go. If that tough season has been caused by your own shortcomings as a leader, it might mean it’s time for someone more up to the challenge to step in, but it also might be an opportunity for exactly the kind of growth in leadership you need. If it’s just been a tough season in general, beware of stepping away from the formation of a tough season and into the honeymoon phase of a new situation. The problem with tough seasons is that they always come around again. We may get temporary relief from a fresh start, but soon enough, we’ll be back in the thick of things.
This isn’t to say that a fresh start, a new beginning after a tough season is a bad thing- it’s simply to say that as we are listening to our own hearts, and even more so, for the voice of the Spirit, we often have a tendency to infer from hard seasons that which is not being implied- namely that it’s time to move on. Sometimes, hard seasons mean exactly the opposite: that we’ve finally broken through the “niceties” of church life and are beginning to see real growth, the kind that comes with growing pains and even opposition.
Some other voices to take with a grain of salt when considering a choice between staying or going:
1. Your critics- not that there’s not something to be learned from our critics, but we don’t let them steer our lives.
2. Your ambition- Be careful of wanting, and especially of feeling entitled to “more.”
3. Your tiredness- Being tired or burned out isn’t necessarily a sign you need to move on. It’s a sign that you don’t yet know how to do ministry in a sustainable way. Better to learn that lesson now, where you are, than putting it off with a move and having to face it again in a couple of years.
4. Your opportunities- not every open door is an invitation from God.
So, whose voice should you be listening to? Obviously, God’s, but not in the vacuum of our own minds where discerning the difference between “God wants” and “I want” is often made more difficult in times of stress and tiredness, or even boredom and mundanity. We listen for God’s voice, and we ask others to help us listen. We ask our spouse to pray and listen, we open up to some (or all) on our elder team and staff as to how we’re feeling (as scary as that sounds), and we ask them to help us discern.
It was a scary thing to ask my team of elders to let me know when I had tipped from an asset to the church I planted over into being a liability. But the funny thing is when they finally did tell me that, I had already been there for 6 months, and it came as a confirmation from some folks that I knew loved me. Because I invited that kind of feedback, I could welcome it when it came.
If you are in a season of discernment, widen your circle. Engage with a coach or a spiritual director. Take advantage of our Ecclesia staff- we’ve all been where you are and more, have observed and learned from many others who have navigated that same season. Lean on the wisdom and learn from the mistakes of others. Don’t make these kinds of decisions in a vacuum. Give your leaders and even your community as a whole (when it’s appropriate) a good model of how a follower of Jesus makes big decisions, in community and in dependence on the Spirit.
One last thought. My personal practice is to attempt as much as possible to give God the glory but take the blame for myself. In other words, the last thing I want to do is drop a life-changing announcement on folks and tag it with “God is leading me to…”
This kind of “God told me to” tends to invalidate the feelings of others, cut off any questions and discussion, and generally make people feel like God is doing something to them.
In situations like this, even when I feel like I have the leading of God’s Spirit, I try to preemptively take most of the blame. I will let people know about the prayer and discussion that preceded it, and the various factors that went into the decision, but ultimately, unless and until I can point to real, tangible, fruit, I want to avoid saying pinning the blame for something that I know will be difficult for some or many to hear on God.
Later, when we’re able to look back and see all that God has done, we can begin describing the leading we felt, the promptings of the Spirit we listened to, and give God the glory He deserves.