Why do pastors move?
In many parts of the world field, the conference initiates the move and pastors may not have a choice. But when they do have a choice, why do they move? Leaving a church is not easy. It can be painful and filled with mixed emotions, lingering doubts self-criticisms, the pain of unfulfilled dreams, varying opinions, and even spiritual doubts.
However, the fact remains that pastors do move and will continue to move. They move for various reasons, such as the conviction that God has called them to go somewhere else, their desire to pastor a larger or smaller church, or for family reasons.
How do you decide whether leaving a church is really the right thing to do? First, pray earnestly. There is no substitute for asking God’s counsel. If you pray without ceasing, God will reveal His will to you. Second, early on, seek the counsel of those you trust most: your spouse, trusted friends, fellow elders, and other key church leaders. Third, be clear on why you want to leave and what constitutes a sufficient reason to leave.
Having done all this, a question may still linger: are there some practical considerations? An interview with 15 experienced pastors on what factors influenced their decision to leave or stay revealed nine such considerations.
Note: Respondents were allowed to identify more than one reason.
1. The call: Is God calling me to a new place of ministry?
Even if things are going well and the church where you are currently ministering is growing, pay attention when God tugs at your heart to leave. Seek counsel before deciding. “Victory comes with many counselors” (Prov.24:6, HCSB). When your family, friends, and colleagues confirm your sense of calling, God may be leading you to anew place of service.
2. Circumstances: Do conditions in my current church make a move prudent?
Family problems, special educational needs of your children, financial necessities, a toxic environment in your current church, and a better life for your family may suggest that you make a move. However, be careful not to use circumstances as an excuse to do what you choose to do. If there are extenuating circumstances and you know it is God’s will that you stay, be confident that He will give you the strength and guidance you need to deal with difficulties.
3. Competencies: Am I still equipped and competent to lead my church?
You may have outgrown the church. If you stay put, stagnation may bother you. In such circumstances, leaving is good stewardship of your competency skills and opportunities. Additionally, if your church has grown beyond your ability to serve effectively and you are a hindrance to the future growth and ministry of the church, it may be time to step aside. If the church is flat or declining, the attendance is stagnant, and the congregation has reached a low morale, maybe the time has come for you to leave. However, this could also be a sign that you need to stay and work to develop more knowledge and skills in order to continue serving where God has placed you.
Sometimes the church might be struggling because of you. Examine yourself and find out what is in you, spiritually or professionally, that might be hindering God’s work. Then seek out what you can do to help your church. Some time ago, one of the churches I was pastoring began to show a decline in both membership and attendance. I got discouraged and wanted to move or quit. However, some self-refection revealed that I was not relying sufficiently on God and seemed to have taken for granted church growth and maturity. Soon, I was on my knees more often and pleaded with God to work His will and way—not my way—in our congregation. Church members also joined in this quest for revival. Before long the church experienced miraculous growth both spiritually and numerically. I was filled with joy, as was the congregation. I am glad I stayed.
4. Depletion: Am I depleted financially, emotionally, and spiritually, and might a new church be the thing I need to start over?
Financial need is more often an issue with lay and bivocational pastors but may also affect full-time pastors and their families. If the church cannot provide for a decent livelihood, then you must either leave or enter bivocational ministry. Caring for your family involves a high biblical priority (see 1 Tim. 5:8). A church should free the pastor from worrying over how to meet the basic needs of the family. Assuming that the pastor is well cared for, the pastor should not move simply to acquire more of the treasures of this world.
However, if the pastor is thinking of a move because his or her energy, focus, enthusiasm, vision, and joy have waned, then the pastor needs to address the situation. Instead of leaving the church permanently when you are burned out, a leave of absence for recovery and renewal may be the solution. Some conferences do allow their pastors a sabbatical to recharge and restore their emotional, professional, and spiritual health.
5. Conflict: Are conflicts in the church beyond resolution and need someone else to take care of them?
When conflicts over your ministry and leadership are dividing, damaging, and destroying the fellowship and mission of the church, leaving becomes an option. Regardless of who is at fault, relational damage can make it hard to revive a positive ministry. A pathologically dysfunctional church can damage you and your family.
Consider whether conflicts are really unresolvable or you are just too tired to face them. Remember the reassuring promise, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut. 31:8, NIV).
6. Credibility: Do I still have credibility to lead this church effectively?
Credibility is that factor that increases the confidence of the community of faith in the pastor who leads that community. It is built over the years through a ministry of love and responsible stewardship, identifiable through various factors: increase in attendance, baptisms, increase of faithfulness in giving, involvement in evangelism and community outreach, and an overall good feeling in the church.
Credibility can be squandered or lost. Pastors who spend much time in nonproductive activities outside the church may begin to see credibility trickle away. A breakdown in morality may bankrupt the credibility account. When an ethical violation, such as lying, cheating, stealing, or sexual misconduct, has destroyed people’s trust and support, the wise decision would be to leave and to think carefully whether ministry is still an option when the issue puts the church to disrepute. Both the minister and church need time for recovery and healing.
Credibility may also be lost through poor decisions. One pastor led his church into a fund-raising program with an outside firm. The firm ran off with close to $250,000. While the loss was not strictly the pastor’s fault, he had recommended employing the firm. Following the incident, church members began questioning his leadership in other areas. Such pastors whose credibility is nearly bankrupt should consider a fresh start.
While maintaining credibility is a lifelong endeavor, losing credibility could be the work of a moment. When credibility is damaged or lost, regaining it takes much more time, effort, and humility. Where necessary, sincerely apologize and work diligently with an action plan to correct any problems that may have been caused along the way. Reasonable parishioners do realize that pastors are human, too, and they will be willing to give you a second chance.
7. Tenure: Have I stayed long enough to be effective or too long and become ineffective?
A survey of general Baptist pastors revealed that, while long tenure does not guarantee church growth, shorter pastoral tenures (fewer than 5 years) tend to result in lack of growth.2 Indeed, churches with short pastoral turnover usually tend to decline. It seems to take between 5 to 7 years for a pastor to really be accepted by the congregation. And about that same amount of time is needed for churches to grow numerically. Ironically, as in marriage, the most likely times for divorce from the congregation is at the 5-to-7-year mark. Several pastors who stayed in one church for 25 years or more said this general remark: “The first ten years were great; the second ten years were good; I should have left in year twenty!”3
Sometimes the length of a pastor’s stay can reach a point of diminishing returns. When vision, enthusiasm, and zeal begin to wane—be it with you or with the church you are pastoring—that may be the time to consider a relocation. If your leadership is no longer being followed, membership is eroding, and your redoubling efforts fail to produce the desired results, a fresh start in another parish may give you renewed quality in your ministry.
While it may be true that the longer you hang in there, the better it will be for you, your family, and the church, the tenure of your ministry should zero in on not what is good for you but what God can do in you and for your congregation. Meanwhile, give your church small victories and a steady assurance of God’s care, and not a steady diet of criticism from the pulpit. Small victories lay the groundwork for bigger things to come.
No pastor should expect to be in the same church forever. Change will come. Meanwhile, what matters is that the pastor should continue to grow in grace and transmit that grace through service when times are tough or easy. The patterns you set in the ups and downs of ministry will guide you for the rest of your ministry.
8. Philosophy: Is my philosophy of ministry compatible with my church?
Philosophy of ministry includes elements such as worship style, primary ministry goals, where you fall on the conservative-liberal spectrum, leadership style, utilization of spiritual gifts, and the role of the church in the community. Every pastor and church has a philosophy of ministry, though it may not be explicitly defined or clearly articulated.
When you consider moving to a new church or think of accepting a call from another church, it may be good to sit down with the board of that church, talk about your ministerial philosophy, and explore whether there is philosophic compatibility between your stand and the church’s expectations. The key question should be: “Does my philosophy of ministry match that of the new church?” Some areas of incompatibility may be easy to handle and can be overcome. Some may be fundamentally irreconcilable. Your decision to move, not to move, or to consider a different church may depend on how the philosophic issues are settled.
One pastor I know had this philosophic struggle some time ago as he was considering a move to a new church. That church had two factions. One group was basically nurture oriented; they expected the pastor to visit every member at least once or twice a year. Shepherding the flock was the pastor’s sole responsibility. The other group was committed to evangelism-oriented ministry. These people were deeply involved in outreach ministries and wanted the pastor’s main emphasis to be visiting prospective members. The church was a disaster waiting to happen. The pastor confided to me that he felt as if horses were tied to each arm and pulling in opposite directions. Fortunately, a review of the philosophic orientation of the two groups helped the pastor decide correctly whether he should move or not.
9. Dreaming: Do I still have a dream for this church?
Are you excited about the possible future of your church? Can you clearly see where your church is going? As you contemplate a move, ask yourself, “Do I have a dream for the church? Have I shared it with anyone? Have I helped that church define its dream? Do I get excited about that dream? Do I wake up eager to see where the Lord leads in the fulfillment of my dream?”
Healthy churches have a dream of what God wants to do through them. And the pastor should be the chief dreamer. If God does not spark you with His dreams for your current church, it is unlikely that your church will grow or that you are the one to lead it. In that case, you may wish to think of a move with a dream for a new church. But if you have a clear vision for the future of your present church, maybe you should stay to see it become a reality.
No one of these factors, taken alone, should cause you to leave a place where God has called you to serve. The Holy Spirit may overrule every suggestion provided here and instruct you to stay just where you are. Do your best to prayerfully determine the will of God and follow His plan.
The quiet leading of the Holy Spirit is certainly not to be neglected. God delights to work His miracles in difficult situations. There are plenty of examples of churches around the country where He does just that.
Remember, deciding to leave never comes easily, and once the decision is made, the process of relocating may be difficult. But an honest appraisal of the factors and questions presented previously can allow God to use you in the place and time that will ultimately bring greatest benefit to His kingdom.
Questions to ask before leaving or resigning
These questions fall into four types: theological, philosophical, practical, and personal.
- Is my work here really finished?
- Am I simply depressed about a temporary situation?
- Is this a “cycle of life”—do I want to move every four or five years?
- Is this church the problem, or am I the problem?
- Am I running away from something I will eventually face elsewhere?
- How much have I prayed—really prayed—about this?
- How much has “better opportunity” influenced my restlessness?
- Have I had an increasing uneasiness here?
- Is the thought of moving constantly on my mind?
- Am I willing to stay? How willing?
- What would it take to persuade me to stay?
- Is my own spiritual dryness the real issue?
- Does my family tend to confirm it is time to go?
- What bothers me most about this church?
- Why did God send me here in the first place?
- What are the pros in staying here? The cons?
- What do the leaders of my church think?
- Have I stayed at least five years?
- What might I do differently here if I do stay?
- Do my spiritual gifts match the present needs of my position and church?
Questions to ask about the new church
These questions fall into four types: theological, philosophical, practical, and personal.
- How do their priorities match mine?
- Is the leadership basically positive or negative?
- What would I have to concentrate on during the first year?
- Does my spouse fit their expectations?
- What is the church’s self-image?
- Are they given to legalism? Antinomianism?
- Do we agree on the role of the church in the community?
- How much authority do they grant the pastor?
- Will these board members serve for life, or do they rotate?
- Who really has the power in this church? Can I work with him or her?
- What do others say about this church?
- Is this a soul-winning church?
- Will my style of leadership fit here?
- Will my social style be a fit?
- What are the ten best strengths of this church?
- What are five weaknesses?
- How would I change this church?
- How might they change me?
- If I were at that church now, would my present church look good?
- How much have I prayed and listened to God about this?
1. Charles Arn, “Pastoral Longevity and Church Growth (Charles Arn),” 11/4/2012, wesleyconnectonline.com/pastoral-longevity-and-church-growth-charles-arn/.
2 See Franklin Dumond, “Eight Point Eight Two: How Long Do Pastors Stay in One Church?” For Every Man, June 26, 2014, www.gbjournal.org/8-82/.