Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Finishing Well

Here are some thoughts from our Pastoral Ministry class about finishing well in a place of service when God directs us to move elsewhere:


There is no certain sign that it is time to leave. Surely some leave too soon, but also some stay too long. This is a matter of prayer, and there must be confident assurance that God is the one who is leading. Here are some guidelines.

“Don’t Chase Money or Prestige”
Never assume that just because another church offers more money or a more “important” position that God is calling. There are no unimportant places of serving Christ. God is the provider.

A move to another place always involves three parties: the old church, the new church and the pastor (and family). Most often, a transition is either win-win-lose (e.g., good for the pastor, good for the new church, bad for the old church), or win-lose-lose (e.g., good for the pastor, bad for both churches). A win-win-win situation is one that is good for all parties involved.

“Don’t go away mad”
I have made it a practice to never leave a church in the middle of conflict. While it may make sense, humanly speaking, for the short run, there are long term effects of doing this. First, the church is left in conflict with no one at the helm to pilot them through the troubled waters. Often the burden either falls to a denominational leader or an interim, neither of whom know the people and the roots of the conflict. More often perhaps, the conflict is brushed under the rug and never dealt with in a healthy way, and this makes it worse over time as it festers. Second, the pastor and his family are hurt by the conflict and the departure, and this creates baggage that he will inevitably carry into the new church. This will then create obstacles in the new church, not to mention broken fellowship between the two churches and others who are indirectly involved. It has always been my desire and practice, when times are troubled, to help lead the church to a healthy resolution of conflict first, before entertaining offers to leave. Usually, once the conflict is resolved, the desire to depart fades and there can be a longer, happier ministry there.

“The Uncertain Signs” – Things that should NEVER be interpreted as indicators of time to leave:
- Problems in the present church: There will be problems in the next one too. Part of your calling is to help the church sort through its problems and resolve them.
- Problem people in the present church: There will be problem people in the next church too. If you leave, you strengthen their position as power brokers in the church. Sometimes, you need to stay and confront them. As one pastor told me, “Someone has to be Gandalf and stand on the bridge and say to the beast, ‘You cannot pass.’” To which I said, “Yeah, then he died.” To which he said, “But he came back stronger and better than ever.” For the sake of the whole church and any future pastor there, you need to confront that person in an appropriate way. Also remember that God is still working on you too. One of the ways He does this best is through adversity. The problems and problem people in the church may be His heavenly sandpaper by which He is accomplishing your own sanctification.
- Spiritual dryness: This may be a dry season in the life of the church or the life of the pastor. Both can be remedied by the Lord through the pastor. If it is a dry season in the pastor’s life, that is certainly not a healthy place to begin a new ministry somewhere else. Confess it to the church and ask for prayer. Recommit to personal spiritual disciplines. If it is a dry season in the church, part of your role is to help them move beyond that. All churches go through cycles and dry seasons are somewhat normal. Learn to deal with them, not run from them.
- An open door somewhere else: This may just as likely be a temptation from the devil as a sign from God. You better know before you go.
- An obvious need you can meet somewhere else: This could be an appeal to your own ego rather than a sign from God. Remember, you are not the Savior, and you are not indispensable in the purposes of God. Someone else may be able to meet that need better than you can. But no one else may be able to step in where you are and serve the way God called you to serve there.
- “Staff infections”: You may be the one who needs to go in this case, but often you are the one God has put there to fix the situation, not to make it worse by fleeing.

“The Yellow Lights” – Proceed with caution when …
- Theological conflict – If you are a Bible-believing pastor and the church is liberal or moderate, there will be constant conflict. You may be tempted to think, “This church would be better off with a liberal pastor.” But stop and think, “Is any church better off with a liberal pastor?” Surely not.
- A fulfilled vision – You’ve accomplished all that you feel God put you there to do. Prayerfully consider that God may still have a plan for you there. He may be challenging you to broaden your vision and stretch yourself and the church.
- Loss of leadership – For one reason or another, your leadership may have been undermined. It could be the fault of a power-hungry individual or group that has undermined you. You may need to stand firm and oppose them. It could be your own fault because of poor choices. Can you confess that to the church and seek restoration? You certainly don’t want to begin at a new place with unreconciled sin from the past.

“The Certain Signs”
- Termination – the people (in a congregational church) or leaders (in an elder led church or similar) have spoken and they do not desire your leadership any longer. Here you have no option. Do not fight or resist. Go in grace.
- Staying would hurt the present church – Whatever the circumstances, if staying put would harm or hinder the work of God in that local church, you must leave.
- Convergence of Providences – Things come together in an undeniably divine way. The open door elsewhere, the development of a new leader in the present place, the resolution of past conflicts, the answers to specific prayers, etc. These are often more than coincidences.
- A better fit – Churches, like people, have personalities. It may be an educational misfit, a social misfit, an ethnic misfit (be careful here), or a cultural misfit. Example: Are you an urban person in a rural church? An opportunity to go to an urban church may be the right move.
- Family turmoil – If a pastor’s family cannot support the church he serves, then a move is definitely in order. Just make sure that the family can support the new church. It may be a deeper issue.

How do we know the will of God?
It is both easier and harder than you think. Harder, because the will of God is not always discernible by the hunches and strong feelings we have in our gut. Easier, because the will of God is not hidden away in a black box, detectable only by mystic and hyperspiritual rituals. I highly recommend Bruce Waltke's book Finding the Will of God.

“Just leave well enough alone”
- Leaving well enough
---Say thank you to the people who made your ministry a joy inside the church and out
---Don’t dig up old skeletons to leave behind. Forget about the hurts and hardships, don’t try to settle scores on the way out the door. One caveat – it may be necessary to point out to leaders certain individuals who have hindered the life and health of the church. They may be unaware.
--- Maintain friendships, but don’t meddle. Keep contact with special Christian brothers and sisters, but do not get involved in church situations unless the new pastor invites you to do so.
People are hurt when pastors disappear without a trace.
--- Remind the people of what God has done and what He can do through them. Leave them assured that God is not finished with them.
--- Help them get a search committee established and coach them in the process, if they request or allow it.
--- Pay debts in the community, return things that belong to the church and to members, resolve interpersonal conflicts as much as you can, forgive those who hurt you.
--- Help the new guy. Help him through preaching. Preach on supporting the pastor. The fact that you are leaving enables you to do this without appearing selfish. Be his friend and prayer partner, his counselor when he requests it, and help him in any way he asks. Let him be the initiator beyond the first contact. Keep him in the loop when you are interacting with the members after you leave. This will eliminate suspicions. Speak highly of him to members.
--- Make a list and check it twice. The new pastor will benefit from from you leaving him a list of information that will be helpful: Community resources (hospitals, funeral homes, other like-minded pastors, “friendly” media contacts, etc); Info about the building and grounds (how to run water in the baptistery, where the light switches are, which keys unlock which doors, etc.); Long range goals of the church (not your own); Prospect contacts; KEYS!!!; Instructions on specific things in the church and community (e.g. how the copier works, clergy credentials for the hospitals, etc.)
--- Prayerfully consider the pros and cons of invitations to return for weddings and funerals, and always in consult with the new pastor.
- Leave alone. Don’t recruit the members to go with you. Don’t encourage them to leave behind you. Do what you can to keep the church intact as you go.

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