By Dennis Wiggs
Today, pastors are staying longer at churches. But every pastorate eventually comes to a conclusion. Many reasons exist for departing—death, disability, resignation, retiring, losing a confidence vote, or being asked to leave. Leaving can be unpleasant for the pastor, his family, and the congregation. When the spiritual leader finds it necessary to leave a congregation, for whatever reason, scars may develop that affect the pastor or church for years. The young pastor owes it to himself, his family, and the church family to leave with as little fanfare as possible.
Just out of seminary, a country church accepted me as its first full-time pastor. The previous pastor had been instrumental in leading many to Christ in that church and his other half-time pastorate.
The Lord blessed the ministry from the first service when a young man trusted Christ as Savior and soon enrolled in a Christian college. A strong youth group quickly developed. I was enjoying the first fruits of an active ministry. But after six months, the deacons announced to me that in March of each year, the church voted on the pastor. I yielded without question.
My family and I returned to our rented home while the congregation cast their votes. As we walked in the door, the phone rang. It was a deacon. He announced abruptly, “You lost.”
Dumfounded, I exclaimed, “Lost? What does that mean?”
“It means you’ve got three months to find another church,” the deacon declared and concluded the conversation.
My wife and I sat in shock. We just couldn’t believe that our six-month church honeymoon would end in such a manner. The older minister who performed our wedding ceremony gave us some sound advice. “Dennis, don’t preach your grief from the Pulpit. Just preach Jesus!”
It was good counsel that I tried to follow for almost three months while we waited for another church to open. Such preaching profits preacher and congregation. When the congregation decides for you to leave, don’t try to “straighten out the problems.” Just preach Jesus. Pray and then pray some more. And leave as graciously as possible.
By the way, the church that decided for me to leave after six months has called me back for revival meetings, funerals, weddings, and other events. Because I practiced the advice of the older minister, I can return to that church without shame or embarrassment.
Be sure every bill is paid, even if you must borrow the money from a lending institution. Seek to have a good leaving relationship with everyone, regardless of what they may have done to you. Prepare the way for the new Pastor. Leave the parsonage spotlessly cleaned. Return every item you may have borrowed. Keep paying your tithe until your last paycheck.
These suggestions may sound like compromising. Not true. Remember, you are a man of God. Act that role. You may need that church someday or that congregation may need you. Leave with the door open for future opportunities to minister to that group of people.
Although pastors find it necessary to depart from a ministry they do not want to leave. A forced exit is often bitter. Hard feelings can develop. Church members, even preachers, can say words they don’t mean.
Pastor, do your best to love people who turn against you.” Most church members just don’t know how to terminate a pastor’s ministry. Many of them work in a secular atmosphere where hiring and firing are acted out without compassion. That attitude often flows over into the church without the membership realizing what is happening.
Do your best to love those people. Maybe through the agonizing experience of separation, the congregation may mature into better believers. Maybe they will learn (at your expense) how to deal more lovingly with the next pastor.
Whatever your reason for leaving a church, just leave. Refrain from speaking disparagingly about difficult members of the congregation. The next pastor just may be able to lead them to greater spiritual heights. (And, don’t be jealous!)
Refuse to call a favorite church member on Sunday nights to ask how the services went that day. Turn a deaf ear to what happens at your previous pastorate. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t immediately return for funerals and weddings. Divorce yourself from that pastorate. Set your aspirations and affections on a new ministry. New responsibilities are the most effective salve for old wounds.
About the Writer: Dennis Wiggs retired in 2004 after many years in ministry.
Adapted from Contact magazine, July 2000.