Jim Belcher announced on Sunday May 2 that he has decided to leave the church he planted, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, to write his next book. Earlier this year, Leadership Journal named Belcher's first book, Deep Church, "the best of the best" for a "Leader's Outer Life." It also won a Christianity Today book award in the church/pastoral leadership category.
Belcher's announcement follows days after that of Francis Chan, who has also decided to resign from the California congregation he planted, Simi Valley's Cornerstone Church. Chan continues to have two books in the top 12 of the ECPA bestseller list and two in the top 9 of the CBA chart. (Christianity Today profiled Chan in October.) He will fulfill some speaking commitments over the next few months, but expects by the end of the year to be doing some kind of urban ministry.
These announcements come on the heels of the announcement by pastor and author John Piper that he is taking a leave of absence for nine months from both writing and his church responsibilities. And N. T. Wright announced on April 27th he is leaving his position as Bishop of Durham to become a professor at St Andrews in Scotland.
Likewise, Peter Rollins left the church community he founded, Northern Ireland's ikon, in October 2009 to move to the United States after his 2006 book How (Not) To Speak of God and subsequent volumes became popular in the U.S.
In January 2006, Brian McLaren left the church he had planted, Cedar Ridge Community Church, to pursue his writing and speaking ministry.
What's going on? Is the local church becoming the "farm team" for full-time conference and book ministry? Normal pastoral transition, pastoral stress, the personality of church planters, and American culture all probably play a role in these type of transitions.
First, pastoral transition is quite normal. According to the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study led by Duke sociologist Mark Chaves, 50 percent of congregations have had a new senior clergy person in the last seven years.
Second, pastoring certainly can be a demanding vocation. But is it a particularly stressful vocation? Sometimes. "The data suggest that the problems are not as widespread or bleak as some reports maintain," Duke Divinity School professor Jackson W. Carroll wrote in God's Potters. "Even so, they should not be ignored, because they can have a significant negative impact on clergy, their congregations, and their families." Pastors may have extremely stressful circumstances but on the whole, they have found the life of the pastor very satisfying.
Third, people who are good at church planting tend to have creative and communication gifts that also make them good writers. Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird write in the 2007 State of Church Planting in the United States, "Aggressive and highly effective church planters tend to be entrepreneurial and find creative means of funding the plant other than with direct assistance from denominational or church-planting agencies." It is not surprising that the entrepreneurial and creative energies of church planters will sometimes lead them to write books describing what they have learned along the way.
Belcher, Chan, Rollins, McLaren, and others were all church planters. So was Eugene Peterson, who left the church he planted after 29 years to become a professor at Regent College in 1991. (Piper's church has been in existence since the 19th century, but he led it to major growth.)
Fourth, American culture expects authors to travel and promote their books through speaking engagements. Outside speaking engagements and further writing often take pastors away from the church they founded. Some pastors, such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Tim Keller, and Rob Bell, have made arrangements to stay at the churches they founded with other pastors taking on a significant portion of the preaching.
Only in contemporary America do you have the phenomenon of former pastors making their living as conference speakers and authors, historian David Bebbington notes in his 1994 article "British and American Evangelicalism Since 1940." He cites a number of other contributing factors: (A) Americans tend to be more suspicious of institutions but open to individual leaders and their books. "A mixture of populism, individualism, democratization, and market-making has recently been defined as the essence of the American way. … Deference remained almost as powerful a force in Britain as egalitarianism in America." (B) There is far more land to plant new churches. "In America the planting of new churches seemed infinitely easier." (C) There are far more Christians in the U.S. to buy books. In the year 2000, in the United States, the percentage of married persons who attend church regularly was 52 percent; unmarried 38 percent. In the UK, the percent for married persons was 17 percent and for unmarried persons 13 percent. (D) American Christians are far more accustomed to Christian media. For example, in the UK, there was no Christian radio or TV—"a monopoly of the airwaves was entrusted to the British Broadcasting Corporation." (E) Finally, people in the U.S. have tended to be wealthier than those in the UK.
The question remains: Is this phenomenon of former pastors becoming full-time conference speakers and authors a good thing? Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove suggests it's not in his new book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. A successful author trying to live in Christian community, Wilson Hartgrove argues that there is a maturity that comes when people know you. Still, it is problematic for us to judge people from a distance for their vocational decisions. "If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?" (1 Cor 12:17). We should be careful not to assume that these moves are made out of pride. In Sunday's sermon, for example, Chan was particulary eager to emphasize that he felt God is leading him to greater obscurity, not prominence. But even when prominence does come with these moves, we can all be thankful for good writing and speaking. Maybe God is setting aside some people for these tasks so that the body of Christ might be built up.
Andy Rowell is a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) student at Duke Divinity School. He blogs at AndyRowell.net.
Note: This article has been updated since its original posting to clarify Chan's announcement.