I’ve pastored three churches.
I left the first one in the middle of a long-term turnaround, believing it was best for someone else to finish the job I had started.
I left the second one early, when I realized I was not the right pastor to help the turnaround happen.
In the third (and current) one, we not only made a turnaround, but we’ve reinvented ourselves several times in the almost 25 years I’ve been pastoring here.
(This post is part of an ongoing series about pastoral transition, and specifically my transition at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship from lead pastor to teaching pastor, with my long-time youth pastor becoming the lead pastor. Click here to read other posts in the series.)
So how does a pastor know when it’s time to leave, prepare for a hand-off, or walk with them through a rebirth? Here’s what I’ve learned.
(All of these assume that you’re in a church tradition that gives pastors a choice about where to serve instead of being assigned by an ecclesiastical authority.)
…your time there is done and a healthy handoff is not possible.
This is the least desirable option.
Pastoral transitions are dangerous and traumatic times for churches and pastors. Other than the church planting phase, more churches close due to pastoral transition than for any other reason.
And more pastors get discouraged and leave the ministry during between-church transition periods than any other season.
But when you’re done, you’re done. Just make sure you’re really done.
Hand It Off If…
…your time there is done and a healthy handoff is possible.
From the moment they arrive until the moment they’re gone, every pastor should prepare themselves and the church for their eventual departure.
This usually happens in one of two ways. Either by raising someone up who can take over as pastor, or by training the church leaders in the principles for finding a new pastor.
What a great way to leave a legacy. To see the church get stronger and healthier without us.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often. But it should. No church should be so reliant on one person that it’s at risk of collapse when that person leaves. Even if that person is the pastor.
A huge part of the pastoral mandate to “equip the saints to do the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12) is to prepare them to carry on stronger and better after we’re gone.
It’s Jesus’ church, after all. Not ours.
Reboot Your Ministry If…
…your time there is not done and you’re willing and able to make an internal transition.
This is almost always the most desirable outcome.
Just as pastoral transition is dangerous for churches, one of the highest predictors for a healthy church is a long-term pastorate.
And it’s good for the pastor, too.
We should never stop growing in our faith, learning how to lead, and leaning on Jesus. And there are few things that will stretch us to do that like leading a church through a reboot – especially when we’re being renewed as we do it with them.
But isn’t it possible for a pastor to stay too long? I want to say ‘yes’, but I have to say ‘no’.
The reason I want to say ‘yes’ is because we’ve all seen the sad spectacle of a pastor who clings on for years after they’ve stopped leading the church well. In that case, a one-day pastorate is too long.
But if the pastor is still learning, growing and leading (and in good health), there’s no such thing as a too-long pastorate.
For a little more information about this, read my previous post about Transition Without Relocation.
If you can stay and guide the church through the necessary steps of transition, do so. Leaving for somewhere new may be easier in the short run, but in the long run staying and rebooting will bless the church, reinvigorate the pastor and give us greater opportunities to honor Jesus together.
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