Eugene Cho: Why I Am Stepping Down as Pastor of Quest Church

“I don’t feel burned out, but I am realizing my limitations.”
Eugene Cho: Why I Am Stepping Down as Pastor of Quest Church
Image: Courtesy of Eugene Cho

In 2001 Eugene Cho and his wife, Minhee, founded Quest Church, an urban, multicultural, and multigenerational community in Seattle. He began his first year as a pastor without a salary, working as a janitor at Barnes & Noble. It was a hard beginning, but it proved formational for him and his congregation. In addition to fulltime ministry, Cho launched a nonprofit organization, One Day’s Wages, in 2009 to help alleviate extreme global poverty.

On June 3, 2018, after 18 years of ministry at Quest Church, Cho announced to his congregation that he would be resigning from his position as lead pastor. Kyle Rohane, editor of CT Pastors, sat down with Cho to talk about his reasons for stepping aside, the discernment process that led to this point, and his hopes and fears for Quest Church in the coming years.

Now that your resignation is public, I imagine you are experiencing a number of emotions. Can you describe what’s going through your head and heart right now?

I’m doing … okay. While my wife, Minhee, and I are at peace with the decision—it’s something we’ve been praying through for some time—there’s certainly real grieving as well. We planted Quest Church about 18 years ago, so the closest analogy I can think of is when we dropped off our eldest kid at college. Leading up to that moment, we began to ask questions like, Is she ready? Did we do enough? When that day arrived we hugged her and kissed her, gave her a few words of advice and Scripture verses. Then we turned around, got into the car, and just started bawling.

Right now we’re feeling a similar mix of emotions: gratitude for God’s faithfulness over the past 18 years, but some real grieving as well.

How has Quest Church’s congregation responded since you announced your resignation?

People have responded in three main ways. First, there’s a group of folks who are shocked because they’re fairly new to our church and don’t understand the full, 18-year history. Second, there are those who feel disappointed, but they are at peace as well. They see what God’s doing here. They affirm our decision and celebrate it. Third, there’s a group that surprised me a bit. I knew our church, like other churches, was comprised of wounded people, but I didn’t realize how many people had experienced wounds as a result of a messy departure. Folks have reached out to say that, when they initially heard the news, it took them back to bad experiences of conflict, scandal, and moral failure they witnessed in previous churches. But since that initial shock, many of them have shared how grateful they are that our church is trying to model transparency, honesty, and good leadership.

When did you first get the sense that it might be time to resign?

This journey began three or four years ago when the thought of stepping aside first entered my mind. It wasn’t because of burnout. It wasn’t because I was unhappy. It wasn’t because of conflict. It was about realizing my limitations. Still, I felt the Holy Spirit urging me to lead Quest through a relocation and capital campaign, so I decided to stay on a while longer.

Then, at the beginning of this year, I led our church through 21 days of prayer and fasting in preparation for the upcoming year. I can’t say I heard a clear voice from God. I didn’t see any writing on the wall. I didn’t have any strangers come to me with a prophetic word. But it was around that time when some of my feelings from a few years before began to reemerge.

A pastor should be more than a figure behind a pulpit. Pastors should be able to fully immerse themselves in prayer for their congregations and to partner with other leaders in pastoral care.

A theme our church has focused on this year is the word deeper. Looking at my life, I saw so many things—good things—demanding my attention. I had to ask myself, if I want to go deeper in some areas, what do I need to let go of? So I shared that prompting with my wife, and we began to consider it in prayer together.

I also have regular conversations with friends who are founding pastors or have been at their churches for over 20 years. Initially those conversations were about mutual encouragement, best practices, leadership ideas, fasting ideas, and teaching ideas. After numerous years, we now feel comfortable enough to ask tough questions like, “Do you ever feel like you’re holding back your church in some way?”

I came to a painful realization that, yes, I was holding my church back. I wasn’t able to honor my responsibilities as a senior pastor. That was a painful but necessary realization.

That’s a tough thing to admit.

Yeah. I run a nonprofit organization, One Day’s Wages. I like to write. I travel to places where I can encourage the global church. I spend days and weeks in huts and tents and refugee camps. All of these things are important to me, but they were taking away from my ability to serve faithfully as the senior pastor.

A pastor should be more than a figure behind a pulpit. Pastors should be able to fully immerse themselves in prayer for their congregations and to partner with other leaders in pastoral care. I was limited in my ability to do those things because, for many weeks out of the year, I was traveling.

Eight months ago I spent some time in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. When I returned to Seattle, I was excited to preach God’s Word to my congregation, but my body was exhausted. I had to ask myself, Am I as ready as I want to be? When I preach, I don’t want to be at 70 percent, 80 percent, even 90 percent. I want to be fully committed to preaching Scripture.

If Quest Church wants a senior pastor who can lead them to coast, to be complacent, I could do that. But I don’t feel like that is fair to the church. Most churches, unless there’s a situation of a moral failure, are not going to ask the founding pastor, “Can you step down? You’re not functioning at 100 percent here.” I reached a point where I felt like the responsible, honest, faithful thing for me to do would be to step aside.

A few folks have reached out and said, “Be honest. Were you burned out?” I don’t feel burned out. I still feel energized. I’ve certainly had a lot of emotional ups and downs doing ministry in Seattle. But my decision was more about realizing my limitations.

Burnout is tragic, but it definitely provides pastors with a clear sign that something needs to change. How can pastors discern that it might be time to step aside if they don’t have as clear a sign as total burnout?

I can tell how I’m doing in my soul and in my calling by answering these questions: How am I sleeping? How am I eating? How am I exercising? How are my Sabbath days? How is my relationship with my spouse and my children? How am I with conflict resolution within my parish and my staff? How am I with my rhythm of sabbatical? Am I still making time for the things that give me life?

I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to answer all of those questions with great, great, great, great. But if I’m doing 75 percent of those things well, my ministry is healthy. At 50 percent, I’m okay. If I’m at 25 percent, I can only sustain myself for a season.

When I was a young follower of Jesus, I went to a church where pastors took a one-year sabbatical every seven years. That’s a long time between sabbaticals! And I can’t imagine being away from my congregation for a full year. So 18 years ago, when I started Quest Church, I started a rhythm of taking a three-month sabbatical every three years. That’s been a humongous gift for me and my family.

It’s encouraging to take three months off knowing I don’t have to worry or check email. Occasionally I got texts from people saying, “If you want to take more time off, you’re welcome to, because the church is thriving. It’s so great to hear from other pastors.” I felt a little insecure when I got those kinds of texts. But they were a gift. We have an incredible team of leaders.

Do you feel like those texts—little reminders that the church functioned well while you were on sabbatical—helped prepare you for your current transition?

Sure. Over the years I’ve told people two things consistently. First, Quest Church will die someday. That sounds like a horrible way to welcome visitors! But the greatest church planter of all time was the Apostle Paul. None of his churches exist today, but the kingdom continues to thrive. [After this interview, Eugene Cho tweeted the following: It appears that I provided incorrect information about none of Apostle Paul's churches still existing today. ... My apologies for my error. It's humbling to be wrong...but motivates me to keep learning.”] There will come a day when Quest Church will not be around—200 years, 300 years, 500 years from now. While we honor and love our local church, ultimately we need a theology of the greater kingdom. Ten years ago, a 65-year-old church closed its doors and gave us its land and building, worth seven million dollars, for free. That’s the kind of kingdom mindset I want Quest Church to have.

The second message I’ve told people is this: “At some point I’m going to resign.” People have heard me say that in my sermons for 15 years. So I think, at some level, we’ve all been preparing for this for a long time.

In 2010, shortly after you launched One Day’s Wages, you wrote an article for Leadership Journal about the difficulties of maintaining fulltime ministry while leading a nonprofit. After nearly a decade of juggling those two things, would you encourage other pastors to split their time between two major initiatives like that?

Yes and no.

Ten years ago, the image I would have used to describe my leadership would have been a Swiss army knife. I prided myself on being high capacity and multitask oriented. But as I get older, I’m beginning to discover my limitations. I can’t stay up as late as I used to. I still love playing sports, but my recovery time is significantly longer.

Looking back, I immersed myself too much in the analogy of the Swiss army knife, that I could do—that I had to do—all of those things. Maybe I had to go through this journey to realize we all have limitations. We’re all human.

One Day’s Wages is now nine years old. I underestimated how much it would take out of me. Starting it was much more difficult than I had imagined. The cost on myself and my family was challenging. But I can say the exact same thing about starting Quest Church. Had we known how difficult Quest would be, had I known how difficult One Day’s Wages would be, I wouldn’t have started either of them. Thankfully God doesn’t reveal all of our future.

I’m beginning to find there’s joy to be found in building something up and releasing it for God’s glory.

Whether we articulate it or not, as pastors, we want to be significant. We want to have a platform. We want to have relevance. When younger pastors, particularly pastors of color, say, “Eugene, you don’t know how much you’ve encouraged me,” it gives me joy, but I also want to tell them, “Make sure you’re not mimicking or copying. Be faithful to your gifts. Be faithful to the Holy Spirit’s call for your life.”

So, would I advise other pastors to do what I did? It depends. Some people are wired like me. I’m entrepreneurial. That’s always been part of my DNA and my wiring. But I’m beginning to find there’s also joy to be found in building something up and releasing it for God’s glory.

Pastors, especially church planters, have this morbid question they ask one another: “Can you imagine yourself dying at your church?” Hundreds of pastors have asked me that question. And I always said, “Yeah, I can imagine myself dying at my church.” Hopefully in a nice, pleasant way! But I don’t think that is the only expression of faithfulness. Something beautiful happens when we lead a church for a season and then release it. The church is never about one leader.

What will your role look like in preparation for the transition?

Our lay elders are driving the succession process, with help from our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. It’s great to know we don’t have to make all of these decisions alone, that we can speak with others. I am making myself available for any questions or consultations, but I have chosen not to be directly involved in the succession plan. I trust the maturity of our elder board.

What are your greatest hopes and fears for Quest Church after you step aside?

The best case scenario would be for the church to thrive. I want it to mature. I want it to grow deeper in mission and more robust in the theology of the whole gospel and justice. I want to see hundreds of new people come to faith.

My biggest fear is the opposite: that we forget who we are, that we forget our commitments. It’s challenging to be a church in Seattle that believes in the whole gospel, that believes Jesus is Lord and Savior, so I pray we’ll never forget our core values and convictions as a gospel-centered church.

Quest Church will only experience the departure of its founding pastor once, and some sources say it will automatically see a 30-percent reduction in size and giving. I hope that’s not the case. Some people have told me I’m underestimating my importance, I’m underestimating the impact this will have on the church. I know this is a major transition, but I hope and pray it will be smooth and God-honoring.

What does the immediate future look like for you and your family?

I’m hoping to refine my basketball game. I want to dominate my rec league. It’s a bunch of 40- and 50-something guys and gals with ruptured Achilles tendons and blown knees. I feel like now I can dominate.

Honestly, I don’t have an agenda at this time. For the next six-to-twelve months I want to be faithful in the things God has already presented to me: the ministry of One Day’s Wages and my opportunities to travel and encourage the global church. That will probably be a big part of the next chapter for my life.

For the next few months, out of respect for the church, I’ll be taking an indefinite pause from Quest. But Minhee and I are open to the possibility that someday God may give us an opportunity to join another church staff. I can’t imagine being a senior pastor again, but I would love to serve a local body. My wife, who’s native Korean, has talked about going back to Korea someday to spend time with her 82-year-old mother. My parents were both born in North Korea, so we pray that someday North Korea will open its doors. We pray about what it might look like to be a part of God’s renewal and revival in North Korea. We’re open to God’s direction.

December
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