It could happen to you. I really hope it doesn’t. Many of our pastor colleagues will find themselves blindsided by a leadership body (deacons, trustees, church council — or even an unofficial group of powerbrokers or a once-hidden, now-public cabal — intent on forcing their resignation.
After the initial shock wears off, you find yourself trying to navigate a confusing gauntlet of decisions with competing demands and dangerous traps. Should you quietly go, saving face and family? How would resisting affect the unity of the church? What about your future options in ministry, especially if you are forcefully terminated?
Let me encourage you to consider taking the following five steps.
1. Consider the source
I’ve heard a statistic somewhere (I wish I could find the source) that stated pastors facing conflict in their church end up leaving, only to later realize it was a very small percentage of members who actually were upset. Often, it’s fewer than seven or eight people on average. Most often it’s not everyone in the church who is concerned or troubled by the pastor’s leadership. It’s usually just a few.
Yet, those few may be in places of prominence or be able to sway an entire body’s opinion. Are your closest allies calling for your resignation? Are the most objective folks in the congregation in agreement that you should leave? What about the average church attender/member? The answers may be difficult to discern, and caution should be exercised in seeking feedback without tossing your critics under the bus. Simply know this: Sometimes a church has a history of running off pastors. You’re just the next guy in line and the lever-pullers may be forcing an issue like they have in the past.
2. Courageously evaluate your conduct/performance
Fellow pastor, be ruthless in your personal evaluation of your life among the flock. Have you loved them? Served them? Led them well? It could be helpful to engage your associational leader in answering these questions. Has the church prospered and grown under your tenure? This is measured in more ways than just numbers and increases, but there should be signs of growth that indicate forward progress. Is the church more unified? Is there a good spirit among the people? Are disciples being made? Is the community being served? Have you burned bridges or harmed people by crucial leadership mistakes or critical words? Have you apologized or admitted error when necessary? If there are not serious deficits in conduct or performance, take this next step.
3. Examine your calling
A calling has two primary components: The call to ministry, which God has placed on your life, and the call of the congregation for you to be their pastor for this time. Reflecting upon God’s call on your life will help you discern that you are indeed called to pastor. Are you assured that God has given you the passion, gifting, and skills necessary for the role you are currently serving? Has God given you a clear vision for the local church you currently serve? Have you accomplished that vision? Is there still more work to be done?
And what about your wife and family? Is your wife ready for you to leave this assignment? Would staying here be a hindrance to your marital unity and the wellbeing of your children? If so, perhaps this is God’s gracious design to help your family grow more in your next assignment, or to rest if you each need healing.
4. Engage the process
I often hear this statement from a pastor facing a forced resignation; “Well, I just don’t want to harm the church. I want there to be unity, so maybe I should just go.” Allow me to gently push back on that. Hear me out with grace. Most every church has specified in its bylaws the process for confirming or revoking a call of the pastor. Leaving because a group (even an influential group) is asking for your resignation is not engaging the process and not honoring the people who have committed to follow you as pastor. Experience has shown me that churches already are divided when a subset of leaders makes decisions for the entire body without consulting the body and honoring the process. When pastors leave under duress without offering a clear explanation, other people always leave. They are smart enough to figure it out. When several pastors leave this way in succession, the church is heading toward decline and probable demise. Let the vote happen and trust the outcome. As Baptists, one of our bedrock convictions is that God speaks through the entire body as it deliberates and votes. Brother pastor, let the body speak.
5. Trust God always
I grieve when I hear pastors relay that severance pay is often threatened if they don’t comply with the demand for their resignation. I’ve seen many fold in the face of potential financial hardship and ruin. Dear brother, trust God. I’ve seen some amazing things happen when faith is exercised in the face of unjust threats and challenging circumstances. God takes care of his servants — and often we won’t know that experientially until our resources and strength are exhausted.
Should you resign? Seek God, be patient and pray, carefully consult with your family and close trusted advisors, I’m confident God will reveal what you should do.
Published August 4, 2020