As a full-time pastor for more than 25 years, I’ve never been without employment — until now. In December 2021, I stepped down as the senior pastor of my church without another ministry position or job of any kind.
Leading a church through the pandemic, the political divide, culture wars and various theological debates placed me in the midst of a battle that I no longer desired to fight. In the internal struggles with one another in the church, it seemed we lost our way and had moved far from a focus on what really mattered — Christ and the kingdom of God. Efforts to try to recenter the church were met with warm embrace from many and staunch opposition from some. It was time for me to move on.
When I examine the ministry of the Apostle Paul throughout the book of Acts, I see that he departed most of the places where he ministered under great duress:
- In Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were expelled after Jewish leaders incited leading women and men of the city to persecute them (Acts 13:50).
- In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas fled when a plot ensued to stone them (Acts 14:5).
- In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas left after leaders from Antioch and Iconium followed them and convinced the crowd that Paul should be killed, stoned him and left him for dead (Acts 13:19).
- In Philippi, Paul and Silas left at the request of magistrates who were alarmed after Paul explained that they were Roman citizens who had been mistreated, falsely accused, beaten and thrown in prison (Acts 16:38-39).
- In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas evacuated in the middle of the night when a mob started a riot and accused them of defying Caesar’s degrees (Acts 17:7, 10).
- In Beroea, Paul quickly departed when Jews from Thessalonica agitated the crowds and stirred the people up against him (Acts 17:13-14).
- In Corinth, Paul withdrew when accused by Jews of persuading the people to worship God in ways that contradicted the law (Acts 18:13-18).
- In Ephesus, Paul departed after a riot erupted when he preached against the idolatry of Artemis (Acts 19:26).
- In Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and transferred to Caesarea after being accused of taking a Gentile into the temple courts, resulting in an attempt to murder him (Acts 23:31-33).
Paul experienced great distress throughout his ministry, perhaps in ways that far surpass that of most ministers in the free world today. Yet Paul celebrated the opportunity to know Christ even in suffering. We, too, can all take comfort in the realization that from the very beginning of the church, both internal and external opposition were prevalent. Amidst it all, Paul did not give up; he moved on. Paul shook the dust from his feet and followed God to the next place of opportunistic service. Likewise, there comes a time when we need to consider moving on.
“From the very beginning of the church, both internal and external opposition were prevalent.”
So, if you are in a situation as a pastor or church leader, how do you know when to move on to something else? If you are a member of a church, when is it right for you to consider changing churches? There are no simple answers to these questions because every situation is unique, but after wrestling with these considerations for the better part of a year, I offer these suggestions:
- After intensive and extensive prayer. Avoid making a knee-jerk reaction to problems that surface in the church. Just because something does not go as you hope or even deem best, resist the temptation to pack up and leave. Be intentional to pray conversationally with God. In prayer do not just ask God to change the situation — go deeper. Ask the Lord to reveal to you what the Spirit is doing in the situation, how you can grow in it, and what you should do. Follow God’s direction and not just your heart. When the Lord explicitly and repeatedly affirms a departure, it may be time to move on.
- When you cannot effectively lead. A house divided cannot stand. Churches are to be places where diversity is accepted and embraced. People come from a variety of perspectives, viewpoints, interpretations, personalities and beliefs. Part of the beauty of the church is found in its diverse makeup. However, when these differing views lead to bullying, assault and abuse among the members of the congregation and those of the community, danger is crouching at the church doors. Give full effort to the ministry of reconciliation and to practicing Jesus’ principles of church discipline before exiting, but if you can no longer effectively lead a fractured community, it may be time to move on.
- When you no longer can safely be true to God’s call in your life. As a church leader, it is important to practice your faith in transparency and authenticity. Avoid pressuring the congregation to do what God has called you to do, but remain true to who you are and how the Spirit is growing and transforming you. Yielding to the pressure to conform in hopes of appeasing a select group in the church eventually will cost you your identity. If staying true to your calling leaves you unsafe within the walls of your church, it may be time to move on.
- When you and your family are reaching a breaking point. Pastors and churches need to remember that while they overlap, pastoral service and Christian devotion remain distinctive. Each of us has a first responsibility of ministry and that is to our personal, spiritual wholeness and our families. When the welfare of one’s family is placed on the sacrificial altar of service in the local church, too much is at stake to continue on that path. While short-term sacrifices are a necessary part of ministry in the local church, extensive sacrifice at home may yield a cost far too great. When your family is sacrificially bending to such an extent that they are nearing a breaking point, it may be time to move on.
- When the church chooses to go in a direction you cannot support. Non-negotiables should be few, but when a church moves beyond what you can reasonably embrace, a boundary violation necessitates a response. To the degree possible, identify the areas where acquiescence is unacceptable prior to your agreement to serve in the church. When a breech occurs, it may be time to move on.
- When those you trust confirm your decision. Build a small group of trusted friends you can lean into for consultation. This may include selective leaders in the church as well as other pastors or ministers outside the church who relate to your situation. Try to be objective in the information you share. Seek their godly counsel throughout the challenging season and even into the future. Ask for frankness and accountability from your trusted inner circle. When loyal friends validate that you have exhausted all other means and provide affirming counsel, it may be time to move on.
- When you dream of ministry elsewhere. As you pray, read Scripture and envision the future of what God has for you, a different dream may emerge over time. Avoid the temptation to turn your back on God or to give up on the advancement of the kingdom. Lean into the bigger picture of your calling. Perhaps it is time for this chapter to end and a new one to begin. When the desire for ministry outside your church supersedes your interest in serving in your current position, it may be time to move on.
These are very difficult times to lead in the local church. Serving Christ is oftentimes the crucible of formation. Embrace the challenges before you, trust God to guide you, and lean into the adventure.
God may desire for you to stay right where you are and help the church navigate through the troubling season you find yourself in, or the Lord may be calling you to a totally new opportunity. In either case, the kingdom of God compels us, as followers of Jesus, to press beyond ourselves and into the greatness of our God.
Wherever that takes you is the adventure abounding in uniqueness and the fulfilling power of the presence of Christ in you. You are never alone when you walk with Jesus! May God bless and keep you whether you continue to serve Christ where you are or determine to move on.
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.
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