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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - When is it time to go?

Sometimes there's no denying that it's time to leave a pastorate - things have gotten too ugly or unhealthy to fix, or forces beyond the pastor's control make leaving inevitable, or the pastor can find no more joy or creativity in her work. But what about when none of those things are the case? How do you know when God might be calling you onward? Our questioner this week asks this thoughtfully:

How do you know when it is time to leave a church?  I understand wanting to leave when you have hurtful things going on.  But, when things are going well, what are some of the benchmarks when considering whether it is time to leave, and how do you prepare yourself emotionally?

Muthah+ responds:
I am a big N on the Meyers-Briggs so I can usually intuit when it is time to move on.  But there are several things that have to do with a decision to move on.  I would invite you to consider some of these questions:
·       What does my prayer say?  Is God calling me somewhere else? Is my work done?
·       What do my pastoral strengths say?  Am I a change maker and have the changes been made or can’t be made by me?  Am I a pastor called to care for people in the good times?  Am I prophet and have I already spoken God’s truth?  Am I a community builder and has Christian community come as far as I can take it?
·       Check your emotions:  Are you still enthusiastic about getting up on Sunday mornings and being with your flock?  Are you still able to touch your congregation with your sermons or your pastoral care or your teaching?  Is there some other kind of ministry that is calling you?
·       Is it a logical time to work on a further degree, see the kids off to college, change in your life, move out of the manse, retire?
Usually when I have answered these questions and I hope other questions, I am getting prepared to make a change.  There are a couple of books from Alban Institute that are helpful in making these decisions.  But most of all, when you have made the decision, don’t look back.  Allow yourself to trust that God will direct you and it will give you and your congregation the comfort that you are doing what God is calling you to, rather than “YOU decided to leave us.”  Which often hurts those in our congregations.  

Jennifer writes:
I think the discernment around when the Spirit is saying that it’s time to leave is more than a personal decision.

I believe that it involves trusted members (not a million, just a few) of the congregation, your personnel committee, your family (if that’s pertinent) and a group of visionaries (is that long-range or strategic planning or a visioning task group in your neck of the woods?)  I picture that discernment happing informally and/or formally, over coffee or tea, in one-on one conversations, with prayer, and with the good of all at heart. Feeling called to be there and having that inner call affirmed by those who serve with you is a pretty good way to sense whether you should be singing, “Should I stay or should I go?”

That said, I’m really not one to abide by years of service, length of tenure, church growth or other benchmarks being the only, or even very good, ways to determine how long to stay. Your mileage, or that of your church tradition, may vary.

And Singing Owl, who blogs at "The Owl's Song" offers:
There could be so many reasons that one could “know” it’s time to go that it is difficult to generalize. What says, “Time to go” for one might be different than for someone else.   I only have a few minutes before I have to be at a meeting, so I’ll just speak for myself and my most recent leave taking.  It was difficult for many reasons, not least of which was that people loved us and did not want us to go.  I stayed longer than I now believe was probably good because it didn’t seem to make sense to leave a congregation where one was loved, especially since I had no place waiting for me. 

The reasons I knew it was time were many and complicated, but they condense down to one central theme.  I was finished.  I gradually became aware that I was not really being heard.  As I said, they loved my husband and me, so it wasn’t as if they didn’t hear me because they were angry.  It was subtle, but became clearer and clearer that what I hoped to accomplish was not likely going to happen.  The church had stopped moving, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it “unstuck.”  I was finished.  I also discovered (about the same time that I realized I was loved but not necessarily heeded) that my passion, my hope, my belief that something great was coming—all things I’d once had in abundance-- were gone.  I did not make the decision easily, but sometimes we may be in a ministry place for some specific purposes and when it is over, it is over.  I cried when I left.  But I was also relieved.  That’s because I could stop trying to MAKE something happen.

I hope that makes some sense!

What fantastic wisdom has been offered here by our matriarchs! What about the rest of you? What insights would you share around discerning when it's time to take your leave? Please share in the comments section.

And, as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Muthah, that was TERRIFFIC! That post could become an article or even a book. If I'd read it before my own post I could have just said, "Ditto what Muthah said!"

  2. I'll never forget the explanation one of my pastors gave after he had decided to take a new call, leaving a congregation where he had been for nine years. He said that he had taken the congregation as far as he could. There had been some movement and some changes made, but the congregation was unwilling to go any further with him. He thought that it was a natural progression - one pastor moved a congregation so far and laid the groundwork for further movement,and then it was a new pastor's job to take the congregation there.

    Six years later, I have to agree with him. The new pastor had a much easier time of moving the congregation further along God's mission for them.

  3. In my denomination, we have to fill out pages upon pages of forms (mobility papers) to be used in seeking another call. For me, and others I know, looking at those forms and reflecting on the questions they ask can be a great discernment piece. If the answers fit with the current setting, maybe it's not time to go. But if the answers generate excitement about other possibilities, that can be one indication that it might be.


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