The jury is probably still hung over how long pastors and ministry leaders stay in at a ministry job on average. No matter who you get your stats from, the average job tenure is not “forever,” as many of us go into ministry thinking it will be.
The truth is, at some point, you’re going to leave your church. You might be that odd anti-establishment hippie that stays 15-20 years in one role, but the odds are that the majority of us won’t.
Leaving your church is very difficult, but even harder, is leaving well. I recently left a position at a church and it was the healthiest thing I’ve ever been part of. I want to briefly tell you what I did, why I did it, and why it was healthy. This post was just too long, so we’ll be doing it in two parts.
Get an outside coach.
Mine’s name is Randy and he’s in his 70s (I think). He is a retired executive coach that happens to go to my church, so I kind of lucked out. Well, we don’t believe in luck. I Holy Spirited out.
Randy was able to first help me discover what God was doing in my own life. Then he helped me see how to reveal my heart to my bosses well. He even gave me steps and things to say and everything. He also helped me interpret situations through the transition process objectively, so that I didn’t make assumptions and thus, mistakes. I still meet with Randy regularly even though I am no longer employed by the church.
Seek someone out. Ask around. They aren’t going to be looking for you. You’re going to have to pursue them.
Get in front of the job transition with a trusted leader.
I let my immediate boss, Brian, know I was thinking it was about time I leave youth ministry almost a year before I actually transitioned out. By getting out in front, you earn trust by showing trust, and allow your boss to make the transition out/search process for your replacement/transition new guy in much easier on him.
Some churches aren’t like that, so you have to know your boss and have a good relationship. Humility goes a long way. Some churches will fire you on the spot for saying you don’t want your job anymore. If that’s you, my heart goes out to you. Perhaps there’s someone on the elder board or outside the church that you can confide in?
Second on this point, be careful who you talk to about what is happening. There is always a staff member or two that can’t keep their mouth shut. Let your boss drive the release of the info.
Be honest about your new job goals.
It could be that the area of ministry you want to move into could be at the same church. Moving staff around within the church to new roles should be commonplace, in my opinion. I wanted to move to communications from youth ministry. We tried to create a position and the money just wasn’t there for it. So I moved on and still go to that church (when I’m not traveling for my new job) until God moves our family elsewhere.
But even if you aren’t staying and are going somewhere else, be honest about why to the leadership. I personally think it’s better to go ahead and kindly cite your theological differences or the people that have made the job no longer bearable than to say “God is calling me” and then trash the church you just left to your new church. The new church should be able to see through that to the issue because those who have resolved the issue usually do not feel the need to continue talking about it.
Some will be upset about your parting. Some will speculate on why. Do everything you can to make sure that when you leave your previous church, no one follows you to your new church. If there were tough reasons that you left, then be as open about them as you can be, but do not throw the elders to the wolves. You decided to leave.
Next week I will tell you the other four principles that helped me to leave my church job well. I’d love to hear some of your stories and/or horror stories of how you’ve left a ministry position! Let us know in the comments!