Ministry Monday: How Soon is Too Soon to Move On?

I got a call from my friend Rick last week. The pastor of a medium sized church on the east coast, Rick seemed discouraged. “I’ve managed to be successful in shrinking my church in the years since I’ve been here” he said. His church is still far more than a mere handful. But the fact that fewer attend today than when he first came has prompted Rick to question whether it is time for him to make a change. He is coming to the area for a visit in a few weeks and he wants to talk it over with me.

 I am not sure what I should tell him. Rick is a good pastor, at least, by my estimation. He is serious about his work. He cares for his flock. He isn’t afraid to say the hard thing when it is necessary. He is a man of integrity. He is a church builder not a career builder. The word I would use to describe him is “steady.”

 Unfortunately, steady is not very appealing to today’s church. We would rather have dynamic instead. Ours is a Corinthian age which prefers the silken color and flash of Apollos to the plain cloth and reliable stitching of Paul. I suspect that Rick’s ministry is more in the Pauline tradition.

 Pastors often leave one flock to serve another. Some do so because they sense a call from God. Others because they have been forced by circumstances or the ill will of the congregation to make a change. A few are building their resume. How do we know whether we should stay or go? Some years ago I heard Warren Wiersbe say that there are no small churches, no big pastors and that it is always too soon to quit. I think Wiersbe is right. It may be time for my friend to move to a new field of service. But it is too soon for him to quit.

 What would you say to Rick? How do you know whether it is time to move on or not? Are the attendance figures enough?

P.S. Beware of Mondays. I’ve sent more resumes out on Monday than any other day of the week! Many years ago a wise mentor told me to never make a life changing decision on a Monday.

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Published by

John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

11 thoughts on “Ministry Monday: How Soon is Too Soon to Move On?”

  1. Not knowing all that is causing Rick’s discouragement, it is hard to give any real advice. One thing I would say it this…Church growth, or decline, is not measured in attendance figures. Without knowing the congregation, or your friends ministry, it is impossible to know much about the actual growth or decline of this church. Are there fewer people, yet more spiritual growth? Are less people showing on Sundays, but are more people drawing closer to the Lord? It is possible…it happens, and perhaps God has your friend in just such a place. Then again, perhaps there is decline in both numbers, and spiritual health. Then it is time to move on, or at least some real inward and Godward reflection…I’m sure you’ll know more once you actually have some time to visit with your friend. Praying for your friends wisdom, and yours as you minister to him.

  2. Great observations, Chris. I think you have your finger on the key issue. There is more to growth than the numbers and the pastor is not the only factor that affects attendance.

  3. One other thought to go along with my previous comment, and further proof numbers aren’t always a sign of a “declining” ministry…Tell your friend to spend some time in John 6. You said your friend is a man who isn’t afraid to say the “hard things”…reminds me of the last part of John 6…

  4. when it comes to moving on from one ministry to another, there are multiple factors that come into play. One thing that should be understood is that just because you feel ‘unsettled’ or even ‘in a rut’ doesn’t mean that you need to move on. It could be that the Lord really wants to address issues in ‘the pastor’s’ life. If that is the case, the best thing to do is to renew your own personal relationship with the Lord. The best way to hear God’s voice regarding moving on, is to take the time to listen, a character trait, sadly, that many pastors struggle with.

    I also, believe that many pastors have given the Lord a ‘bad rap’ when they have stood in front of their congregations and said, ‘the Lord is leading us elsewhere’ when in fact, these same pastors actually sent out 40-50 resumes and they have been searching for another venue for months. I think it would be more honest if we might say, ‘after serving for a couple of years here, we have felt unsettled and have sought out a ministry position that will more closely match our gifts, and we are continually praying that the Lord might lead a man of His choosing here.’

    As far as attendance figures are concerned, they shouldn’t be the primary concern. Remember the old adage that a wise mentoring pastor told me, ‘sometimes God grows His church best by ‘divine subtraction.”

    1. A wise caution, Tim. God is often the scapegoat we use to justify decisions we have already made. It is much easier to say, “The Lord is leading me” than to say “I don’t like it here” or “I don’t like you.”

  5. As a pastor committed to the principle of pastoral Longevity – realizing that it takes upwards of 7+ years simply to make the transformation from “hired speaker” to trusted confidant and shepherd – I would council Rick, myself and any other pastor to make such moves slowly; as has been stated – with superabundant prayer and with fasting.

    God will confirm his orders through multiple paths. He speaks in his word, as well as through His servants.

    When a long numerical slump has made you question your calling to that location, go ahead and consider your options. But be mindful that one of those options is that God is calling you to stand your ground amidst (what the world would call) apparent defeat.

    Then if he utters the call to retreat, regroup or move on – it will be confirmed by other servants.

    1. I think you are right about the 7 year mark, Thomas. It takes a long time to build credibility. Pastors seem to be addicted to four year cycles. Perhaps it comes from their schooling. They are used to making a change every four years.

  6. Man, there are some great responses listed here to your friend’s issue, John! If these are former students you’ve certainly done a great job with them.

    Indeed, numbers alone are not something one wants to use as sole criteria for either making a congregational change or employing other growth methods. In fact, the CG conundrum, i.e., employing all sort of methods to make the church appealing to contemporary culture, is largely responsible for taking American evangelicalism to point where now many are leaving altogether or are considering associating with something along the lines of the emergent “movement.”

    What causes numbers of people to be added to one congregation and not to another is not always clear, but it is always up to God and the way the HS works with various people. Sound preaching of Law and Gospel should always be the primary motive for any pastor (and, of course, in my little corner of protestantism, proper administration of the two sacraments). Beyond that it’s not up to him (us) who believes and who doesn’t. Above everything else, tell him to hang in there and that we’ll be glad to pray for his continued strength and persistence.

  7. I hope the visit goes well. I would talk with Rick and try to find out whether and why he wants to stay or not, where he would go if he doesn’t, see if he still has a burden for the people, and whether he thinks or knows God’s called him to that place.

    I’m very very naive when it comes to these decisions but I like the comment/warning about using God’s name in vain for decision making saying, “I feel God is leading me,” when really a person doesn’t like the church.

    I also think if God hasn’t told him to stay he has the freedom to pick up and go somewhere he wants. I would prefer as a congregant to have a pastor that wanted to be at a church then one that didn’t. So if he doesn’t want to be there. I’d tell him to leave, and tell him to tell the elders the truth.

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