“How do we know when it is time to leave our church?”
It always breaks my heart to hear this question come from a ministry wife because she doesn’t ask it unless she and her family are feeling they are no longer effective in their current position or worse – the idea is being forced upon them in the form of attacks, accusations, and/or flat other rejection from people they hoped would always love them.
It’s an unfortunate reality that it is hard to fight one’s way back from this place of doubt and so often times we don’t even try. We assume if we are feeling this despair it must be God telling us it is time to move on. Notice how many times I am repeating ‘feeling’? Feeling, feeling, feeling. There may be times when we can trust our emotions as a confirmation of the Spirit’s leading but after a lot of years living the life, I can confidently tell you our feelings are the last things we can trust.
Are you feelin’ me?
So if we can’t trust that way our stomach sinks when we walk into our church, that anger that rises in us when our husband is maligned, that insecurity that says that circle of church women in the foyer are whispering about you, then what can you trust? Well, girls. The answer isn’t in a what but a Who. Though certainly not an exhaustive list, I’m going to share some principles with you that Luke and I have followed on when NOT to leave.
1. Don’t leave unless every biblical solution to conflict has been followed.
The church on earth is an imperfect entity filled with sinners and led by them. Scripture tells us we war with one another because we do not get what we want. (James 4:1) Relationally, we can either have our way or we can have our relationship but one of those always has to give to make room for the other. If we burn down the town to get our way with our specificities in tact then also let us remember that the bridges most often burn with it. The firestorm may not be of our making but heaven help us if we don’t leave room for being wrong or at the very least the maturity to stand on another side of an argument from a brother or sister and keep our matches (and our pastor’s wife cards) in our pockets.
2. Don’t leave over a perceived lack of influence.
One of the greatest joys of ministry life is watching those people in our care blossom under the equipping of the Word and rise to assume their God-ordained place of service within the Body of Christ. One of the greatest discouragements of ministry is watching the others keep their seats Sunday after Sunday after yet another Sunday if they bother to come at all. It is very easy to get caught up in gauging effectiveness by response and when that doesn’t come – well – maybe it is time to move on. Maybe the next pastor’s family will be what they need to compel them from complacency to calling.
While we have our eyes on the masses is it possible we are overlooking the baby steps of the ‘ones’? That one quiet family who has been visiting for months and just requested a meeting for membership? That one man who has been devouring the Word and now volunteered to fill an open teaching position? That woman who has been stuck for a very long time and made the first step in connecting by jumping into the car on a Girls’ Night Out? That one young couple who listens intently to every sermon and in the ways relevant to them are putting in to practice those principles of wisdom that will change the entire course of their family? They are out there but we have to focus to see them.
3. Don’t leave without clear scriptural leading and/or confirmation from prayer or other trusted confidants OUTSIDE the church.
If your family is like mine, you remain in a constant state of evaluating your ministry and this question we are addressing of leaving is the one that dances on the edge of our hearts and minds more than any of us want to admit. In those times when we HAVE left – and they have been few thank the Lord – it has not been on a whim or impulse. It was because over the course of time and not just one page-flipping, finger-pointing session of Scripture reading that we both strongly sensed that God was moving us on for both our sake and that of the church. As if that weren’t enough, in all of those circumstances there was also another opportunity for ministry that had presented itself (i.e., we weren’t just quitting) and therefore we found ourselves discerning God’s will in that decision. We also sought wise counsel from trusted friends in ministry who were not connected with our current church and could give us objective advice and encouragement.
And can I insert a little practical advice here? It is NOT ungodly or greedy to consider the provisions of a future ministry for your family in helping make that decision. Please don’t misunderstand, Luke and I have taken on ministry assignments that we were completely compelled by the Spirit to accept with no understanding whatsoever how we would survive financially. (And I will add high praises here for our current church who is beyond generous and more than provides for our every need.) But there is also nothing wrong at all with knowing your family’s needs and letting that be a consideration as you weigh options. Sometimes it is more a matter of the church exercising faith in providing for the minister than it is the minister agreeing to work for the salary that can not possibly support your family.
4. Don’t leave in haste.
Luke has been teaching an excellent sermon series on Sundays out of Ephesians 4 and one of his expressions in expositing (is that a word?) being angry and yet not sinning is to avoid “flying hot”. It’s a thing easier said than done. Who among us has ever made a rash decision in the heat of conflict and said or done something you just can’t take back? I’ve known of ministers to resign like that – in fact we did once. Sort of. (We weren’t actually on staff. It’s long and complicated.) But the fact remains much can be resolved if we count to 10 or 4023, take a step back instead of a stomp in, and respond with a cool head instead of react with a hot one. Don’t fly hot. Don’t fly in haste. This may just be one of those things you wrestle through as a Body that will grow you closer than ever if you see the thing through to it’s end.
5. Don’t leave until you do leave.
This one is huge because it is the place where I am the most tempted. We have entrusted our hearts to people we consider a second family and in return have had it spliced, diced, and handed back to us on a platter by the ones you thought would guard it. And so we wrap it up and take it home and resolve to not give it back. Ever. We show up Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday and we are doing the ministry with all the affection of a robot. In fact, Siri would come across as more friendly.
Can I be your big sister here? Until the Lord has physically moved your family to the next place of service then your heart belongs in your now place of service. You can not be forwardly faithful. Faithfulness happens right where we are, not where we want to be. Unwrap that heart – that seat of feeling and emotion and fire – bloody and wounded as it may be, and give it back. And if you can’t give it back to the people just yet then at least give it back to God and ask Him to rekindle the passion to serve His Bride once again. The feeling will come back. I promise.
I am a terrible blogger but have been compelled for quite some time now to put these few thoughts to screen. I pray they find their home in just the heart who needed them. Whether present or absent, writing daily or scarcely at all, those of you serving in ministry have my heart and I only ask the Lord to make yours mighty and strong and able for the great work to which you have been entrusted.