Over the last several years I have had numerous conversations with great leaders who are struggling to stay in their current ministry assignment. Though not perfect, these leaders have faithfully led, have remained above reproach, and have enjoyed significant impact in their respective ministries. They are well respected, serve in churches that are generous to the staff, lead healthy churches, and are in a good rhythm in their ministries. Thus, many would be surprised to know that these leaders have wrestled with staying, that they have considered leaving.
I have always kept each conversation confidential. Because the conversations have been numerous and over a lengthy period of time, I feel I can share some observations without jeopardizing the confidentiality of those who have confided in me. My goal is not really to offer solutions in this post but to say, “You are not alone,” to those who are struggling to stay. Here are four common reasons great leaders are struggling to stay.
1) Sense of stewardship
Each leader has a profound sense that this one life is a vapor, that our ministries are really short. Thus, each leader wants to know that he is making the best use of the limited time the Lord has graciously given. When other opportunities are presented, these leaders have wondered, “Will I make a bigger impact in this new opportunity? Will this be better stewardship of the one life that I have to offer the Lord?” Many feel they likely have “one more run” in them in this life, and they want to be convinced they are in the right place for that run.
Because these leaders have established strong ministries with good systems and rhythms, some are a bit bored. They struggle to admit it because it can sound like their love for people, ministry, preaching, or leading a team has waned. In reality, their love has not waned. They are just wired for new challenges. In my conversations with these pastors, I have challenged them to find a big need in the city or in the church to solve.
3) Pain from criticism
Each leader is a bit worn down with criticism. Though highly loved and highly respected, the criticism of a few still stings. When a leader leads, there will always be criticism. And I have been surprised to learn that leaders who I would expect are really good at not internalizing the jabs actually do struggle with the jabs.
These are wise leaders, so they know that if they leave, they will be trading in all their ministry credibility in one context to start over in another. They mentally know it sounds crazy, but they still wrestle with starting over—with having a “clean slate.” They also know they will surely cause new criticism in a new ministry, but the allure of a “clean slate” is strong.
I have wondered if the supportive people in these leaders’ churches have any idea of the pain their leaders carry. I believe if they did, they would express more support, rally around them, and do all they could to drown out the criticism.
4) The weight of the role
Many pastors have shared that the weight of the role, a role they created, has become burdensome. They imagine preaching some of their old sermons in new places or not living under the expectations that the ministry has created. In that moment, I try to remind leaders that they are putting pressure on themselves that the Lord carries for us. He is the One who builds His church.
As I have walked away from these conversations, I have often thought that the reasons the pastor is wrestling with leaving are some of the same reasons the pastor has made such a big impact.
- His sense of stewardship has caused him to focus on the most important things in his church. That same sense of stewardship causes him to wrestle with these questions.
- His longing to launch new things, his itch to solve problems—that same intensity can cause boredom if a new initiative isn’t on the horizon.
- His love and compassion for people has caused him to shepherd people well. That same sensitivity causes him to be tender, perhaps too tender, to criticism.
- His sense of responsibility has caused him to care so much. That same sense of responsibility, because of our proclivity to drift from grace, can cause him to put expectations on himself that are enslaving.
In most cases I have encouraged the pastors to nail down their furniture and stay put. Great leaders struggling to stay is concerning to many because a healthy pastoral tenure often has an impact on the health of a church. Dr. Bill Day of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary discovered in his research that “the length of a pastor’s tenure was found to have a direct correlation to the health of a church. A church’s likelihood to be healthy was much greater when the pastor had served between 5 and 20 years.”
Other times, the Lord may indeed be doing something new—may be stirring a leader to move to a new place of ministry. Knowing whether to stay or go is not easy. It requires wisdom through much prayer and cautious seeking of counsel from trustworthy friends.