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My mentor set the long, highly critical document that was my evaluation down on the table in front of me, looked me dead in the eyes, and said two words:

“Owen. Run.”

The last few months of ministry had been difficult, and my wife and I had been processing if it was time to leave my role in that church. My mentor’s statement was a confirmation that it was time to go.

Unfortunately, as we wonder if it’s time to leave our role, we often don’t get quite as clear or explicit direction in ministry. Thankfully, my mentor gave me the assurance I needed. But an even bigger question, aside from confidence in the right direction, is how do we leave well?

Transition in ministry is inevitable, so knowing when and how to exit is incredibly important.

How do you know it’s time to leave?

Maybe “leaving” is a shift from your current ministry role to a new position, or perhaps the transition is leaving your church altogether. Either way, you’ll likely consider leaving your current job at some point.

So how do you know when it’s time to leave? Here are a few signals I’ve recognized in my ministry career. None scream “Run!” but could point to your need to transition out of the role.

Your passion gauge is low

Ask yourself, do I care anymore? The honest answer could be tough to admit. Being in ministry, we usually don’t want to admit we don’t care, and we’ll say things like, “Well yeah, I still care, but the spark just isn’t the same.” Maybe the day-to-day just feels like more of a slog than joy. Are you passionate about your role?

If your passion gauge is low, that could indicate it’s time to leave.

You feel unsettled

Felling unsettled is hard to put into words. Ministry could be going well, you could have a thriving youth group, your church could be growing, or your worship ministry could be rocking. But you just feel off. Maybe you feel unsettled like something is going sideways, but everything is fine. That unsettledness could be the Holy Spirit prodding you to move.

Your relationships are hurting

That mentor who told me to run also said that if you like someone, they can spill their soup in your lap, and you won’t care. But if you don’t like them, how they hold their spoon will make you angry.

How are your relationships at work? Could your co-workers, volunteers, or leaders spill their soup on your lap? Or are they driving you crazy with how they’re holding their spoon?

You feel a shift in your calling

I felt called to youth ministry. I thought I was going to be a youth pastor lifer. But over the years, that feeling slowly changed, and the sense of a changing call was a painful one. Our identity and jobs directly correlate with our calling. But if your calling is shifting away from your current role, you may need to transition out of your position.

The environment is unhealthy

A toxic working environment is one of the few indicators requiring an almost immediate “Get out” conversation. If you feel you’re working in an unhealthy environment, work to resolve it to the best of your ability. Try to bring health. Talk to mentors and outside voices and ensure your perspective is reality rather than getting trapped with your emotions.

But if your environment is unhealthy and is not able or willing to change, get out.

How do you leave well?

Give appropriate notice

Give enough time for your team and church to process the coming transition. There’s no silver bullet on this timing, so consider your circumstances and how to be gracious while caring for yourself. Leaving too quickly can create chaos while staying too long is painful.

Set up a good process

Decide who will find out about your exit and when. Work the process through with your supervisor or senior leaders. Sort out timelines together. Create a binder of everything you do and include passwords and needed information. Debrief and keep an open conversation with your team and church as you navigate your exit. The goal is to have a transparent process so everyone is on the same page.

Set the ministry up for success

Do everything in your power to help the ministry thrive after you leave. That may mean setting up meetings with volunteers and transitioning ministry roles to them or helping inform the person replacing you of all the details they need. It may even mean creating a ministry plan for the next season in your absence. But work with your leaders to ensure the ministry can thrive when you leave.

Heal relationships

When I left that role after my mentor told me to run, I was able to reconcile and repair the damaged relationship I had with my lead pastor. When possible, heal relational tension. The lead pastor and I parted on good terms and still maintain a friendly relationship. Whenever possible, resolve the conflict before you leave.

Grieve

The truth is that leaving is a grief process. Change and transition include a grief process you and your church family will walk through. Make sure you walk through it. Allow yourself and your church to feel the full range of emotions in grief. Process the change together and help one another draw close to Jesus through your transition.

Knowing when to leave is always challenging. Knowing how to go is just as tricky.

My final encouragement to you is to walk this road in community. Find a mentor, peers, and friends outside your ministry and process with them. Seek wisdom from experts. Listen to wise advice. Ask your friends to hold you accountable as you transition. You can’t walk through this alone.

As I write this, I pray you can embrace the transition and leave well whenever that time comes.

Comments

I would add one thing:  Is the ministry setting taking a toll on your health?  The stress of a difficult place can lead to high blood pressure, depression, and other ailments.  Have you been prescribed additional medications to control these medical concerns?  A different ministry setting might literally be "just what the doctor ordered."

While this seems like a thorough, thoughtful process to consider as one contemplates leaving a particular church position or even the pastoral ministry, it's very important to consider 'what's next'?

If you feel called from the ministry, what do you feel called to?

I'm involved in executive searches for Christian non-profits across Canada. We find well-qualified Christian leaders to fill those positions.

Consequently, I receive weekly emails from Christian leaders who are looking to leave their existing positions for something else. Increasingly, especially during and just after COVID, I would receive an email a week from a pastor who longed to leave his/her leadership position in a church for something within the broader non-profit sector. Most of those emails had a recurring refrain: "With the amount of anger and division in my congregation, get me out of here."

That invariably led to a number of Zoom calls or one-on-one conversations to determine just what the next chapter in their ministry career looks like. I'd usually have him/her send me a resume along with a cover letter outlining what their ideal job looks like.  In some cases, I'd encourage taking an online Birkman Analysis that very accurately describes one's character and gifts. In a few cases, I'd encourage taking a two- or three-day LifePlan, a very thorough analysis of one's gifts and passions designed to map out the next decade or two of career goals.

I've seen too many pastors who finally got out of a tense situation with their congregation or council, to simply breathe a deep sigh of relief but then become paralyzed by the lack of any plan for their next career.

So, before you 'jump ship', either willingly or by force, consider what's next for you. Seek out career counselors to help you map out your next chapter. This needs to be a prayerful process ...  as does any transition from one career to another. 

If God has given you the nudge to leave your current pastoral position, prayerfully discern what God may be nudging you towards.

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