The decision to retire as lead pastor of City Life Church wasn’t my decision; it included numerous voices. Because the decision would impact people beyond me, I took deliberate steps to evaluate my motives and sense of call.
Clarity from God
Many things influence a pastors’s doubt of calling. A bad Sunday can send a pastor reeling: a scathing critique of his sermon, conflict with staff members, a persistent void of encouragement, low church attendance, menacing self-doubt, and Satanic accusation. While these are not adequate reasons to abandon a call, they can pile up over a time and break a pastor’s spirit. Forty-three percent church leaders certainly thought so in 2021.
I hit an emotional breaking point at the end of 2021 and had to take a couple months off to process the pain and difficulty of the prior two to three years. However, because I knew I’d be tempted to return and announce my resignation, I removed that option from my mind. Instead, I focused on seeking God through lament, restoration, and renewal. It was a tear-filled yet transformative time. In fact, it put me in a great place to return rested and lead my church in lamenting their own sorrows and sufferings. Clarity from God clarified the needs of others.
After leading the church through that season, I noticed an increased interest in helping pastors and a diminished vision for my own church. I asked the Lord to provide vision for our church. We had been kicked out of our downtown building, where we gathered for a decade. We were a gospel-centered, city-renewing church, but we found ourselves north of downtown, in a neighborhood, meeting at 4pm in the afternoons. While it was a soft place to land, it didn’t fit our vision to renew cities socially, spiritually, and culturally with the gospel of Jesus.
That vision never returned. While I still believe in it, I feel led to champion it in others. I found myself disinterested in urban apologetics, and drawn to counseling pastors through their own challenges. I was reluctant to return to the city centre, and yet city-renewing vision had fueled me for sixteen years! I met a mentor at Walton’s, a deli/flowershop owned by Sandra Bullock. When David plopped down in his seat, he asked me: “Where are you going to be in ten years?” Shocked by his opener, I paused for a minute then, without hesitation said, “Writing, teaching, and mentoring pastors somewhere.” It became clear God was moving me in a new direction.
Confirmation from Mentors
As I pressed into this sense of call, I asked my mentors for feedback. I wanted to know if they thought my sense of call was misguided, or if I had unhealthy motivations. They were able to look at my history of ministry, personal gifting, and spiritual health to evaluate if I am suited for this new call. Here are some of the questions they asked me.
- Are you running from something or called to something else? If you’re running from pain, unresolved grief and bitterness will follow you into your next job.
- Will the church be better or worse when you leave? Did you give it your best? Strive to leave your church with godly leadership, healthy, gospel culture, reconciled relationships, and a decent budget.
- What is the Spirit (not the flesh) saying? Do you need some counseling before making such a big decision? Heed the adage, “Never quit on a bad day.”
Pastor, you can finish but don’t quit. A quitter leaves things undone and unresolved, but a finisher sees things through to the end. A finisher wrestles these questions, seeks the input of others, and puts the welfare of the church above his own interest. A finisher listens to the Holy Spirit, and is willing to wait until he or she has clarity from God. A finisher seeks confirmation of the call from trusted mentors and spiritual guides. A quitter throws caution to the wind and follows feeling. A finisher leads by faith and with character.
Affirmation of Elders
This final step was the most important. I wanted our elders input. Although it would be difficult for them to hear, and hard to share, I knew I had to tell them what I sensed God doing. I needed to explain it throughly and wait for a response. This is difficult when if you have clarity. When your heart starts migrating to a new place, it can be difficult to slow it down. But it’s important to remember they haven’t been processing this for months like you have. They haven’t exhausted the options, weighed the pros and cons, or considered the implications of your new call.
Perhaps the best thing I did was to process most the above with them in real time. I did not seal myself off from their counsel, questions, or support. They were instrumental in my healing, renewal, and discernment. They too sensed an increased focus on ministry to pastors, so the new calling wasn’t a shock. But it was still difficult.
My certainty was hard to hear, yet they celebrated the call and saw the fruit in my ministry. The following week, I felt like I’d been run over by an eighteen-wheeler. I had opened a door that had been closed for sixteen years. I lacked motivation to minister, write a sermon, and do even light work. Questions came flooding in: What will the church do? When should this happen? What will it look like? Will I have income for the family next year? How will this marriage do, and that single persevere, and that community group take it?
Then God spoke: “The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). I could trust the Lamb, their true shepherd, to guide them into flourishing and comfort them in sorrow.
*I address the difference between finishing and quitting in The Unwavering Pastor.