Category: Article

Emotional Challenges in Closing a Church

Since announcing the close of City Life Church, emotions swirl through my heart daily. The regular customers are sadness, relief, celebration.


I will no longer be church family with these precious people. What we have here is unique, without flash, but simple and biblical–brothers and sisters meaningfully and lovingly engaged in one another’s lives. A hunger for the word of God. Compassion for those around us. Grace flowing freely through the congregation. While this is a new beginning for all of us, it comes as the result of an ending. Endings call for grief over what’s lost.

The weeks following the announcement, elders met with people whose tears expressed their feelings about this ending. Others, understandably expressed frustration: “This is one of the healthiest churches I have ever been a part of. Why would God want it to close?”

City Groups created space for people to express how they were feeling. I told my City Group not to hold back, and they didn’t. One member shared that he had turned down a new job, in part, because they didnt want to leave the church. Another couple shared that, after a year they feel so closely knit to us they can’t imagine giving that up. Although it’s difficult to share and hear these things, it’s also honest. No pretending necessary. And in the honesty of grief, we have ministered to one another with truth and grace.


Once I knew God was calling me away from the church, it became very difficult to keep that bottled up while counseling, preaching, and leading others. Now we all know what God is doing, and expectations can adjust. Of course, there are different ways to adjust. Some leave immediately. Others choose to lean in. Some say goodbye with encouraging words and prayers. Others say good luck. Many don’t know what to say, and on occasion that includes me. Who  should I set up meetings with? How do I pastor people well to the end? How should application change in my sermons?

Yet, transitional space is a discipleship place. It is formative, either toward Christ or away from Christ. With just six weeks left as a church, how should we respond? My wife shared her hope for the church was like a child eating Halloween candy. The trickotreater plows through the bag of candy until they get to the last few pieces. Then, they slow down to savor each bite. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone savored our final weeks together? To reflect on God’s grace to us through the church, how we have changed, what we will miss.

Many are doing just that. But some will not. They are not inferior family members. Change is hard for all of us. Some cope with solutions, some with slow withdraw, and others with savoring. After Jesus’ crucifixion, many of his disciples hid in a room, afraid of Roman and Jewish backlash. Others prayed. Some ran to the empty tomb. We all deal with loss in different ways. But Jesus appeared to all of them. He will continue to appear to each one of us.


Endings are a time for reflection: the loss of a loved one, a big move, kids going off to college, and the end of a church. To help us reflect well and cherish what God has given us, my wife came up with a weekly question for our City Groups. They have stirred up good memories, gratitude, and even praise. A few examples:

  • Tell us how you found City LIfe church?
  • What have you learned about the gospel here?
  • What do you love about your City Group?

We will reflect and celebrate much more in the weeks to come. We are throwing a party, and many former members are coming back to celebrate with us. While every church has a sunset, there is no dusk for the glory of Christ. May we go out pointing to the Light.

How I Discerned a New Calling

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.


Ending Our Church, Beginning a New Call

I didn’t start a church to end a church, but yesterday the elders of City Life Church announced the end of our chapter in the grand, Gospel story. On December 18, 2022 we will gather for the final time as City Life Church. It’s strange to type those words, like downing a discomforting elixir that brings relief.

Several months ago it became clear that God was calling me into a different season of ministry—one dedicated to writing, teaching, and mentoring pastors. I’m truly excited about it. However, living in the tension between the joy of the call and its secrecy has been difficult. It’s hard to shepherd people you love, knowing you won’t be their pastor in a matter of months.

I kept thinking, “I won’t be here for their marriage, their next step, their spiritual needs.” But Jesus will. Always. It was never about me meeting their needs, but pointing them to him. Wanting to love the flock well—to finish not quit—I doubled down on my pastoral responsibilities.

I currently don’t know how this calling will crystalize. It is a step of faith and obedience for our family. However, I’ve been comforted by the frequent affirmation of this call from friends, mentors, and even church members.

Our elders responded to the call by saying: “Yes, we see this ministry already present in you, and the joy you receive from it, but we will miss you.” Yesterday a church member said, “We sensed the Holy Spirit telling us you were released from this role, even before you shared it.” “You’re going to be a teacher of teachers?—mind-blow emoji—I’ve learned so much from you.” I cherish these affirmations, especially from my church family.

And yet, there are tears. When I planted City Life with a group of nine people, I fell in love with the church all over again. I have experienced church as a family, something I hadn’t known deeply despite the many good churches I’ve been a part of. As with any family, we’ve gone through all kinds of seasons: the joy of new births, grief in deaths; praying for the kids and learning from the kids; staggering maturity, growing pains; the thrill of mission and perseverance in the plateaus; deep personal pain and ecstatic corporate joy.

And it was all worth it, every single bit, because the Lord of the family is worth it. He has pastored us so faithfully and delicately, through the desert and up the mountain. I love you, City Life. It has been an immense privilege to be your pastor. It’s hard to conceive of a life without you; it’s been almost two decades of our lives. But the great Shepherd has you, as he always has. There’s much more to share, and I hope to post more frequently as I continue to reflect on what God has done, is doing, and will do.

3 Ways to Discern the Spirit’s Voice

During a particularly difficult season of ministry, I felt the Spirit calling me to dig in and fight for joy. But Sunday after Sunday I sensed a thick and sinister darkness. When I stepped up to preach, it felt like a devil’s bony finger was pointing directly in my face.

After preaching my heart out a visitor walked up to me and said, “God wants you to know that your joy is your weapon.” Then she walked away. I did not know this woman, and she knew nothing of my circumstances. Yet, her timing was undeniably providential. Her word from the Spirit filled me with encouragement, like a finger pointing me to the Fountain of joy.

Perhaps you’ve had an experience in which you felt the Holy Spirit prompting you to do or say something. Or perhaps you’re very suspicious of this kind of thing? How do we discern if our thoughts are from the Spirit?

A Subjective Task

Scripture recognizes a degree of subjectivity in discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading. Advising Gentile churches, the elders of the Jerusalem church wrote that their counsel “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28). Regarding instruction to widows who want to remarry, Paul concludes they are better off to remain single. In support he writes, “And I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:40).

He did not say, this is God’s will (as he does in 1 Thess 4:5) or record his inspired words without qualification. He “thought” he had the Spirit’s leading but wasn’t one hundred percent certain. What should we conclude? This advice is wise but not warranted in every case. Paul knew discerning the Spirit’s leading and counsel can be a subjective task, yet an important task nonetheless. He demonstrates considerable dependence upon the uninspired prompts of the Spirit throughout his missionary travels.

However, the only error-free source for the Spirit’s speech is Scripture, and even that should be read carefully. Exploring the Spirit’s more subjective communication should be done with more caution. We can use several “tests” to discern if our thoughts are actually from the

Scripture Test

First, we can apply the Scripture test. Sometimes people confuse their own voice with the voice of the Holy Spirit.

I was talking with someone one day who told me he had a prompting from the Spirit: God had told him to divorce his wife. I followed up by asking why he felt he should divorce his wife. He rattled off a number of reasons, but not one of them constituted biblical grounds for divorce. His prompting clearly wasn’t a prompting of the Spirit because the Spirit does not violate Scripture’s teaching. His motives weren’t godly and his aim not biblical.

The husband I described earlier did just this. He should have used the Scripture test. If he had, it would have been clear the Spirit had already spoken on the matter, and obeying him would have saved himself and his poor wife a lot of heartache. Whenever a so-called “prompt” or spiritual impression contradicts Scripture, we must always go with the Bible.

Wisdom Test

Second, we can use the wisdom test. Sometimes our impressions lack wisdom. It’s not uncommon to hear people say the Holy Spirit told them to do something, like quit their job while not having another source of income to support their family. When confronting this lack of wisdom I’ve heard various objections such as, “God will never let me down.”

Think about what would have happened if Jesus used similar reasoning when Satan tempted him with fame to jump off the highest point of the temple. However, instead of saying, “God will never let me down,” Jesus said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk 4:12). “God will never let me down” reasoning puts us—not God—in charge, treating him like a corporate sponsor for any wild-haired idea we may have. We must be cautious of using over-spiritualizing our reasoning, using God to endorse our agenda. In this case, it would have been wise to consider his wisdom in 1 Timothy 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In zeal, I hear Christians sometimes say God is calling them to sell their house and move overseas for missions. And yet, when I ask if they’ve made disciples in America, they come up short. These “prompts” fail the wisdom test. While it’s certainly possible for the Spirit to impress on us a change of job, home, or country, it’s important we screen our impressions with wisdom. There is safety in an abundance of counselors (Prov 11:14), so we should make important decisions in community. Humbly seek out respected spiritual leaders before taking the leap.

Ministry Test

Finally, we should consider the ministry test. Whenever we start a sentence with, “The Spirit told me . . .” we’re on fallible ground. Nevertheless, the Bible does show us examples of people being prompted by the Holy Spirit to do various things. The interesting thing about these prompts is that they are typically ministry-minded things, like when the Spirit prompted Philip to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter to share the gospel with the household of Cornelius, and Paul to spread the gospel in various cities. The ministry test, evaluates a prompt based on an “others first” ministry orientation.

When I moved to a new city to plant a church, I had to office out of coffee shops the first few years. Occasionally, before I left the house or while I was driving, I would pray and ask the Holy Spirit to direct me to a coffee shop where I could meet people he was calling into the kingdom. Sometimes I would get the sense that I was supposed to go to a specific shop, and other times I wouldn’t. When I did receive a prompt for a specific place, I often ended up having an evangelistic conversation with someone.

Several of these turned into long-term relationships, with some of them coming to Christ. But there were also times when I ended up at a place and simply worked.

I’d be willing to bet that just about any time we are prompted to share the gospel or meet a need, it’s likely the Holy Spirit. I’m so glad the women who ministered a word of joy to me, in a difficult season, heeded the Holy Spirit.


Adapted from Here in Spirit