Thursday, September 24, 2015

When you leave your church, leave

Although it was 15 years ago I resigned from the church I was serving to accept the call to a new ministry, I still remember that last Sunday well. For twenty years I had served as the bivocational pastor of that small, rural church. Those people had become my friends and family. I knew beyond a doubt that God was calling me to leave for a new opportunity, but it wasn't going to be easy.

When I announced I was leaving I asked for six weeks in order to share some messages I hoped would make the transition easier. The church constitution called for four weeks, but the church readily agreed to give me the other two weeks. I talked to them about the changes they should expect and the importance of taking their time to search for a new pastor.

The messages went well, but that last Sunday was rough. As I shared my love for them and my appreciation for all we had been through I included these words. "In a few minutes I will walk out that door. I will always be your friend, but I can never be your pastor again. I will not come back to do your weddings or your funerals. That is how your next pastor will become your pastor and not just someone preaching each week. The only way I will even consider being part of a wedding or funeral is if your pastor asks me to, and then it will just be a supportive role."

On the way home my wife said she wished I had not said those words. She could see the pain they caused on people's faces when they heard them. I reminded her that pastoral ethics requires that a pastor not interfere in the life of a church he or she has left. Since we were still living in the same community it would be hard enough, but I had to tell the people clearly that I was no longer their pastor.

Within a year there was both a wedding and a funeral for people who were very close to me. Their families honored my request and had their new pastor perform those ceremonies. I did attend the funeral viewing the evening before, but I did not attend either the wedding or the funeral.

Every year I receive at least one call from a pastor saying that a former pastor is returning to do funerals or weddings or interfering in some other way in the life of the church. This is not only unethical, it is very disruptive to the church. A pastor only becomes the pastor when he or she is involved in the lives of the congregation. When a former pastor returns to do weddings and funerals or otherwise interferes in church business it makes it very difficult for the new pastor to ever be recognized as the pastor.

If God has called you to leave a church, then leave. If He wanted you to continue to minister to that congregation He would never have called you away. Respect your former congregation and their new pastor by refusing to accept invitations to return. There will be enough homecomings or other special events that will give you an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, but even then remember you are a guest there and not the pastor. When you leave a church be ethical enough to leave.


Brian Brumley said...

Sadly, even if the preacher leaves bodily, he does not leave. My first two churches were a continuous rehash of all of the things Bro. So-and-so did, and how wonderful he was. Perhaps more preachers would stay longer if they were held to their own expectations.

Dennis Bickers said...

There's not much that we can do about this, and it does happen. Someone once said that when a pastor leaves the people build monuments to him or her with the stones they threw while the pastor was there. In such circumstances it's best to honor their memory of that pastor, affirm their memories of the previous pastor, and continue to do the best ministry you can do. This honors the former pastor, it honors the history of the church, and it enables you to show what you can do. I've seen pastors make a big mistake when they've criticized the ministry of the previous pastor.