How Pastors Should Leave a Difficult Church

In a recent post, we heard from Chris Bonts as he shared the painful story of his difficult church. Today we conclude the conversation as Chris tells us how to leave a difficult church. As a reminder, this story is very personal for Chris. He experienced these pains to the point that he was pressured to leave the church. I encourage you again to read his fascinating eBook, How to Survive a Difficult Church.

Thom: Chris, when did you know it was time to leave the difficult church?

Chris: When I became convinced, through prayer, wise counsel, and a number of events, that I would not be the pastor to lead the church to resolve the aforementioned issues in a manner that would bring glory to Christ, improve the health of the church, and place us in a position to reach the community with the gospel. My mistakes in leadership and the attacks of certain factions had just proven too costly to allow us to move forward together. It didn't hurt that there were a number of deacons who agreed with my assessment.

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Thom: What advice can you give pastors if they come to the point where they know they must leave the difficult church?

Chris: The pastor should leave in as godly a manner as possible. While it will be tempting to use your final words from the pulpit to get in a parting shot at those who undermined your ministry, to act in such a manner would be to abandon the example of Christ. I believe a pastor should leave in a manner that makes it as easy as possible for the next pastor of that church to reap the harvest for God's glory. The pastor should leave in a manner that allows those who are paying attention to see Jesus, to see a biblical example of loving those with whom we disagree. Additionally, the pastor should leave in a manner that does not cause others to lose faith in the church. I have seen far too many Christians over the years grow disillusioned with the cause of Christ and the church of Christ because of how the church treated a pastor to whom they were close, causing great harm to their walk with Christ. When I resigned, I wanted to be more attentive to the needs of those in my flock than any desire to justify myself in the flesh.

Additionally, I wanted to resign in a manner that protected my children from the ugliness of church ministry. I didn't want my children to think, for even a moment, that the church had hurt their father. In many ways, I am still their hero. They would have taken an attack on me personally, which would have hurt their love of the church. I want my kids to love the church because loving the church is a vital part of loving Jesus Christ. I did not want to resign or leave in a manner that would cause them to love the church or Jesus less.

Thom: What are some of the key lessons you learned after serving as a pastor of a difficult church?

Chris: First, and most importantly, I learned to have a greater love for my Savior. There were many times when it was difficult to love certain individuals in my church because of their actions toward me. It was during those times, that I was able to see most clearly my Savior's love for me. I've sinned against him far more than anyone has sinned against me, yet his love for me is persistent, faithful, and beyond measure. As I grew in my understanding of my Savior's love for me, I grew in my love for the church. I can honestly say I loved my "difficult church" more when it was time to leave than I ever did during our brief honeymoon period.

Second, I learned that even in the worst of situations, the gospel is still powerful to change lives. While I may not have seen the kind of results I wanted to see for the church as a whole, I was privileged to lead a number of men and women to the Lord and I was privileged to disciple a number of men and women. Just last week I received a text message from a man who was leading three other men through an in-depth study of the spiritual disciplines and systematic theology using notes from our discipleship time together!

Third, I learned that God is sovereign, and He intends to use our hardship in ministry to make us better pastors. Throughout my time at the church and in the few months that I was not the pastor of a church, God revealed a number of areas where I needed to grow as a pastor, as a husband, and as a father. I can honestly say I am a better pastor, husband, and father now than I was when I started my journey in my difficult church. There are lessons learned in the crucible of hardship that cannot be learned anywhere else. I don't want to learn the lessons again, but I am glad to have learned them.

Thank you, Chris, for being willing to re-visit a very painful time in your life. We too have learned from your hardships.

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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