Too often, staff members and pastors leave a church and burn bridges. I’ve done it. As a youth minister, I left a church under less than the best of conditions. I was young, immature and foolish in the way I responded. I thought people needed to know my side of the story. They didn’t. I didn’t need to share it.
I remember the pastor announcing I was going to leave. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, Michael Catt is leaving. The good news is, we’ll find someone better.” That hurt. It didn’t help him, me or the church. Neither one of us took the high road and it was costly. It wasn’t smart then. It’s not smart now.
As a pastor, I’ve had to dismiss four staff members. I’ve had to tell a few that it wasn’t working out and they needed to find another place to serve. Nothing is more painful. Nothing hurts more. The church is hurt. The pastor and staff member and their families are hurt. How we handle it is the key. All of us would have to admit we’ve done some un-Christian things in the way we’ve responded to those situations.
We’ve all left carnal churches. There are churches that, quite honestly, don’t deserve a pastor or staff. I once heard a famous preacher in America say, “If a church has a problem with three pastors in a row, the problem is not the pastor.” Some churches are troubled, sick and carnal. They are more Corinthian than Christlike. They are the kind of churches where you just shake the dust off your feet and move on.
On the other hand, most churches are good and supportive of staff. No church likes to lose a staff member. No pastor likes to deal with a staff exodus. I was in a meeting in February of 2007 and listened to a pastor who grieved as he talked about a staff coup where six staff members left and started a church right down the road, taking hundreds of members with them.
I have a personal conviction that it is wrong to leave a church and form another church or serve another church in the same community. I realize there are troubled churches and people want a healthy church to go to. Let someone else do it. We’ve got too many people leaving a church and starting one right down the street. It brings confusion. It causes people to have to make choices they should never have to make. It divides and doesn’t unite.
I have a friend in the pastorate who has a “no compete clause” for staff. Three staff members have left and taken pastorates within a few miles of our church. Both have reached back to the church they left to find members, staff and support. In fact, at times, they use their former church to build their new church. I question the integrity of such decisions and actions. The questions raised, the confusion caused and the feelings hurt can’t be viewed as truly building the body or the kingdom.
When Paul and Barnabas decided to part ways, they didn’t compete for prospects or found competing churches. They went two different directions. Both contributed to the kingdom. I think the blessing of the home church and pastor is essential.
Often a resignation is painful. Far too often, pastors and staff members leave and seem to forget the church paid their salary and benefits and prayed for their families. It seems to be easy to take for granted what people have done for us. To leave and assume “they owe me” is to deny the cross. We are not dead to self when we scream for our rights, no matter how much we have been wronged.
I know of ministers who have been loved on, supported, and encouraged but refuse to acknowledge and appreciate the church for what they did. The exit may not go well, the end might not be as anticipated, but we still have to be grateful for the season of serving there. God is the ultimate judge of who was “right” and who was “wrong.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
As a pastor, I don’t know a staff member who has left or been dismissed whom we’ve not loved, prayed for, encouraged, supported and invested in. That does not mean they were not challenged, stretched and held accountable. We expect excellence. We expect loyalty and integrity. If we see or sense anything that could affect the unity and harmony of the body, it is addressed.
I’m privileged to pastor a church that is pro-staff. They love staff members, their wives and kids. They pray for us. They encourage us. They serve along side us. They don’t have to; they want to.
I’m in my third decade as a pastor. I’ve been through good departures and still call many of our former staff members friends. I’ve been through others where I can’t get them to return a phone call.
I know of a pastor who was doing a five year review with a staff member. The guy’s numbers had dropped in his area by almost 90%. He wasn’t being effective and he was floundering. After a forty five minute review the staff member said, “Are you finished?” Then he handed the pastor a resignation dated six months later.
The pastor was stunned. He had not asked for the resignation. He didn’t quite know what to do with a resignation dated six months out. The guy wasn’t retiring. Long story short–he was given the time to look and relocate. As the six months were coming to a close, there were no opportunities for the staff member. Although he was through and had basically quit on all fronts, he was being picky about where God might lead Him. This left the church and the pastor held hostage.
The bottom line is the pastor went to the personnel committee and they extended the time the guy could stay. He ended up staying another four months. He turned down several churches. He finally moved to a church in the same town to become a pastor. Never was appreciation shown for the extension (or for that fact, not letting him go for such poor performance).
Several years ago, the pastor tried to contact the former staff member. He was rebuffed with an aloof and arrogant response. The former staff member did a little sniping and shooting over his shoulder as he was going out the door. He conveniently forgot to share how the pastor, personnel committee and executive pastor had been patient with him for ten months. He forgot to be grateful for a church paying his full salary and benefits while he basically sat on his hands looking for the perfect situation.
We’ve had good and bad experiences. It comes with the territory. Far too often, churches tell stories (or nightmares) of ungrateful staff who don’t leave well. Anyone can be excited about coming to a church. It takes a man of character to honor the church, the pastor and the staff when he leaves.
Can I make a few suggestions if you are thinking about leaving a church?
1) Be kingdom minded. It’s not about you. It’s about Christ and His church. He is not looking to you to set the record straight. He knows how to judge a church and a ministry.
2) Be the bigger person. If you’ve been fired or wronged, take the high road. Don’t shoot over your shoulder. Choose to turn the other cheek. Choose to forgive. Choose to love.
3) Give thanks for the opportunity. God may have used it to sharpen you, prune you or discipline you. There are no wasted experiences. You can be better or bitter.
4) Don’t burn bridges. You never know when your negative response, bitter comment or bad attitude will come back to haunt you. It’s a small world. People are more connected than ever.
5) Learn from your mistakes. If you’ve blown it in leaving or in dismissing a staff member, ask God to teach you how to respond the next time. Don’t make the same mistake twice.
6) If you are a pastor and it’s not working out with someone, deal with it. Hire slow, fire fast. It is more painful to cut off the dog’s tail an inch at the time than to just cut it off once.
7) If you are a pastor and have to dismiss someone, your responsibility is to protect the church, not the staff member. I know pastors who have covered for staff who were fired over immorality. The church never knew the real reason and blamed the pastor for running off a good man.
8) Don’t attack. It’s tempting. I’ve done it. Don’t air your frustrations before the church. Most of them aren’t tuned in on that level anyway. They just show up for church and if they aren’t involved in that area, they probably just shrug their shoulders and move on. Don’t fan the flames.
9) Seek counsel. Talk to other ministers about how to respond. Find a friend who isn’t connected with the church to vent to. Don’t make an impulsive decision. But, when the decision needs to be made and godly counsel affirms it, make it.
10) Remember we’re all going to be in glory together. Some hills are not worth dying on. Grudges are not worth holding. Resentment never makes you more like Jesus. Even if you have to break fellowship or part ways, don’t hang on to the past. It’s not healthy. It’s not holy.
I’ve shared a few stories with you from my own experience and from the experiences of others. I grieve that I’ve lost friendships in these processes. It’s never easy. There are no easy answers. When you leave, let it go. It’s hard, and we need grace and the Spirit of Christ to do it. There are, in fact, two sides to every story. But the reality is, there will be no finger pointing in glory.
One day, I’ll walk away from my church for the last time. I hope and pray I’ll leave in such a way that they will invite me back from time to time. I hope and pray I’ll be supportive of the man who follows me. I hope and pray that I will leave the church in a positive and healthy condition.
The church I serve has been very, very good to me. They’ve paid my salary all these years. They’ve prayed for my family. They’ve supported me (even when I’ve made dumb decisions). They’ve paid for my health insurance and helped me with my retirement. I can’t be anything but grateful.
I think all of us should pray, not only that we finish well, but also that we don’t give ourselves a black eye or trip ourselves up on the journey.
© Michael Catt, 2007
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.