How to leave well

Sutton Turner » Church Church Leadership Health Wisdom Planning Community Executive Pastor

Years ago, after a season of dedicated service, I sensed the beginning of the end of my employment. If I had been working in the business world, my game plan would have been quite simple: Step one, turn in my letter of resignation. Step two, leave.

Ministry, however, is not that simple. At the time, I was the executive pastor of a large and growing church in Texas, serving as second-in-charge to the lead pastor. I could not quit without causing serious problems and distractions for my church and my pastor. My dilemma: how could I leave well?

I’ve seen many church workers resign over the years. Frankly, most do not leave well. It’s not a sin to leave vocational ministry—Jesus does call people away, and I’ve experienced it myself. But it is a sin to leave poorly. How does one transition from staff or leadership without debilitating the congregation and creating ugly discord among church family?

1. Seek confirmation

When I sensed my call in Texas begin to wane, I dedicated three weeks to fasting and prayer in order to listen to the Holy Spirit. Seek his wisdom, but don’t justify a unilateral decision with overly spiritual language about what the Lord told you. Ask for confirmation from trusted friends, pastors, and your spouse as well.

2. Check your motives

Why do you want to quit? Is the work too hard? Is the pay too low? Are the hours too long? Lack of recognition? Hate to break it to you, but that’s ministry. If you’re abandoning a ministry calling for more money, more status, or more free time, chances are you’ve either succumbed to selfishness or failed to count the cost in the first place.

3. Give plenty of notice

Two weeks may be sufficient in the secular realm, but not in a church. Most churches operate with minimal staff and do not have well-trained personnel prepared to step into a new role at a moment’s notice. Ninety days is a reasonable starting place for church staff transitions (sometimes more, sometimes less).

4. Submit to spiritual authority

When I told my lead pastor that I was ready to move on, he would not accept my resignation. So I stayed. I trusted the spiritual authorities God had placed in my life. I asked Jesus to speak to the pastor about my transition, but I planned to stay and work at the church until Jesus made it clear—both to me and to my lead pastor—that it was time to go.

5. Wait on the Lord

Six months after asking me to stay, my lead pastor met with me again. Jesus had led him to John 5:35, which describes John the Baptizer’s ministry lasting “for a time” (NIV). Likewise, the lead pastor believed my work at the church had been for a season, which was now coming to an end. We were able to work together to execute a smooth, healthy transition. The timing was further confirmed when God provided a great new job, which was not around when I had tried to resign six months prematurely. If you believe that Jesus called you to your position, then he will call you away from it when the time is right. 

6. Be prepared to sacrifice

If you resign, do not request or expect to receive severance pay (severance is for layoff situations). Sudden staff loss is painful and expensive for your church. The recruitment process is a costly, time-consuming distraction, and severance essentially doubles that cost. If you’re the one who wants to leave, don’t ask your church to invest in a new hire and keep paying you a salary after you’ve gone.

7. Search for your replacement before you search for a new job

Be honest with your lead pastor/supervisor. Don’t job hunt behind their back. Make your priority finding a replacement, not finding a new job. If you really trust Jesus, allow him to open up the next door in your career in his time. Your first priority is his church.

8. Train your successor

As the saying goes, “Leave it better than you found it.” You know the job you are leaving better than anyone, so help recruit, hire, and train someone better than you for the new season your church is facing. Since the transition process takes time, you may have to sacrifice an immediate new job opportunity for the good of the church. If you don’t help your successor, however, you are not leaving the church better than you found it. 

9. Defer on the announcement

Even if you mean well, don’t broadcast any announcement (including on Facebook) until you discuss with your lead pastor or executive pastor about how they would like to handle the transition message. Also, leaving a church is not like leaving any other job; the church is the bride of Jesus. If you have nothing good to say about her, then don’t say anything on your way out.

10. Don’t expect an honor parade

Many church staff begin the leaving process with the best intentions only to take a hard turn onto the bitter route. Often, this is the result of unrealistic expectations about the honor they will receive upon their departure. Your lead pastor may honor you publicly. He may not. From his perspective, the future and what’s next for the church are more important than you and your past achievements. Besides, we serve Jesus and his church. Any honor due goes to Jesus—not to us. Whether or not the congregation even knows you’re gone, Jesus sees your service, and that’s why you serve.

11. Stick to the message

Resist the temptation to justify your leaving; it rarely goes well, and almost always gets negative: I disagree with the new leadership structure; we’re too focused on numbers; I don’t like my boss; I’m not getting developed; I don’t have the same influence that I used to; I can preach or lead better than the lead pastor. If you sense Jesus is calling you out of your current role and on to something new, then that’s your reason for leaving—even if there are other valid factors at play. Any other reason that comes out of your mouth may indicate that you’re seeking human approval—a word of consolation, solidarity, or affirmation—at the expense of the church’s reputation.

12. Don’t poach

Leaving well doesn’t end when you start your next job. I’ve had many employees leave church staff, only to start recruiting former colleagues for their new employer. If you have job opportunities at your new church or job, call the lead pastor or executive pastor at your previous church and ask permission to speak with the candidate. If the answer is no, respect their spiritual authority and drop the subject. 

13. Church trumps career

Since my first calling as an executive pastor ended, God has called me back to the role, only this time at Mars Hill Church. As part of my job, I interview many prospective employees, and the first question I ask a candidate is, “Does your lead pastor know we are talking today?” If the answer is “no,” then I can safely assume they’d treat me the same way as they are treating their current church employer. Equally discouraging is when a candidate assures me they’ll give their church two weeks notice. Such a person is just looking for the next job opportunity. They’re a hireling, not someone who actually cares about the church.

How you leave ministry reveals the state of your heart for Jesus and his church. The goal in transition is what’s best for the local church, not your career. Thankfully, Jesus can redeem bad transitions and use them to bring about much good. But our desire should be to finish well, by God’s grace. 

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