Accepting or Rejecting a Call
Those of us who have served a congregation for many years usually make that the model for every other pastor. Our tendency is to say to any brother experiencing difficulty or manifesting a restless spirit, 'Stay there. Stick it out.' Sometimes that can bring a man to the very edge of his endurance, and we have wrested the Pauline principle of each one 'remaining in the same calling in which he was called' to the virtual destruction of that brother.
Some men have church-planting abilities: when they have established a congregation they move on. Today such men are needed like gold. They have an excellent pedigree in the dynamic fluidity of New Testament preachers. They should be encouraged in their labours and not taken on a guilt trip by senior Christians who hold before them the example of the chronology of the ministries of William Jay of Bath or Stanley Delves of Crowborough. There are diversities of gifts within the preaching ministry.
Yet every pastor, sooner or later, meets the question, Should I change my sphere of labour? Each age influences the church with its own restlessness, and ours is as much a society of flux as any since the time of the apostles. What guidelines can help a minister come to a decision on this matter?
The Disadvantages of Change
The disadvantages of moving to another congregation are many, and only the most important reasons can justify a pastor leaving his church.
It involves a serious loss in what is the pastor's working capital, that is, the confidence and love of his congregation. Unlike mere popularity, this is slowly acquired, but once it has been secured it adds immensely to the influence of his work. This advantage is all relinquished on leaving his charge and must be again built up at another place. A pastor's ability also to benefit a people by wisely adapting his work to their character and needs must depend on his knowledge of them. When a change is made, this is lost and can be regained only by studying a new congregation.
Few ministers widen their range of fresh study after the first pastorate. Fresh out of seminary, they have an impetus to keep up the discipline of reading, to maintain their grasp of the original languages and not fall behind in obtaining new commentaries and scholarly works. In a new field the temptation to use old themes, and even old sermons, often proves irresistible, and their life-thinking, which must freshen and strengthen their congregations, becomes stultified, moving around in the same narrow range. Pastoral change often checks intellectual and theological growth.
An awareness of the temporary nature of their ministry discourages broad comprehensive plans for the instruction and development of the church. The minister is tempted to aim exclusively at immediate results, or even at the sensational. Sermons are largely in the 'How to...' mould. 'Breezy' messages confined within a limited range of topics sentimentalise Christianity. That systematic teaching so reflective of ethical and doctrinal instruction in the New Testament (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, or the Epistle to the Romans) is never heard.
The marginalisation of the Christian ministry from society is in part a result of this restlessness. Ministers who do not stay long in an area are an unknown quantity. Confidence in them as men of high moral purpose, whose words concerning local ethical issues carry weight, depends upon their being a permanent force in the community's life rather than transients.
Inadequate Causes of Change
Every minister passes through periods when he feels unsettled. His own high standards regularly plunge him into discouragement about both his efforts in the pulpit and his pastoral inexpertise. He sees and hears other men whom he believes would make far better guardians of his flock. Is he a cumberer of the ground? Should he not make way for another? But the key question is this, Do the majority of his congregation feel that? Would it not break their hearts if he should go? Such feelings of restlessness, if rightly interpreted, can serve to strengthen rather than to dissolve the pastoral relation. They can bring him afresh to God rather than drive him to a new scene, and so become the means of spiritual quickening.
What are some inadequate causes for a man's leaving his church?
A bout of depression. Men with the personalities of David Brainerd are more common in the pastoral ministry then they ever imagine. It is possible for such men to be greatly used of God, as Brainerd himself was. No minister has a wholly rounded and self-integrated temperament. The ministry's requirement of constant exposure to the Word of God creates its own healing, more than does a move to another sphere.
Decline in attendance. Congregations reach a peak and then continue on that plateau level. True growth is unpredictable because it is a divine prerogative. Some congregations under the best ministry and pastoral care decline numerically. In economically deprived areas with high unemployment, church attendance is always affected. Today we stand against the tide, and only by God's grace can we ourselves and our churches hold fast. God calls us to be 'good, faithful servants'. Let us leave statistics to him. They are no safe ground for resignation and move.
Estrangement from church officers or members of the congregation. Though these things cause great discouragement they are not in themselves sufficient grounds for leaving a church. John Reisinger recalls one such deacon and writes:
"When he was on the board of deacons, he would magnify every bad thing and overlook every good thing. He hounded me to death! The strange part is that he did more to help me be a better pastor than any other deacon with whom I served. You see, when he was on the board, I always made sure that I did everything (down to the smallest detail) that I was supposed to do. I have a tendency to leave things until the last minute, and then I miss some "small details". I didn't miss anything when he was on the board! I came to the place where I could honestly thank God for that man. I believe God knew that I needed some assistance and he sent him along to help me be a better pastor. " 12
A minister needs in those circumstances to cultivate executive and pastoral relationships, and make sure that he is not ignoring the counsels of his fellow officers. If there are imperfections in his spirit and life which prevent confidence and respect on the part of the congregation, then a change of church will not make any difference. The man himself needs to change. Let him search his heart in the presence of the Wonderful Counsellor.
Difficulties in the church. The New Testament letters indicate the range of conflicts that can arise in every church. It is possible to trace any problem in the congregation back to the pastor. If he were originally as much a detached spectator of events as any other member, he is the one person who is bound to make a response, and immediately that comes under scrutiny. His deliverance will be his biblical counsels, his own integrity and the full knowledge of the events held by his officers. Trials are no indication of a time to be moving away to another church. This trial may be sent as a discipline, designed to develop, through faith and patience, a sweeter character with the power of humility in the pastor. A move in such an instance could be a running away from duty, and consequent failure to gain greater usefulness. Such disruptions of pastoral ties result only in loss to pastor and people.
Ambitious seeking for influence and distinction. 'Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not' (Jeremiah 45:5). There is an unsanctified ambition which, dissatisfied with the natural influence which faithful endurance in truth and godliness achieves, is ever restlessly searching around. It manifests itself, for example, in political silences. There are issues that cry for decision and the insights of gifted men, but many of those choose to be silent lest their promotion be affected. They are the preachers who are always warning young men first of all about what they dub 'extremism'. Often the church is in an impasse because the pioneer spirit that goes where none has gone before has been quenched. Men like Luther, Knox, Wesley, Spurgeon and Machen were never motivated by desires for distinction. The thought never entered their minds. As they judged the world and the church, so they believed and spoke. The people of God are for ever in their debt for speaking out. One can only survive in the ministry in the conviction that this present charge is the top place in the world to be serving God, and there to declare all of his Word according to one's light and power.
Valid Reasons for Change
Every church has gifts, but no church has all the gifts of the Spirit. For example, there are few churches which have the gift of a theological teacher, or of an evangelist. There are even fewer churches that have the gift of more than one pastor-preacher, because few churches need more than one. The fields are white to harvest. What is a preacher doing sitting in a congregation while another serves the Word week by week? So when a pulpit is vacant the congregation will rarely find a pastor-preacher in its midst and it must look elsewhere. There are also churches with special needs which require a man of certain aptitudes. So invitations come to ministers already engaged in serving another congregation. Providence, and common sense, and wise counsel and the leading of the Spirit of God through these means will make plain whether the obligation which God earlier gave should now be dissolved. There are good reasons why a man should leave a church:
Development in pulpit and pastoral usefulness beyond the requirements of his present sphere. A young man has come from seminary, and has got stuck into a charge, labouring faithfully in visitation, evangelism, pulpit and study. He indicates a willingness to remain there for the rest of his days. A maturity has thus developed which equips him for another sphere of greater responsibility and crucial need. If this is made evident by the judgment of his brethren and the providence of God, then he is required by a stewardship of Christ's gifts and love for Christ's cause to uproot himself and enter the wider sphere.
The health of himself or his family. One sphere of labour may prove too demanding for a man or his dependants, for example, he may be church planting in a foreign environment and broken health or psychological distress may necessitate his remaining at home at his first furlough. This is always to be chosen before permanent injury is done.
Continuous discomfort in the work. Some men have found that even after the most conscientious discharge of their duties, controlling influences in the church are working against them. Their plans for the advance of the church are always turned down so that pastor and influential members of the congregation are always at loggerheads. These things are eventually incompatible with a minister's comfort or efficiency. If these relations cannot be altered, it would clearly be his duty to enter a field where his relations are more congenial and his labours unobstructed by wearing criticism.
Dr Jay Adams recommends that a minister should let his officers (not the entire congregation) know if he is seriously entertaining a call which he has received. They will then have opportunity to pray about the matter and to discuss it openly with him.
A pastor's life is a life of trials. He is required to be scrupulous in small matters and so he will be convicted by his own small sins. He is one who follows the Saviour's example, beholding the city and weeping over it. So he cannot himself fail to be moved by the majority of mankind spurning his gospel. He labours amongst incompletely sanctified people in a fallen world. Any change of place will be a change in the form of his trials.
It is a serious question whether, in most instances of change, a simple trust in God, a patient forbearance to the convictions of other Christians, and a persistence in faithful work would not have avoided the necessity of moving on, and would have added much to the strength of the pastor and the enlargement of his influence as a minister of Christ. Certainly the widespread instability of evangelical congregations argues a great wrong is being wrought somewhere, either in pastors or in congregations, so that the character and influence of church and minister has been weakened.