Sixty years ago, a young pastor lived across the street from my uncle and aunt in Garden Grove, California.
This pastor told them that he was starting a new church in the community and asked them to join it.
That pastor’s name?
Dr. Schuller believed that when a pastor was called to a church, he should be committed to that church for life.
Although Schuller’s story didn’t end well, he remained the pastor of Garden Grove Community Church … and then the Crystal Cathedral … for his entire ministry career.
I believe that most pastors take that attitude when they’re called to a church: “I’m going to stay here for the rest of my life … or until God takes me home … and that means I’m not going to run whenever trouble starts.”
My ministry is primarily focused on helping pastors and church board members who are struggling in their relationship to handle their disagreements in a biblical, just, and loving manner.
Yet pastors are being forced out of their positions – often by church bullies – at an ever-increasing rate … and I don’t think that pastors should automatically resign when that happens.
But I believe there are times when the best decision a pastor can make is to resign unilaterally and voluntarily. In such cases, the pressure doesn’t necessarily come from outside the pastor, but often inside the pastor.
When should a pastor resign?
First, when he’s disqualified himself morally.
The first thing most of us think of when we read the above phrase is adultery.
I’m sure many pastors think to themselves, “If I was ever guilty of sleeping with someone other than my wife, I’d quit immediately.”
And yet it’s shocking how many pastors have fallen morally and yet continue on as if nothing ever happened.
Rather than leaving, they wait until they’re caught and then resign … sometimes years or even decades later.
And I always wonder, “How could they hold and preach from the Holy Bible … and serve holy communion … and do it all in Christ’s holy church … when they’re leading such unholy lives?”
More than twenty years ago, I remember a nationally known pastor who resigned from his church for “inappropriate behavior.”
Interviewed in front of his house by a television crew, this pastor stated that he had no business ever being a pastor again.
I thought to myself, “Wow. You just don’t hear that anymore.”
After running the clip, the female host told her television audience, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”
But I have since discovered … from two reputable sources … that the pastor didn’t resign voluntarily but was caught doing things pastors shouldn’t do.
There are other sins that might disqualify a pastor from office as well, including stealing church funds, physical abuse, blatant lying, or even murder.
But for some reason, it’s relatively rare for a pastor to blow the whistle on himself.
Is that due to a pastor’s high commitment level, or his pride?
Second, when the congregation no longer responds to his preaching.
Many years ago, I had lunch with a former pastor who had led a megachurch for more than two decades.
This pastor was well-known in many circles and had written a book that still sold thousands every year.
He told me that for some reason, his people had stopped listening to his sermons.
In fact, he felt they needed to hear a fresh voice.
So he went to the church board and told them he wanted to negotiate a settlement so he could leave.
I can relate to this pastor’s story.
During my final pastorate, over my first few years, my sermons were very well received.
But over my last few months, I just wasn’t connecting as I once had. Some of my humor fell flat … I started repeating myself … and I may have preached in a tone of frustration.
Looking back, maybe I was trying to work out solutions to my own problems through my preaching rather than dealing with the congregation’s issues.
Toward the end, there were Sundays where nobody told me they “liked my sermon.”
When a pastor receives positive feedback from a sermon, it provides much-needed fuel for his next message … but when he receives little to no feedback, it can become very demoralizing … and, in some cases, serve as a signal that the pastor needs to leave.
Third, when you’re hanging on for a paycheck.
I once worked with a pastor who had announced to the church that he was going to retire at a future date.
After he made his announcement, he didn’t do very much around the office.
He signed checks … came to my office and talked … and spent most of his time just killing time.
I never saw him read a book. I never saw him study for a sermon.
He came to the office late, and left early.
There’s a sense in which we can understand a situation like this. If a pastor has served a church faithfully for years, and wants to give them plenty of advance notice that he’s going to retire, maybe he shouldn’t be expected to be a ball of energy.
But what bothers me is that there are thousands of pastors around who aren’t nearing retirement and yet act just like they are.
Life’s too short to be unhappy and unfulfilled in your job.
My counsel to a pastor who is just putting in time would be, “Get out … as soon as you can … because your people deserve a more energetic and effective shepherd.”
Fourth, when attendance is in a death spiral.
Forgive me for the following cynical statement, but I believe that it’s true:
“Many churches exist to pay the pastor’s salary.”
This statement refers to churches that:
*were once growing and vibrant.
*have been in steady decline for years.
*struggle just to put on a service every Sunday.
*are wearing out their few remaining lay leaders.
*nobody wants to invite their friends to attend.
*allocate the overwhelming bulk of their income to the pastor’s salary.
*have no positive plan for turning the church around.
I wrote an article about this situation a while back because it’s so common:
After soliciting responses from some top Christian leaders, I synthesized their counsel and then wrote this article:
Let me make this bold statement: unless the pastor of a church is willing to reinvent himself, the pastor who presided over a steady decline rarely presides over a turnaround.
It would be helpful for a church in steady decline to bring in an outside consultant to take an objective look at their situation as well as their future, but such a church usually needs a new pastor with fresh vision and energy.
Fifth, when the pastor can no longer endure personal and family attacks.
If a pastor is a strong individual, most people unhappy with his ministry will just leave the church … a few loudly, most quietly.
If a pastor is more passive or perceived to be weak, a bully may try to take him out … or organize a faction that starts making demands and threats.
Pastors know they’re going to be criticized: after sermons, on response cards, through emails, via anonymous letters, and worst of all, through messages relayed by others. (“So and So is mad at you.”)
Much of this is par for the course, but when people threaten the pastor’s reputation or job, and add threats and demands, it can become a bit much … and sometimes, become abusive.
I believe that when a pastor is being abused, the church board needs to step in, calm down those making the threats, and encourage them to modify their behavior … or leave the church.
But if the board won’t do that … or the threats originate with board members … then most pastors can only take so much.
But what pushes most pastors over the edge is when professing Christians attack his wife and children.
This happened to me during my second pastorate. The seniors class rebelled against me and drew up a list of all my faults … including those of my wife and kids.
My wife’s offense? Her slip was showing one Sunday.
When the board unanimously stood with me, my attackers immediately left the church, but it was almost more than we could take.
We all have a different threshold for criticism. Maybe you can take more than I can.
But when pastors are “mobbed” by a sizeable portion of the congregation, why put up with it?
And short of a heaven-sent revival, what can a pastor do to mollify such people?
Just leave ’em behind.
Sixth, when the pastor would rather be doing something else.
Years ago, I knew a pastor – a very godly man, in my view – who was being consistently attacked at church.
The pastor lived across the street from the church campus, and had some used refrigerators in his garage, which he loved to work on.
One Sunday night, after a terrible congregational meeting, my friend walked across the street to his home and decided to resign and fix refrigerators and appliances for a living.
I began serving in church ministry at age 19, and worked only for churches for nearly the following four decades.
So when I was forced out of my church, I couldn’t identify any transferable skills that I could use to start a business or land a decent secular job … unless flipping hamburgers and cooking fries counts for something.
But many pastors do have those skills, and if the day ever comes when they’d rather make a living in a previous profession, then maybe that’s what they should do.
My first seminary professor was the great Dr. Charles Feinberg. He told my Old Testament class, “Gentlemen, if you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it!”
He was right.
Finally, when the church board asks for your resignation.
I sometimes hear stories about pastors who were fired by their elders or deacons.
Sometimes he’s fired after a Sunday service … or at a special/regular board meeting … or by two board members who meet with the pastor privately … or sometimes through an email or a letter in the mail.
In a perfect world, it would be preferable if the board asked the pastor for his resignation, and the pastor traded it – and a unifying letter – for a generous severance package.
But all too often, the pastor is fired unilaterally … without any explanation … without letting him ask questions or give feedback … and without any severance package.
However, if a board has prayed about it … consulted with outside experts … and every person on the board is in agreement, then the board should ask the pastor for his resignation rather than firing him outright.
This not only preserves the pastor’s dignity, but sounds much better on a resume.
However, if the board does ask the pastor for his resignation, they shouldn’t force him to quit right then and there. (Some boards prepare a letter they want the pastor to sign ahead of time.)
The pastor needs time to think, pray, and speak with his family … and yes, giving him time runs the risk of his saying, “No, I’m staying” or even leading a counterattack.
But if the board unilaterally fires the pastor without notice or any good reason, many in the congregation may rebel, and the church may dwindle significantly, and require years to rebuild.
In almost every case … unless a board is composed of cruel and godless individuals … I believe that a pastor should resign if the board asks for his resignation.
Can you imagine other scenarios where a pastor should resign voluntarily?