How to Finish a Ministry Well

By Floyd Strater

“There is a time for everything. . .
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh.”
—Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

For the preacher, it is “A time to move or a time to stay.”

Many questions go through the mind of the minister who is struggling with a move. Where does God want me to minister? What can a different church offer?

It is common to feel this sometime along the journey. It’s the feeling that says, “I’m comfortable here.” Sometimes it’s a feeling of knowing too much of the “inside scoop” about everyone and their problems. Perhaps it’s the thought that the ministry is going well, but not great.

The minister may have far more dreams than the church. He might wonder, Have I taken this ministry as far as I can? Is the church in need of changes to reach the community? Can I help bring about those changes? Is the “grass greener” on the other side? Then he thinks, I love the people here and I think they love me. That only makes the decision even more difficult.

No Monday Decisions

These thoughts and others go through the minister’s mind, and most times they occur on Monday morning! A minister needs to be careful not to make career decisions on a Monday. This is hard to explain to those who are not in the full-time ministry. After preaching, Sunday school classes, potlucks, special events, and important meetings, the minister enters the new work week exhausted. Monday is therefore not a good day to make important decisions. Monday is generally a day of evaluation for most preachers. How was attendance? Was the offering good? How are staff members doing? Did people respond to the sermon? Most ministers are willing to go anywhere that’s somewhere different on Monday.

The discouraged minister probably wishes God would write the message in the sky. Something like: “Pastor, get out of Dodge!”

In most cases, however, God doesn’t quote from old westerns. If he did though, it would probably be from True Grit, because God does not seem to care where we serve but that we hang in there and serve faithfully. God does not give us quotas. The Lord wants us to serve where our gifts can best be used for his glory.

Preparing to Stay or Leave

There are many things to consider when deciding to stay or leave. Church growth is never a steady pattern. There are ups and downs. Sometimes it is necessary to expand the base and prepare for growth before it can come. A strong, committed foundation is essential before the church can successfully expand. An appraisal of the growth pattern needs to occur before a rational decision can be made about the future.

It is good to look at the total picture of the church. What areas are strong and where are we weak? Staffing, programming, space, and other important factors must be considered. Looking back over the past year and evaluating what is going well and what isn’t helps us to get the big picture.

A look at the church staff is also helpful. Is the staff in transition? It takes a while for new staff to get the pulse of their new ministry and to gel with the existing staff. It sometimes takes a year or more for this to begin to work well.

The local economy impacts the offerings and volunteer involvement in the church. While ministering in California, we experienced McDonnell Douglas having a large impact on our community. There were several thousand people who lost jobs, and many families moved away. There were also people who stayed in the church but were in danger of losing their homes due to the changes in the economy. This is not a time to cut and run, but for the body of believers to pull together and make it through. We did survive and came back stronger.

The racial makeup of a community can change very quickly. In the Los Angeles area where I minister, 204 different languages are spoken. This can be seen as a threat to the existing church people or as an opportunity. Sometimes we run away from opportunities because we view them as threatening.

A move involves change. Before making that decision, it’s smart to consider if there could be changes you could make where you presently are that would bring about the church you desire to see.

After taking time to look at our ministry and the life of the church, we can make a decision that is not based on an event or on temporary discouragement. Does our vision for ministry match the church’s? Are our gifts what they need? A time of evaluation, receiving wise counsel and prayer, will put us in a better frame of mind to be positive and leave our ministry in a wholesome and loving manner.

The Final Weeks

Let’s look at a few things that will help in the closing time of a ministry. Each church may have its own timetable for the final days of the minister at their church. Many have a 60-day agreement. During this time we need to sow peace and not hurts. The goal is to leave in a way that the work of the church will go ahead and build on what has been planted. Paul says it so well concerning his work and the follow-up work of Apollos.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. . . . The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:5, 6, 8, 9).

When preparing to leave a church, spend time with the elders and share dreams for their congregation and the new ministry before you. Thank the elders for the past. Let them know that this is the time to be faithful; lovingly lead them in the times of change. All of your words to the elders should be full of thankfulness and confidence in their leadership in the days ahead.

The minister should then immediately meet with the church staff. This is not a time to share personal hurts or criticisms. It is a time to let them know that you appreciate and thank them for their service with you. It is a time to encourage them to carry on the work during the time of transition ahead.

Spend time with the teachers and sponsors and answer questions that they may have about your decision. Let them know that you love them and that their ministry will be important and vital during this time of change. Visit each class and Bible study group and let them visit with you; share your vision for your future and your encouragement for others.

Make your preaching very positive and encouraging. Remind the people that their anchor is Jesus Christ. Provide them with encouragement to carry them through the days ahead. Let them see your sorrow in leaving the church family that you love. Your memory will be filled with all of the members, and you will never forget the years of your life spent in ministry with them.

The hardest of all steps may be this last one: When you leave, you leave. Do not try to run things from the phone. If you stay in touch with your friends in the church, never question what the new preacher is doing. This is easier said than done, but for the health of the church and out of fairness to the new minister, we need to remember that although we planted, it is now his turn to water.

Keep the Wonder

Years ago, I left West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, to come to Knott Avenue Christian Church in Anaheim, California. My final sermon was “Never Lose the Wonder.” I was then invited to preach that sermon in chapel at Lincoln Christian College. The man who became the new minister at West Side was Vaughn Beeman. We had served there together for 12 years. I left a wonderful church and wonderful people and a wonderful staff to answer another call. Our family still has fond memories of our wonderful times at West Side.

After several years, Vaughn invited me to preach that same sermon. It doesn’t get any better than that!

There is nothing like the partnership of “planting and watering.” The church is one body of believers. In Heaven, we will all be together. That’s because the wonder of the church is found in God’s perfect, unending love and in his gift of eternal redemption. In spite of all of our weaknesses, the church is being made perfect and is the glorious bride of Christ with a divine mission.

My fellow ministers, even in times of discouragement or trials, you are serving a glorious bride that will last for eternity and will be made perfect. I encourage you to never lose the wonder!


 

 

Floyd Strater, a member of the Publishing Committee at Standard Publishing, lives in Anaheim, California. Although retired, he continues to actively travel, speak, and counsel church leaders.

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