Knowing When to Leave

By Mike Shannon

One of our greatest problems in life is trying to make godly and wise decisions. We are so desperate to do the right thing that we often lapse into an almost superstitious view of trying to discern the will of God. 

I don’t know about you, but I have often had to make decisions when I was not certain what God wanted me to do. Sometimes I thought I was certain, but later had to reconsider. Nowhere is this tension felt more acutely than when we are trying to decide whether or not to stay at a particular place of ministry.

Kenny Rogers sang in his 1978 hit song “The Gambler” about the importance of knowing when to play out a hand and when to fold your cards, and knowing when to walk away from the card game and when to run away!

The problem is, how do we know when to leave a ministry position?


Don’t Leave If . . .

Perhaps the first thing to discuss is when not to leave.

For starters, don’t quit on a Monday. I heard this advice early in ministry and it has proven sound. On Monday we are exhausted from all the activities of Sunday, and complaints are still ringing in our ears. That is not the time to make momentous decisions that will affect the rest of your life.

Also, don’t quit when you are angry. However justified we think our anger is, we should not make serious, life-changing decisions while under the spell of strong emotion. I know of one minister who, when he got angry, wrote his letter of resignation. He kept adding to it over time. He said it was getting to be a pretty good letter. He also said he left the letter in his bathrobe so he’d be less likely to submit it. 

Whatever the issue is, let the initial anger pass. You certainly should not leave the first time you think about it.

Don’t leave because you lost a vote. Some ministers make every decision a test of wills and every disagreement a sign of disloyalty. Conversely, we too often interpret support from the board to mean unanimous and unequivocal agreement with everything we want. Remember, “no” does not mean “never.” An initiative that is turned down one day may be accepted a few months later.

Don’t leave because a few people oppose you. There will always be people who oppose you. The most famous, celebrated, and successful minister you know has people who oppose him. The fact is, the same kinds of personalities exist in all congregations. One minister conceded that, but said he might like to see new faces on them.

Don’t leave until you have a new job lined up. It is not always easy to find a new position. Church search committees are notoriously slow about concluding searches.

Don’t leave when things are falling apart. Fix the problems you can and leave when things are stable. It will be much better for you and the congregation if you leave when the situation is relatively healthy.

Don’t leave just because another position pays more. While we all have a right to do the best we can for our families, there is no amount of money that will make you happy if the job is a bad match for you. An old, cynical adage goes like this, “The higher the salary, the louder the call.” That is not a good principle. I know some who have taken pay cuts to do what they felt called to do, and it has been a happy transition.

Don’t leave because your people are spiritually immature. That will be true everywhere. If there weren’t spiritually immature people, there would be no need of Christian leaders. Every church is a mixture of people all along a continuum of spiritual maturity. Some will grow, some will regress, and some will stay the same. Cotton Jones used to say that your ministry is successful if more people are growing than regressing.


Think about Leaving If . . .

So when is it the right time to leave?

First, the right time to leave is when you honestly believe you have no more to offer. I wish there were some objective way of determining that, but there is not.

09_Shannon_JNPerhaps you should leave when you believe you don’t have the right gift mix for the church. While this should have been noticed at the time of the interview, it may not become evident until you get into the work. 

I was once advised, “Don’t leave unless you have been there at least three years. You will not know if you’re a good fit until then.” After three years, you should have a pretty good idea if your talents match the church’s need. Some ministers struggle in one kind of church only to find they thrive in another.

You should consider leaving when you lose your enthusiasm, or stop caring, over a long and sustained period of time. Notice I said “over a long and sustained period of time.” No one likes everything about his job, but we ought to enjoy it more than we don’t enjoy it.

There is something to be said for being happy and fulfilled. One minister told me that after his first ministry with a difficult church, he took a congregation in a small town. The church was quite influential in that town, and its members loved this minister and his family. But his friends told him he should aspire for more. 

What do you think? If a minister is genuinely happy, should he move just to prove something to his friends? It may be wise not to tamper with your happiness.

Perhaps I should also offer a word or two to church leaders about letting a minister go. Obviously, in cases like moral or ethical failure, a church must be prepared to let a minister go, and do so quickly and compassionately. But, in lesser cases I would remind church leaders that when a minister loses his job, it is not like losing a secular job. A salesman can get a new job down the street without having to move his family. When a minister is let go, it takes a great deal of time to obtain a new position, and it dislocates and disrupts the entire family. A minister is not likely to be able to find a new job in the same town. So, make sure the decision is absolutely necessary. 

Also, I would urge that every minister be given a chance to improve. No one should ever be let go without knowing his job was in jeopardy and without being given a chance to make things better.

Many ministers I know dream of going to a place they could stay the rest of their lives. That rarely happens these days. I wish it did. Long ministries are the ideal, but there probably will come a time when it is best to leave your place of service. 

I began this article with a reminiscence of an old pop song. Why not end with one? In “Knowing When to Leave,” songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David said this knowledge “may be the smartest thing that anyone can learn.”

I hope and pray for wisdom for you.


Mike Shannon serves as professor of preaching at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.

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1 Comment

  1. Dave Underwood
    September 24, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    I appreciate the article and tried to live by it throughout my ministry. God had blessed me with good ministries so I didn’t leave too often. One observation needs to be made for ministers in their 50’s. Sometimes you need to be more aware of circumstances that may be pushing you out the door. I was at a church for 16 yrs and was blindsided by a call for a change by the eldership that I thought loved me. ( I still refer to this eldership as the best eldership I ever worked with.) I had even asked the year before if it was time for me to begin looking and was told everything was fine. During that year I recommitted myself to the ministry and was really looking forward to another year. I was devastated. I soon found out that there are a lot of guys in similar situations. I was able to find another church about 1/3 the size of the previous church and my wife was able to transfer her job. Other guys I have talked to are not so blessed. They don’t find new churches or have to go part-time so their wives can keep her job and they can survive. Preachers need to be aware of that over 50 danger zone.

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