I’m on the leeward side of a two month sabbatical, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, so I wanted to revisit the ways pastors end up vacating their posts.
There are many ways to leave a church honorably. You could die in the pulpit. You might gracefully retire so a younger man can fill your shoes. Perhaps you feel called to another ministry, and your current elders support you in that endeavor. But there are some ways no pastor wants to be ejected from his ministry.
1. Burn out.
Some men don’t last in the ministry because, as Maverick was warned in Top Gun, “Your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.” In their defense, most pastors who burn out are demanding more from their bodies, not out of ego, but out of zeal for the ministry.
The ministry can stretch a man’s emotional chords beyond what is healthy. Many hours of tense, high-stakes counseling sessions can take a toll that is only felt weeks or months later. Pastoral work is relationship work; criticism, conflict, and opposition can be whipped up like a white squall without warning. Mental exhaustion translates easily into physical listlessness. And yet many pastors cannot resist meeting the spiritual needs of others, even to the detriment of their own health.
George Whitefield, for example, was told by his doctor to take it easy and refrain from preaching to preserve his extremely precarious health. That night he was invited to preach the gospel to an audience in the house in which he was convalescing. He promptly hauled himself out of bed, and preached his guts out at full tilt to a packed house until (as an ominous portent) the candle burned out. He then retired to bed and died.
Whitefield had famously quipped to the chiding of his doctor, “Sir, I’d rather burn out than rust out.” Which brings us to a second way pastors lose their pulpits.
2. Rust out.
Laziness is an occupational hazard in ministries where pastors are encouraged to flit from flock to flock every four years or so. When a man is faced with a completely fresh congregation every few years he may be tempted to recycle all his previously prepared sermons. Just yank an old sermon out the file, reheat it in the microwave of night-before preparation, perhaps spruce up the garnish with some newish illustrations, and violà. A freeze-dry sermon can taste like a freshly cooked meal to a famished flock.
The problem is that the preacher hasn’t re-wrestled with the text, fed all week on the meat, and marinated it daily in prayer. They say never to trust a skinny chef. Similarly we should never trust a spiritually lean preacher.
I have been at my church for eleven years, preaching twice on Sundays. That privilege has borne over a thousand sermons. If I found a ministry with only one service, I could conceivably go twenty-two years without preparing a new sermon. (Of course, I’d need a church without internet access, thanks to the repository of audio files at baptistchurchhillcrest.com). I could play a lot of golf in that time. But rusting out is a pathetic way to go—wasting away from spiritual anorexia while serving others with a banquet.
3. Kicked out.
Pastors get asked/told to leave churches all the time. Sometimes it is because the church rejects the preaching of God’s word. They can’t abide the constant challenge to their conscience. But there are also times the pastor is asked to leave by a flock who does respect God’s word and wants a preacher who does the same. Some pastors undermine their ministry with a lifestyle that is not commensurate with their sermons, like an obese dietician. Or they are caught in a disqualifying sin. Examples are supplied in 1 Tim 3:1-7, and include flirtatiousness, drug abuse, picking quarrels, and money-grubbing.
An under-cited disqualification is the lack of self-control, for example in their appetite for food, their addiction to porn, or their temper tantrums. Some pastors are unable or unwilling to keep their children under control. These are all sad cases and can be devastating to the pastor, his family, and of course his flock. No church likes having to force their pastor out for sin. The godly response from a repentant but disqualified pastor is to step out of ministry gracefully, as a parting example of humility and respect for God’s standards.
4. Fall out.
There are also times when pastors have a falling out with their elders or the congregation, which is not necessarily over sinful behavior, but over preference issues. Though it might not be a dishonorable reason to go, it’s certainly not a way any minister wants to leave. Examples of pastoral idiosyncrasies that lead to conflict may include the style of preaching or leadership, the use of perceived inappropriate humor, inability to connect socially, incompetence in counseling, or a lack of judgment in minor decisions that lead to major fall out.
Poor judgment is a broad category covered in 1 Timothy 3 under the nuanced terms: “above reproach, sober minded, dignified, respectable.” While sometimes lack of judgment isn’t sinful, just silly, it often leads to sinful behavior. I’ve heard of pastors being fired for screening questionable movies to the church youth group, for smoking, for inappropriate texting, for speaking disparagingly about homeschoolers, for secretly using the church’s money to bail a congregant out of a gambling debt, for using the church’s money to pay a marketing firm to promote his books in order to make the bestseller list, and for secretly corresponding with another elder’s wife.
Though some of these are clearly sinful, there is much behavior a skilled trial lawyer could defend in court as technically not a violation of any particular biblical command, and yet churches know instinctually how they want their spiritual leaders to behave.
Sometimes it takes the church a while to get fed up with hypocrisy. I’m a fan of patience; but eventually a godly church will quit staring at the pastor’s flat lining spiritual life and call the time of death. This kind of intra-church falling out is sad, but it can have a purifying effect on a local body. It’s not as drastic as amputation; it’s more like vomiting. Both rid the body of toxic infection, but one is done from outside, the other is a spontaneous convulsion from the body itself.
If you have a pastor who is striving to be faithful to God’s standards, perhaps this is a good week to express your gratitude. (You may even want to get him a copy of The Preacher’s Payday).
If you are a pastor who is feeling the pressure of the ministry, be encouraged that we serve a gracious Master whose smile we will relish in the day we hear “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter the joy of your master.”