When Should a Pastor Quit?

My church gives me many reasons to quit. I don’t want to list them; it will just make me depressed and sound whiny. Just trust me; it does.

I have thought about quitting many times. Ask my wife, and she’s only heard a tiny fraction of them.

Many times the quitting-feeling is just self-pity. Things didn’t go as well as I wanted them too, that one person is doing “their thing” again, no one showed up again, another board member is acting weird again, and stuff like that. I get over these fairly quickly.

But there have been some dark times, times where all point and motivation were completely gone. I phoned it in for a while. No one noticed because no one was there, which didn’t help.

I once asked a pastor who makes a partial living telling other pastors how to be a pastor, when a pastor should admit defeat and move on.

“After five years is the standard principle,” was his answer. My mouth dropped.

“Five years? Wow, I could have quit my church four times!”

Five years is the standard answer. If a pastor wants to change things, or lead things, or feel like something is happening, the church has five years to shape up. That answer honestly stunned me.

This strikes me as an answer that is based entirely on externals. You didn’t get your program started, or they won’t do your building project, or they won’t do something or other that you’re measuring. There’s no way to know if you’re helping spiritually after five years. I’m still learning names after five years.

I don’t get the sense from the Bible that the pastoral calling is a five year experiment. It seems more like a lifelong commitment. Nothing hints at pastors flipping from one church to another. Everything seems to point toward a total dedication of life to a congregation.

I don’t think pastors leaving churches is the biblical ideal. Then again, neither is divorce, yet God allows that in cases. I’m sure there are exceptions. But man, shouldn’t we be shooting for the ideal, even if it costs us and we don’t get our way or our rate of preferred progress?

I’m pretty sure if I detailed all the issues my church has, the vast majority of pastoral counsel would tell me to quit. To move on. It’s over. Nice try. Go sell insurance, ya loser.

I’ve been here 20 years. Twenty years, if you do the math, is a lot longer than five years. Many would conclude I have no business being a pastor based on these issues being in my church. I’m well aware.

But here’s the thing: how do you know when I should quit? How are you the judge of my ministry or my church or me?

I mean, I get it, I judge me too. I do think I’m failing. Have you ever noticed the name I use?!

There’s only one reason why I’m still at my church: I can’t quit.

I don’t know why. Maybe it’s sunk cost. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe I’m lazy. Maybe I’m resigned to loserdom. All these could be true, but here’s the thing: I can’t quit.

I can’t, so I don’t. I want to, there are times I even think I need to. But I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t know how else to put it. My heart is here. I love these people. I wish they were here for them as much as I am here for them.

I see glimpses of progress. There’s always that handful of people that something is happening in. Then there are the ones where nothing is happening and nothing I’ve done stirs a thing in them. I hurt for them, but I can’t quit banging my head against their wall.

When should pastors quit? When they can. And I think that “can” should be awful hard to get to.

6 thoughts on “When Should a Pastor Quit?

  1. Thank you! I can’t convey the relevant encouragement this brought. I’ve been at my church 19 years. Last night I told my wife I was done. Like you, I love the people I shepherd, and wish “they were here for them as much as I am here for them.” I don’t want to evaluate by some personally chosen metric. It would be nice however, to see more evidence of my labors in their lives.

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    1. Exactly. That’s the thing that kills me, nothing discernible is happening. You can get people busy and get them to do churchy things, but I’m looking for Christlikeness, sacrifice, love, edification, and for the love of all things good and holy, stop arguing politics! Just a glimpse. I’m cool with reward in eternity and not here, I’d just like to know whether I’m wasting my time or not.

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  2. I think you have just gotten to know your parish after five years. It takes ten years to get to know a community. I was at my first place for twelve, and I am on nine at this one. Five years is only accurate if your goal is to pass some agenda. Our goal is to shepherd people into communion with Christ. Timelines are silly in that mindset.

    Be at peace, brother. There are many of us with you.

    Your friend in California,
    Todd

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    1. Thank you. I once heard it said it takes 10-15 years for a church to trust their pastor. Especially if it’s a church that has frequently changing pastors. The fact that pastors drop out after five is a main reason why it takes 15 years for a church to trust the pastor!

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