This morning, as I soberly reflected on the events of the previous evening, I realised that I needed to say more on this. Should a pastor ever answer a call to move to another church? Within our Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia, there are only two of us older pastors who have not moved churches yet. If any of the others wrote such a blog post I am sure some readers in our church circles would think it is self-justification. Since the other older pastor does not have a blog, it just hit me this morning that I am best placed to clear the air on this subject—at least for the Zambian Reformed Baptist constituency.
Is a pastor married to his church?
Usually, those who believe that a pastor must never move churches think in terms of a pastor’s relationship with his church being like a marriage. It must be “until death do us part”! Hence, to them, when a church approaches the pastor of another church to consider coming to be their pastor, it is akin to a man going to propose marriage to a woman who is already married. Such a proposal is immoral, to say the least. And the “divorce” that takes place when the pastor leaves is perceived as unfaithfulness. How could the pastor do a thing like this? Of course, when they are the ones who want to fire the pastor, they do not think of it like that any more!
Again, like a man who has been divorced by his wife for another lover, many members go through a lot of unnecessary self-condemnation. They continue to ask themselves what it was about them that was so deficient that this man should prefer the pastorate of another church. Were we not paying him enough? Did we not care for him enough? Sometimes they even blame other church members who were less than cordial towards their pastor. “You see, your bad attitude towards the pastor is what has made him resign,” they say to the culprits. This can result in very bad feelings within the church. A pastor ought to state the reason why he is leaving. Hence, such heart-searching or witch-hunting is totally unnecessary.
Is a pastoral move a betrayal?
Accepting a call from another church is quite a dilemma. There is always a section of the church that feels betrayed and abandoned. Many people join a church because of the preaching that they find there. Having come “window-shopping” a few times, they find that the regular preacher of the pastor is scratching right where it is itching. Hence, they decide to apply for membership and make this church their home church. Therefore, one can understand their sense of “what shall we do now?” when it is announced that the pastor is leaving. It is like settling down for a meal in your favourite restaurant only to be told that your favourite chef has quit. You fear that the meals will never be the same again in this place.
Granted, not every pastoral move can be justified. Some pastors move from one church to another for purely mercenary reasons. Such people should have never been in pastoral ministry in the first place. (I will qualify the financial issue later in the blog post). Others move because they are running away from the first smell of trouble. They would rather leave the flock in the hands of wolves than risk shedding blood for the sake of the flock. Again, such “hired hands” are better off selling bananas in the market.
When is a pastoral move ever justified?
Unlike the other elders in the church, whose ministries begin and end within the local church in which they are overseers, a pastor’s primary calling is that of a preacher of God’s Word in God’s world and in the universal church. It is in the same bracket as an apostle, a prophet, and an evangelist (Ephesians 4:11). You cannot limit any of these callings to one single congregation. Such men do not begin to function when you call them into the eldership office. They begin to function as soon as they sense God’s call and they do so in obedience to God. Their “secular” job soon becomes secondary and at the first opportunity to move on they will do so. When the church calls them into the eldership, all it is doing is to provide them with official recognition and also an official platform from which to carry out their God-given calling. Whereas, their primary sphere of labours will be within that local congregation, it cannot be limited to that sphere.
An inward disturbance
Every so often, a pastor will begin to sense within his own spirit that his time of ministry in a specific locality is coming to an end (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:12-14). Like his initial sense of call, this inner experience can be quite disturbing because the pastor will have sunk his roots in that local church and that locality. However, as with his initial sense of call, the pastor will begin to pray about this and even share it with his wife and his most trusted friends. Where his relationship with his fellow elders is very healthy, he may also elect to share this unsettling experience with them even at this early stage.
Usually, as this is taking place, a pastor will often receive a call from another church (or another area of ministry) and will want to investigate this further, praying that if it is God calling him to go and minister there God himself confirm it. Often, as he prays and investigates, something in his spirit (or, shall we say, Someone) confirms that this is it. He feels a great sense of peace about accepting the call. Where this ties in with the counsel of his unbiased and most trusted friends, a pastor usually concludes that it is God telling him that it is time to go and pitch his tent elsewhere. He must obey!
A greater sphere of service
Sometimes the sense of inner disturbance occurs because the pastor’s preaching and teaching ministry has far outgrown that of the church. His sense of fulfilment in that local church’s pastoral ministry, therefore, diminishes with time. Hence, when a door for more effective ministry opens up, he quickly takes it up and finds a greater sense of fulfilment. That is normal. Surely, he who gifted him must have had in mind where such gifts are best used. The apostle Paul, in 2 Timothy 2:5-6, likens preachers to farmers and runners. Part of their sense of fulfilment is that of being stretched to their limit. They would rather burn out than rust. They want to use all possible means to save as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9:22), according to the gifts that God has given them.
Legitimate financial reasons
A pastor may also move due to financial considerations. By this I do not mean that a pastor is a gold digger. Rather, God has never called a married man to sacrifice his family on the altar of ministry. Rather, how a man manages his household is part of his qualification for ministry (1 Timothy 3:4). So, every so often, as a pastor’s family grows, the church’s capacity is unable to meet the basic needs of his family—food, clothing, education, etc. The pastor may bring this to the attention of the church and bear long with this situation. He may consider other options (e.g. what we call “tent-making” or his wife working outside the home). However, where things do not improve and his sense of guilt with respect to this primary responsibility begins to haunt him, a door of ministry opening into a pastorate with better perks may be God’s answer to his prayers.
Avoiding breaking a church
Closely related to this is a situation where the church becomes intransigent to the pastor’s ministry. This often happens with churches that have a long tradition and refuse to change under the new pastor’s ministry. Finally, the pastor realises that he must either become a resounding gong or move on to another sphere of service where he can call the tune according to what he thinks God wants him to accomplish among his people. To stay in such a situation often leads to the church breaking you or you breaking the church. This results in either you or the church becoming bitter. Thus when a call comes from a church that seems to be more willing to be led by the pastor, he concludes that since he only has one life, he should not spend it trying to move the immovable. He is better off spending his few years on earth in a moveable church.
What should a church losing its pastor do?
Imagine how it must have been when the Holy Spirit said to the church leaders in Antioch that he wanted their two pioneering pastors, Barnabas and Saul, to move on (Acts 13:1-3). Many would have been very confused by this turn of events. However, they saw that the church of Jesus Christ did not begin and end with them, and that elders with a call to the preaching ministry tend to be moved around as the Lord sees it fit from one pulpit to another. Hence, they prayed for them and let them go.
In the same way, it is important to see your pastor as, first of all, God’s servant to the wider church. Thus, instead of putting a guilt trap on him, a church should finally say, “May the Lord’s will be done.” The church’s eldership should answer questions biblically, especially from those who are confused because they are experiencing this severance for the first time. Then the church must make an effort to have a farewell meal with the pastor and his family to show appreciation for his ministry and to pray for his next phase of work. Such a wholesome send off shows the maturity of a local church. As painful as the loss might be, it is best to trust the Lord that he will give you someone else who will lead the church’s pulpit ministry into the next phase of its life.
What I have shared here is what normally happens. A number of my fellow pastors have moved pastorates and some are presently on the verge of moving. Generally speaking, I have found that their reasons for moving can be classified into one of the reasons given above or a combination of a few of them. It needs to be stated that the details of all cases will certainly have slight variations. In God’s providence, no two situations are ever the same. Even identical twins, when related to more closely, are actually different!