How do clergy and church staff know when it’s time to move?
Often this question arises in one of two circumstances: when an attractive opportunity comes along or when one’s current ministry setting grows uncomfortable. Though there are mixed motivations for asking, ask we do.

Over the course of one’s ministry, the question of staying or going surfaces to create legitimate quandaries. “How does one know when it’s time to move?”

Some denominations carry more of the decision making for their clergy than others. Yet, whatever one’s denominational system, this question becomes relevant (and consuming) periodically.

Whenever we try addressing the moving question, remembering humility is essential.

None of us should presume to answer this very personal and spiritual question for another.

On the other hand, through doing counseling and leadership coaching with clergy, I’m recognizing some helpful clues.

More often than not, the answer is to stay.

In any given year during which you do not move ministry contexts, you stayed. Stating the obvious – it only takes one out of 365 days to leave. Statistically, the decision to leave is rare.

A deeper argument for staying is about the spiritual and emotional maturity of the minister and the congregation.

When one stays, everyone is subtly forced to deal with one another, learning to tolerate humanity with grace.

When one leaves, the tension goes down (at least temporarily) and we don’t have to deal with our own limitations or growing edges. Staying means we have to work it out together.

The pastoral bond with the congregation usually moves through three stages (at least when it works well): illusion, disillusion and realistic love (see Warner White, “A Letter From One Priest to Another”).

White believes the honeymoon lasts a year or two, disillusionment lasts three or four years, and then comes realistic love. Staying allows this cycle to progress.

When your creative imagination goes elsewhere, it may be time to go.

No, I don’t mean for a few days, or even a couple weeks – everyone has flat periods.

I do mean when your passion and engagement attaches to something else or somewhere else for months.

When your heart has moved on, when another opportunity energizes you, when you visualize another option and you can’t stop the creative idea flow – then it may be time to move on.

When the holy moments in your current context stop engaging you much, perhaps it’s time to go.

Sometimes we are called away by discovering a new ministry opportunity, not by something negative in the current context.

Our imaginations are fired by this potentially new leadership challenge. We can’t get it off our minds. Perhaps this means our calling has migrated.

When the pain is productive, it may be time to stay.

Even as I write this sentence, I’m aware of its pessimistic sound. Even so, it needs to be here. Why?

Often clergy consider moving when the discomfort of some kind or another rises. This is the nature of human experience.

Our bodies, spirits and minds instruct us to move away from discomfort and especially pain. Recognizing the natural instinct though is only the beginning.

Now it’s time to ask about the meaning and function of this unease. What is the nature of the discomfort? How much of it is related to personal growth issues, leadership style, cultural misfitting or spiritual challenges?

Is the discomfort serving a higher purpose – is it ultimately productive – leading to life? Or is this angst the pain of death?

Growing pains, discomfort that will ultimately pay off, are a healthy part of congregational leadership.

Things may need to grow worse so that they can grow better. Remember the grain of wheat? This discomfort, or even pain, may be the beginning of renewal that leads to life.

Listen to the natural instinct of pain aversion, recognizing it as information for discernment. But don’t assume this natural instinct is the answer to spiritual discernment about this ministry context.

When your soul is being damaged, it may be time to leave.

What does that mean? It’s hard to explain. Distance athletes get it. There are workouts that burn off excess energy and condition muscles. Discomfort is involved, yet short rests restore the body.

There are other workouts – over training or over performing – where one hits the wall and pushes on through. Then you can feel the damage down deep in your muscles.

Your brain recognizes the damage you are causing your body as deep-tissue breakdown. Recovery will take a long time, due to the severity of the damage.

Soul damage is this kind of pain. Though it’s hard to describe, once you experience it, you won’t forget it.

If it goes on long enough, leaving ministry altogether is the likely outcome. When you are losing your soul, it’s likely time to go.

Those who know you and love you may discern God’s direction first.

Spouses, children and the congregation itself may know before you do. God may be speaking through the people around you. Take the community of faith seriously.

We make these decisions as interrelated parts of the church, as expressed through a church.

Discernment is one of the gifts we offer one another in this body. Discreetly explore the spiritual direction available to you through this local body of Christ wherein you serve.

May you discern God’s calling for your life this very day – and may you exercise the courage to go – or stay.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates, where he provides leadership coaching, training and consulting for clergy and congregations.

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