“Stick the Landing”: Exiting a Ministry with Grace

Exit, Stage Left!

Before dashing offscreen to make an escape or run an errand, Snagglepuss announces the move in the form of a theatrical stage direction, saying “Exit, stage left!” (or “right,” as the case may be, or “up” or “down” even). “Stage left” is the left of the stage from the actor’s perspective. Snagglepuss added the word “even” for dramatic effect. Snagglepuss’s calling revolved around his exit. So, let’s talk about our exit, even!

SnagglepussLink to watch all episodes. Created by Hanna Barbera

Called to lead by our exit

The most overlooked transition of Christian ministry is the exit. Jesus set the example of “sacrificial exit.” Even our Lord’s baptism describes immediately after the Spirit descended on Jesus, the same Spirit took Jesus into the wilderness for “the Test”-

The Test

16-17 The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” 1-3 Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights.  (Matthew 3 & 4, The Message)

As Jesus demonstrated in his own life and ministry, he explained our purpose in life – “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain.”(John 12:24 NET)

In my first pastorate, while riding my bike one day some three miles from the parsonage to the church, I looked out on a hundred empty and plowed acres. An impression came over me that, “Jim, your work is done here. Someone else will build the church beyond here.” Looking back now thirty years, those acres have now been built up by subdivisions, but it took years for that development to happen … and for the church to develop with it.

A few weeks after the bike ride and as I sat in my church office, Brother Joe stopped by. Brother Joe served as former pastor of my church with a broad smile and a concurrent career in an Army Reserve artillery unit. That day he wore his uniform. In the course of the conversation, Joe said, “You know Jim, in churches I served, I stayed as long as I felt God was leading me. And when it was time to go … I went.”

Joe didn’t know that I had been resisting the Spirit’s prompting to force my own timing until all the unknown pieces were in place. A few weeks later, I listened to the Spirit and tendered my resignation, with no place of service lined up.

Exiting a ministry with Grace

Just as the most difficult part of a gymnastic beam routine is “sticking the landing,” so is a gracious exit of a completed ministry. The idea of a gymnastic dismount is landing on both feet and free of injury. Multi-gold-medalist, Simone Biles perfected the dismount to the extent that “The Biles” landing was coined after her, which she does multiple flips and lands evenly on both feet.

“The Biles” Landing

One of the mysteries in my ministry is that the movement from one ministry to the next has been more like falling out of a tree rather than a fluid move from one place of service to the next. I tried denominational networking, church job postings, and online postings only to determine that God directed and provided along the way – more like surface streets with detours than a nonstop Interstate.

One of the mysteries in my ministry is that the movement from one ministry to the next has been more like falling out of a tree rather than a fluid move from one place of service to the next.

As senior pastor of three churches and executive pastor of one, the words of The Happy Goodmans’ song rang true:

Well, I started out travellin’ for the Lord many years ago
I’ve had a lot of heartache and I met a lot of grief and woe
But when I would stumble then I would humble down
And there I’d say, I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now

“I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ For My Journey Now”
-The Happy Goodman’s

The problem is that as you are called to serve God and help people, the conflict and pain arising from the very people you came to serve can become a palpable grief. A pastor’s circle of friends can be those in the church he or she serves. In my case, I lived in two church owned parsonages, which is an excellent cost-saving device for providing housing for pastors, especially in an area where housing costs lay beyond the reach of the clergy. The downside is that when pastors leave a church with this type of housing, they leave their housing behind as well. A church resignation can mean the loss of your friends, your housing and the school where your children attend due to possible relocation. A senior pastor lives constantly with the sense that some people are upset or angry with him or her. At times it’s hard to judge whether this comes from a harmless vocal few or whether it’s time to leave that ministry. This can create a paralyzing anxiety and fear of making friends in the church. If you’ve served long enough to see a close friend leave your church over your leadership, then you know the pain of which I speak.

help, have you seen my civil rights?

You’re over 5o and your kids are grown. The church really misses having a pastor whose kids comprise the nursery and the Sunday School. So, the leaders give you two weeks notice to vacate your position and parsonage. Say you are diagnosed with cancer and the leaders want a younger, healthier version. You divorce and find, not only have you lost your marriage, but now you are out of a job. As an ordained minister, you have no civil rights under U.S. Title VII – discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, national origin. This is called the “ministerial exemption” and a huge reason to print and file my blog.

As an ordained clergy in a progressive denomination, I watched an outstanding Asian colleague ready to take the pastorate of a flagship retirement community church. Members of that church couldn’t tolerate the concept of “one of those” standing in their pulpit; so, the local leaders gave a wink and moved him out of consideration to do what is “white.” Oops … spell check error … “right.” Denominational leaders would say, “We only try to match the best candidate with the church. Sometimes, there’s not a fit (nod, nod … wink, wink), especially when you look at the annual giving of a flagship church.”

A word to the Assistant Pastor

At the chalkboard, my high school English teacher chided a female student, “That’s not how you abbreviate, “Assistant“! Having served three senior and one executive pastorate, a minister will learn the assistant, associate and executive pastor positions are those which constantly bring up the rear. You won’t see any scholarship funds or church parlors emblazoned with your name. You stand in the back and under the direction of the senior pastor. You may say, “Jim, I’m not under direction, I’m under control of my senior pastor!” That’s right, associate, assistant and executive pastor positions hold the most tenuous position in their ability to stave off a move to eliminate their jobs.

A senior pastor’s decision that you, as assistant pastor, are no longer needed on staff, could mean instant termination. You say, “That’s just wrong. The people love me. I’m really effective.” Yes, all that, but an excellent reason to print and save this blog. You may say, “My senior pastor is like a Saul to me, constantly hurling javelins my direction.” Yes, but while Saul is out fighting battles and hurling other javelins, you sit at home streaming videos and playing the lute. Being comfortable in your position as a support staff and unafraid of the future increases your effectiveness. An associate pastor may wish that he had a different senior pastor, only to find that the replacement pastor wants to choose her own staff and the associate is out and then, “Where is the link to Pastor Jim’s blog?”

An associate or assistant pastorate serves as the closest thing to a church staff grandparent. The assistant pastor receives all the joys but doesn’t have to take the brat home at night. Before you take a position as Asst. Pastor, review with the hiring board and senior pastor terms you must have as discussed in this blog. Put them in writing and enjoy your ministry as a “staff grandparent”! Between senior pastor and executive, hands down the executive position was a lot more enjoyable for me.

Now, before you assistant pastors attack me for my tongue-in-cheek abbreviation of “assistant,” I remember the day a church staffer abbreviated my executive position as Ex Pastor. Was that a prophecy?

Read the Fine Print

A frequently neglected aspect of a pastor’s calling to a church is the contract. Brotherhood Mutual writes, “It pays to carefully study any agreement before you sign it. Having an attorney review important contracts is also a good idea.” A pastor looks at the glowing sanctuary and the smiling congregation and thinks, “I can’t imagine anybody ever wanting to leave such a loving bunch!” As I visited a former pastorate, the pastor who followed me as senior pastor invited me into her study and said, “Jim, when I came here, I wondered why did Jim leave? The people are so loving.” I thought maybe she wanted an explanation, but then she continued. “You need to know,” she said, “I have tendered my resignation mid-year. Now I have insights into why you left.” Rather than bad-mouth the people, I expressed my prayers for God’s hand on her continuing journey, which would take her out of the denomination then, by God’s meandering grace, back in where she would flourish as a leader.

Terms and Conditions

Beyond the obvious of what a church and pastor should include in a contract, let me suggest that the church include terms and conditions that would allow for a gracious exit.

  1. Measured effectiveness: A discussion of the annual assessment and review process. My prior post regarding doing a survey for worship and preaching effectiveness might be part of this
  2. Agreed to one-on-ones: annual one-on-one’s with self, spouse, key members of the congregation and with God.
  3. Affirmation and celebration: another year of ministry contract
  4. Craft Building: yearly education and renewal
  5. Severance: taking the high road should the pastor leave by termination.
  6. Arbitrate – don’t litigate: settling contract disputes
  7. Sabbatical: a secret for keeping pastors long-term

Measured Effectiveness

Years ago I attended a pastor’s conference at First Baptist Dallas. At one seminar, the leader said, “When you’re the pastor, you have to watch how many of the people are with you.” “If you have 80%, you’re OK.” “If 60% of the people are with you, put your ear to the ground.” “But if the day comes you discover you have 49% support of the congregation, then it’s time to rent a U-Haul.”

The dilemma is that a vocal minority can make a pastor feel like she has 49% support, when actually the support is 93%. How can a pastor determine what the actual support is? In the hiring process, the church and pastor can agree together to implement conditions that would help pastor and church determine the pulse of their ministry together.

One-On-Ones: With Self, Spouse, Church and God

The Risk Manager of a national company for whom I work in the insurance industry, makes it her practice to meet one-on-one with all the employees of our company. From her confidential meetings of fifteen minutes to half hour, she receives unfiltered input from those who work under her direction. This cuts through filtered information that is often incorrect and to protect the interest of those sharing the information. The results are startling.

Annually, schedule time for one-on-one’s beginning with your relationship with God and your family. Have you sacrificed the vitality of the relationship for the busyness of ministry? What does God want to rekindle in your life? How can you make your spouse and children a priority?

Having sat as both church attender and led as pastor, conventional wisdom says that pastors spend more time talking at their congregation than listening to them. When you sit with your Board Chair and then the Lay Leader, take a blank notepad, turn off your cell phone, have no agenda of what “they need to know” and explain 1. This conversation is confidential and 2. I’m here to listen to you regarding anything about the life, ministry and a worship of the church, including your work as church leader. Then just listen and take notes.

From these one-on-ones, you can circle back with God and reflect on what new and effective change will happen in your life and ministry. Yearly agree with your church board that your church will administer a worship survey to consider how to improve preaching and worship. (see my prior post “OverStuffed Sunday” for the preaching and worship survey. The results of this survey are meant only for constructive feedback and mutual determination of God’s direction.

Too many times a pastor develops a bunker mentality to hide from church members’ constructive feedback. This partly due to past wounds inflicted by church members who unloaded their complaints on the pastor to the extent that the minister has developed a “flinch” reflex to avoid anything that puts his or her work under the microscope.

Affirmation and Celebration: Another year of ministry together

If I had my ministry to live over, I would have celebrated more with my people. Rather than dread the criticisms of the annual review, the renewal of another year can be rewarded with a meal together. The church could provide a gift to the pastor of a night away with his family at a local resort. A happy church is a celebrating church. Your designated church photographer could capture moments of ministry throughout the year. A slide show could be played at a pot-luck to capture the previous year’s joy of ministry. This would be a good time to acknowledge the service of other staff and lay leaders. An excellent award to present is an acrylic personally engraved award, such as this one from Crown Awards

“Jade Monarch Crystal” with Free Engraving $17.99 at Crown Awards

Craft Building

Never quit on Monday! That was my mantra for years as pastor. I always took Friday and Saturday as my “weekend” because if I was going to be depressed on Mondays, I wanted to be paid for it. One particularly stressful Monday, I took a beach chair out to Lake Pleasant, unfolded it and lay prone in almost catatonic state and threw a fishing line in water.

If you feel you are going to quit, take a mental health day. For the stress of the ministry, take all your vacation. Don’t make them “working vacations” because you are Mother Teresa incarnate. Plan a yearly annual conference on preaching, teaching or singing to build your craft.

Two excellent pastor’s schools – 1. Stetson University Pastor’s School and 2. Festival of Homiletics. In my last position, one of us on church staff attended Stetson’s School as I went to Festival of Homiletics.

Of course, a church year would not be complete without attending the annual conference of your faith group. The United Methodists sang “Are We Yet Alive?” Having a career in both the church and the business world, one element that the business world lacks is the fellowship of saints who gather yearly around a common table and celebrate their ministry together. Each year at conference time my mind wafts back over years of those various church “camp meetings.”


“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

At the beginning of this blog, we discussed our call is one of divine exit. We were not called to build a legacy or an empire but to decrease while “He must increase.” Clergy who bite, scratch and claw to maintain their position have forgotten the art of hanging on by letting go.

One old Baptist pastor had a warring meeting with some dour deacons who questioned his continuing at the church. Brother Coy deflated their threats with, “Gentlemen, I have my air conditioning tools and refrigerant tanks in my truck outside. If you are done with me, I’ll go back to work in refrigeration. If not, let’s continue.” The meeting continued that the deacons knew that the pastor had cultivated his craft not only in the church but in the business world.

Lydia was a seller of purple. Paul made tents. Peter fished. Jesus was a carpenter. During your preparation for ministry, establish one skill or craft in the work-a-day world by which you can support yourself in lean times. You may say, “Jim, I’ve been to seminary and called to the Gospel Ministry. That is my craft.” Yes, and fine and dandy. There once was arguably the best orator in the Southern Baptist world who fit that bill. Yet, he found himself suffocating under the shadow of a long-time pastor emeritus who was “grooming” him to succeed his pastorate. So exasperated this young pastor left that 30,000 member plum position and exchanged it for a job of door-to-door sales of cemetery plots and mausoleum spaces. Eventually God raised Dr. Joel Gregory up, like Joseph out of Potiphar’s subterranean dungeon. Before Gregory’s ascent and descent from his transfiguration at Mt. First Baptist Dallas, I watched, at Gambrell Street Baptist and Travis Avenue Baptist Church, my seminary professors swoon over Gregory like preteens over the young Justin Bieber. Dr. Gregory’s story encouraged me as I, obliged to generate income and pay child support following my second pastorate, created a handyman business called “Rent-A-Hubby.” A few sweltering projects on Phoenix roofs told me I needed a more sheltered “tent making” business; so, I entered the world of insurance adjusting.

Barber, adjuster, accountant, baker, painter – find a skill and cultivate it. Make your ministry your craft and perfect it.

In your contract before you accept the church, consider agreeing with your church for minimum of 90 days’ severance pay (and housing if provided a parsonage) should termination arise. Before you begin your ministry is a time to agree on agreeable terms.

As part of the contract, (along with a Confidentiality Provision) be sure to include a standard Arbitration Agreement-

 Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this [employment application; employment ADR program; employment contract] shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under its Employment Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures and judgment upon the award rendered by the arbitrator(s) may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.  - American Arbitration Association

You may say, “Jim, we just love Jesus and that’s all we need.” Yes, you love Jesus, but Jesus is not going to pay your legal fees in a sustained lawsuit over breach of contract. One local church, its pastors, officers and their families were sued by its denomination over the church’s attempt to take the property. That lawsuit has been proceeding now for two years. A simple arbitration agreement would have reduced the legal fees on both sides to one percent of what they face today and still building. Of course, because of the ongoing litigation, we cannot comment … other than to say, “You are acting like schoolyard urchins fighting over an abandoned kitten, with one pulling the head and another the tail.”

The Apostle Paul set the standard for sticking the landing in Acts 20:32-38, when he said goodbye to the church at Ephesus –

32 “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 [i]Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. 35 I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ 

36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 Then they all wept [j]freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, 38 sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship. “

Acts 20 Paul’s Goodbye to the Ephesians

Exit, Stage Up!

Take stock of how Paul exited the Ephesians and consider what changes you can bring into your ministry today. If you’re starting a new ministry, plan how you will stick the landing on both feet, with both arms lifted in praise to God for the effective ministry God has done and will do.

Pastor Jim

Postscript: This blog is dedicated to grandson, Jaden, who, in our after school Skype study table, lets me blog while he stays on a task.