I was recently asked “When should a pastor leave his church?” What the person was really asking for was a set of principled guidelines she could use to convince others, and her pastor, that it was time for a pastoral change. I refused to answer. I didn’t even resort to my usual lawyer-like answer: “Well, it depends.”
Honestly, I was quite bothered by this question and by this sister’s desire for a set of guidelines that will apply to every situation. In Redeeming Church Conflicts, while Tara and I look to the text of Acts 15 for broad principles that are supported by many other Scriptures, we are very careful to say (over and over again) that this is not a formula. As a general rule, formulaic approaches to almost anything having to do with people are unwise. This is true because every person is different and, therefore, every situation is unique because of those vast human variations that make life so rich … and, at times, so frustrating. A question like the one posed to me above is like asking “When is the best time for a person to die?” Answer: “Well, it depends. Can they no longer breathe? Can their heart no longer circulate blood? Can they no longer absorb any life sustaining nutrients? OK, it’s probably a good time to die.” But I say that from the standpoint of a layperson. I am sure those educated in the medical arts would reply quite differently because they know that there are thousands of layers of complexity to each general anatomical area that I just named.
And so it is with relationships. There are thousands of layers of complexity to human relationships (and tens of thousands when you are talking about all of the overlapping relationships in a conflicted church). Questions like the one posed at the beginning of this article deny or ignore these complexities because they just want the shortcut. The easy way out. The time-saving, efficient “answer”, rather than the hard work of faith expressing itself in love in the mess of human relationships.
In the church, there are no shortcuts; no “easy ways out.” As a body of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) hewn together into a unique spiritual house of eternal and imperishable truth precious to God, no easy out is—nor should be—available. Rather than asking for formulas we should ask for wisdom. For it is wisdom that will allow us to discern God’s will when it comes to making the difficult decisions we frequently must face in the church.
If you have read Redeeming Church Conflicts you know we say quite a lot about “asking best, not just right, questions.” The best questions are those that steer clear of what could be offered as a formulaic answer. In the situation I described above, I should have taken the time to help her reformulate her question into difficult, but applicable, “best questions”:
- What would it mean for the church to dispose of its pastor as if he were some mere “hired-hand” being let go from any old job?
- What do you want to communicate to your current and future pastors, and to your congregation, about the unique nature of a “pastoral call” to preach, teach, and model holiness?
- What impression do you want to leave in the minds of your people (people who are using their Spirit-bestowed gifts within your church) regarding whether they, too, may one day be considered as merely expendable?
- If your pastor, too, is one of the “living stones” built into the structure of what God has been building, how do you cut him out without affecting the entire house?
Even taking all of these important questions into account, there are, of course, times when a church body should recognize that the spiritual gifts of any one man may not be suited to the challenges and opportunities being presented by the unique needs of a particular congregation. But even in this situation, the question should never be: “When should the pastor leave his church?” Instead, it should be:
“How can we, together, glorify God by helping our brother fulfill his call by directing the use of his spiritual gifts where he is becoming all that God would have him be in the church?”
That means wisely understanding what those gifts are and affirming them so that what transpires is not a loss but a gain. The pastor and every church member should be able to say: “Look what God has done through his servant. Here is a brother, a living stone, now fitted to the structure in such a way that we all are stronger. God is indeed building his church, ‘a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’” (1 Peter 2:5)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 1 Peter 2:9-12
We are the church! Let’s start acting like it. No more quests for the shallow short-cuts. No more throwing people away. No more cheap grace that seeks only the easy way out. We are each “called” and that means taking our place in the “wall” as a living stone…and ensuring our adjacent “stones” are not being overlooked, not being dismissed, because they, too, are an important part of what God is building.
For the glory of the Cornerstone,
– Dave Edling