When It’s Time To Step Away

Each year in the United States approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry. The vast majority leave because of high stress, internal politics or inability to earn a living. For honest and godly men who are called by God to preach and lead, these reasons represent a failure on the part of the church body to support our pastors, and I’ve written about this previously.

But I do want to address another aspect of stepping out of ministry. That is, when it’s appropriate, even mandatory, to do so. And while we see men leaving ministry for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately we often do not see men leaving ministry for the right ones either. There are certain circumstances when a man should leave the pastorate—some for a season, and others for a lifetime.

Significant sin. All Christians commit sin and the pastor is not immune. Significant, public sin, however, is a reason for a pastor to step down. Sexual immorality is the most widely seen example, but the fact is, a pastor who struggles with any sin habitually—that which he commits regularly and willfully—needs to deal with that sin. Most of the time when it comes to habitual sin, the best place to seek counsel and accountability is outside of the pulpit.

We’ve all seen the tearful televangelists who have committed grievous sin which they recount in detail along with their mea culpa on the airwaves. What happens most often, however, is that the pastor refuses to leave their vocation (paycheck) in order to deal with the issue. Certainly there is grace and forgiveness for any man who truly repents of their sin and turns toward Christ. Why is a pastor’s situation different?

A pastor is a leader among believers. Their life, by their position, is given as an example and therefore held to a stricter standard than someone sitting in the pew. The Bible doesn’t say this, of course. The idea of a stricter standard among leaders is mainly cultural, but nearly universal in terms of an expectation. Someone who says, “God tells us to live this way,” had better be living that way. If not, they damage not only their own life, but the voice of their church and their faith in the larger community through their sinful action.

Lacking leadership. Pastoral sin is but one of many factors that can lead to a second reason to step away from the pulpit, and that is lack of leadership. Leadership is both a gifting and a skill. Some are born with leadership ability, and others must develop it through experience and education. Sin, poor communication, judgment errors, no vision, lack of organizational or administrative skill and other reasons may lead to a place where the pastor either is not trusted as a leader, or not followed as the leader. In either case, a pastor who cannot lead his people must step aside so that the congregation does indeed have leadership.

A church’s pastor must be able to make decisions, cast vision, and rally the congregation toward the goals of the body in the context of the Gospel. He cannot do this if he is neither skilled nor gifted to lead. Or worse, if he has done something to cause questions or doubt in his leadership. In these situations, it’s best to step away for a period of time, or permanently, from a role that requires leadership.

Foundation of family. A pastor will often put his ministry role above that of his spouse or family. Christ and His Kingdom are indeed more important than our other earthly relationships. However, a pastor who is growing in knowledge of and obedience to the Lord should, over time, be able to strike a balance between home and ministry.

As I write this I know personally of men who are fine ministers, but whose marriages are crumbling at their feet, whose children are out of control because they are functionally fatherless, and whose relatives have never received attention from their Christian brother, uncle, grandfather or nephew because his attention is so fixated on his Sunday duties. My own life gets skewed at times when I fail to give my family and my spouse the time they need from me. Pastors must realize that family is an integral part of their overall ministry, and like preparing a sermon, raising a godly family and building a Christ-centered marriage is a deeply God-honoring role for a man.

Doctrinal doubt. Finally, a pastor may need to step away from the pulpit if he is experiencing foundational doubts about his faith or the teachings of Christ. This does happen, even to seasoned men who have studied the Word for years. There’s a segment of church leaders who even make these doubts a part of their preaching—“Let’s you and I figure this out together,” they’ll say, or “I’m just not sure where I stand on this.” On the surface, it looks like someone being authentic, making themselves vulnerable, connecting with their congregation.

But it’s highly dangerous. A man unsure in his faith will, as Paul said, be “tossed about my every wind” and there’s no guarantee he’ll end up with a solid and biblical understanding of the doctrine in question. If he continues preaching through this, he’ll take the church down this road with him. The example I would point to here is Rob Bell, who I believe was determining his foundational theology in front of his congregation. If your responsibility is to lead and shepherd others in Christ and toward Christ, you must begin with some assurance that you know what you are talking about in the pulpit. Introducing doubts in your foundational theology to the congregation puts their own theology on shaky footing—they listen to the pastor as a spiritual authority. Figuring out your theology in front of your people is simply unwise and poor leadership.

How long to step away? I believe this is different in every case and situation. I’ve personally been on church staff teams where a key staff minister admitted a 30+ year issue of immorality. The habitual nature of the sin, I believe, disqualified the individual from ministry, on the basis of his own personal health and the health of his family. On the other hand, there are situations where a situation, sin, leadership issue, family issue, etc., can be dealt with through counsel and accountability. Certainly, if the biblical example of godly leaders included murderers, prostitutes and thieves, men like Moses, David, Paul and others, then restoration to the ministry can certainly occur within a wise and discerning circle of brothers and sisters in Christ. The key in any situation is to put aside the “paycheck” and ask, honestly, what is best for the individual, for the church and ultimately for the cause of Christ?


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt