Though a common question, it is a difficult one to answer in most cases. I have played an associate role at several different churches over the years, but each one brought its own unique challenges in discerning when it was time to leave. I was recently emailed this question. The common context of a question like this almost always involves disagreements with the pastor, with the general direction of the church, or even with what and how God’s Word is handled regularly. I hope my attempt to answer this dear brother’s question will serve you in some way if you find yourself struggling to know when to stay and when to go. My reply was this:
How do you know when it is time to leave a church as a support staff member?
Thanks for writing and your thoughtfulness on this issue. Sorry for my delayed response.
Let me first encourage you and affirm something you have implied with your different teaching and pastoral roles at your church. Despite being in a difficult church, you can still be very fruitful in gospel ministry in that place. Teaching God’s Word in Bible study, discipling, sharing the gospel, and serving others in a difficult church was always fruitful ministry and excellent preparation to eventually leave and go pastor my own church.
There is no special formula to know when to stay and when to leave. I will say, I committed not to leave until the Lord opened a door to go to the next place. One exception (of many) to this rule would be a false gospel being preached at your church. Nevertheless, I would still encourage you with this general rule to stay put until led otherwise. I think it is better to stay a little to long than leave too soon.
Also remember, the grass is rarely greener on the other side. Wherever you go next, it will possibly have the same, if not more problems than you are experiencing now. Make sure you and your wife don’t have that expectation that ministry will ever be easy or even easier somewhere else (this is easy to do). One thing I can say for sure, you are exactly where God in His sovereign grace and providence wants you now to care for His people, be faithful to God’s Word, and display His gospel and His glory.
I didn’t know when exactly to leave my last position until a church called me to pastor. However, I did know that each of the pastors throughout the years I served with were not who I could serve with in a long-term sense. There were just too many important differences. I would begin to pray and ask the Lord to show you where you are to serve Him long-term if where you currently are, is not it. Then, stay faithful and patient until that time is made clear to you. May the Lord give you much grace and discernment as you seek his will for your ministry.
Remember, the Lord will use you and your faithfulness in the most difficult of circumstances. Stay faithful. Keep finding your joy and contentment in Christ alone. The Lord will make it clear to you when it is time to make a change. One more thought. Some of the best advice I have ever received is, “the best time to leave a church is when things are good and encouraging, not when times are difficult and discouraging.” A good general rule to consider.
Any additional thoughts from others?