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Time to Say Goodbye


Time to Say Goodbye?


It was a Saturday evening and a good crowd had gathered in to the church. There were mixed emotions, and sitting over in the corner of the building, no-one’s emotions were more confused than my own, for this was my farewell service from my very first church. There would be hymns and a stirring sermon from a great preacher and tea and buns, and happy back-slapping and a presentation to me and to my wife, and we would all shake hands and when the night was over I would move on to a new challenge in a new area. Some would be sorry to say good-bye, others would be happy enough.

One of the young deacons had been tasked with leading the service, and nothing exemplified the mixed feelings of that evening more than his opening remarks. He rose to commence. “We have gathered this evening on this sad occasion to bid farewell to our beloved pastor. We shall sing the hymn, ‘Oh Happy Day!’”
It really was time to say goodbye!

Nowadays reports of trouble and infighting among Christians in local churches are rife. Local assemblies in all denominations are being torn apart by schism and dissent, families are being split over church issues, testimonies are being ruined and the ungodly world watches on with bewilderment, sometimes with amusement, often with smug satisfaction, revelling in the discomfiture of the people they expect to be ‘good living.’ Frequently ministers and church leaders are part of the problem, even if they have not been the instigators of the issues that bedevil their churches. Sometimes they have been unwittingly or unwillingly dragged into a disagreement, sometimes their well meaning actions or words or innovations or reluctance to innovate have precipitated the problem. People can take offence at a sermon, or misunderstand a good intention… The pastoral path is frequently fraught with personality problems, clashes of temperament and ‘people issues’ that would baffle an experienced personnel manager with an MBA.

For those who understand the true nature of mankind, and are aware of the dichotomy that exists in the believer, that he is simultaneously a sinner and a saint, there is no surprise in this warring tendency in the church whatsoever. Paul wrote to the Romans:

I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.

I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:18-25

Christians are saints, saved and redeemed through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and they stand before God, robed in Christ’s righteousness, not their own, and it is when God in judgement looks on them and sees only Christ, that they are declared not guilty,for their sins are forgiven, – they are counted as worthy, – but only in Christ. For as long as we are in this world, we are subjected to temptations and trials like every other person. As Paul admits in the passage above, everything about us is sinful, our thoughts, our actions our words… all are tainted and contaminated by sin, and we need to return to Christ for continual cleansing. Sinless perfection will only be the Christian’s portion in glory.


Sometimes that human sinfulness and failing is all too evident within us and in our congregations. It has always been so. Paul’s epistles were written initially for the benefit of churches like the one in Corinth, split over doctrine, church practice, personalities… The very problems that still beset the visible church some 2000 years later.


Now, here’s the point. When does the time come for the pastor to decide that he should leave the church? I’m sure volumes have been written on this subject. Opinions differ. Some will adhere to the view that one should stick it out regardless of the consequences, perhaps on the basis that they have experienced a very definite call of God to that congregation. Some have argued that a church spilt is nothing less than a ‘blessed subtraction’ – an opportunity to be rid of awkward personalities. Others have worked on the old ‘management premise’ that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, still others have clung on with dogged determination for no other reason than to retain a salary, and sometimes a home. Others will decide that their own health will necessitate removal from a difficult situation. Some will simply decide that they can do no more, and it would be better to depart.


When I commenced in pastoral ministry, some thirty years ago, I was given two pieces of advice that I have borne in mind ever since. One was very practical, and one was both biblical and practical. The practical advice came from a friend. He said, “When you leave a church, always leave it in the manner in which you would expect to find it. Leave the next pastor as few problems as possible, and when you have left do not create any further problems for him by interfering in the church’s affairs.” Wise words indeed.


One older pastor reminded me of the words of Jesus, when he was giving the commission to his disciples, who would go out to evangelise. Jesus told them, that f they went into a particular city or town, and the people of that town didn’t receive them, they were to depart from that town, and to wipe the dust off their feet.

And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” Mark 6:11

Implicit in the words of Christ, is the idea that there may come a time in a ministry when that ministry, for whatever reason, may no longer be effective, and when that happens it is time to say goodbye. To hold on in such circumstances is to defy the logic of Christ’s words, and to risk damage to the structure and integrity of the local church.


I have great personal experience of this. Throughout my ministry I have run into some difficulties in church, usually because of personality issues. My (then) undiagnosed Aspergers Autism led to decisions and circumstances which perplexed congregations and church leaderships. Deacons have looked at me with puzzlement and elders have shaken their heads – truly perplexed I have been told I was too remote from the people, too blunt, too harsh, too black and white, unable to relate to young people, and much more. In my first full-time charge I ran into trouble in my first couple of months, because I totally misread a simple social situation. The eruption that resulted coloured the rest of my time at that church. It happened again, and again… So I became something of an expert at leaving churches, – after all I have left five of them, until the official diagnosis came along and I belatedly worked out why.


My own practice has been to leave the church as soon as I sense a real problem developing. I’m not sure that I had the right to ‘wipe the dust off my feet’ – since many (not all) of the problems were of my own making, but at least I hope I followed the practical advice, and left the church intact and ready for the next paster to carry on God’s work. This (in my opinion only) is the key. If the local church is fracturing, if relationships have broken down, if the testimony of the Lord is in serious disrepute, it is time to ask the question, ‘should I stay or should I go?’

I would go.

From → Editorial

  1. Stephen permalink

    Read with interest, I continue to pray that God is still using you in his service.

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