Leave Your Church Well: An Interview with Michael Lawrence
In light of his recent transition from one church to another, 9Marks asked Michael Lawrence how to candidate, interview, and say goodbye wisely.
9Marks: After eight years as associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church [CHBC] here in Washington, DC, you’re about to take up a pastorate at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. Talk us through how you went from point A to point B.
Michael Lawrence: Three or four years ago I began to desire to preach more than I could in my current role. So I began a discussion with my wife: Should we be open to leave? Then, about two and a half years ago, I brought this up with the senior pastor Mark Dever, and at that point he agreed that I should be open to moving on. Yet we also agreed that I shouldn’t go out and shake the bushes and send out resumes, but pray and see what the Lord brought along. Shortly after that, I learned that Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon needed a pastor. I’ll spare you all the details, but eventually we began a candidating process.
9Marks: How did you handle communicating with both Hinson Baptist Church and Capitol Hill Baptist Church during the candidating process? When did you let CHBC know about this?
ML: First, I made it clear to the search committee at Hinson that I was going to involve the senior pastor and elders of my church, and eventually the congregation as a whole. They were accustomed to dealing with pastors who wanted to do it in secret, and so were surprised when I said I wanted to do it in the open. I didn’t want to do it the usual way, because the church is my family and I want to know what they think. I value their counsel. And I’ve covenanted with them—I’m not at liberty to abandon them at will or spring something on them.
Several months before any visits were made by either party, I let CHBC know that I was in discussions with another church. I explained why I was talking to another church, and I asked for the church’s prayer and feedback.
Then, when it was almost time for the search committee to visit, I let the congregation know: “The search committee’s going to visit next week, and I’m going to introduce them, and I want you to engage them.” I also warned the search committee that I was going to introduce them to the whole church.
On the Sunday they came, I had them stand up in the service that I was preaching at, and I prayed for them publicly.
That weekend, the search committee also met with elders and staff and other members of the congregation. In effect, I was interviewing them even as they were interviewing me. But more importantly, my church was interviewing them, and they understood that. If I was going to go, it would be because this church sent me, not because I ripped myself away from them.
9Marks: So what happened after the search committee came to CHBC?
ML: After the search committee came to CHBC, they invited me to come out for a visit. And of course, since we had been so public on our end, they realized that they should be more public about what they were doing. That led to all sorts of fruitful conversations with elders, staff, and church members during our visit.
It also gave their church time to think and pray. Search committees often spring a nomination on the church. They work in secret, and then suddenly show up one Sunday with the news, “We’ve got a nomination, and he’s going to preach here next Sunday, and then we’re going to vote!” That leaves the congregation scrambling to catch up.
9Marks: Is it true that you told them in October that you wouldn’t come until August?
ML: It’s true. I wanted to end things at CHBC well, and I didn’t want to move my children in the middle of the school year.
I learned later that some of the elders initially thought, “That’s a deal-breaker. We can’t wait that long.” But then they thought about it again and realized, “There’s a man who’s caring for his family, and that’s the kind of man we want. So we shouldn’t penalize him for doing the very thing that we’re going to expect him to do once he gets here.”
9Marks: And you told them that, even though you were coming in August, you wouldn’t start preaching until October?
ML: That’s right. What I said to the elders was, “Look, you already have a culture. But I don’t know that culture. And I don’t want to be constantly offending you unintentionally because I haven’t had time to learn. Instead, when I offend you, I want it to be on purpose!”
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? MISTAKES MEN MAKE
9Marks: What are some common mistakes men make in the process of deciding whether or not to leave one church for another?
ML: First, they make a private, individual decision. Maybe they talk to their wife, old seminary professors, buddies from seminary, or fellow pastors of other churches, but they will all be people outside the church. They fail to talk to the people that matter the most besides their wife, and that is their own congregation: the leadership of the congregation and the whole congregation.
Second, they make the decision in terms of all the negatives they see at their current church and all the potential positives at the other church.
Third, they can think purely in terms of, “Bigger equals better.” More money, more staff. Some of those things are fine things in and of themselves, but they’re not fundamentally how you decide whether to go to another church.
Now, if you’re currently in a church, and you’re not able to adequately provide for your family, that’s another matter. If they’re able, a church should free up the pastor from worldly concern and care. But assuming that they are caring for you, you shouldn’t go simply because it’s opportunity to acquire more of the treasures of this world.
Fourth, men too often believe all the wonderful things that the search committee is saying to them about themselves, and believe everything their critics say about them at their current church. Neither are telling the whole story.
Even godly search committees can tend in the direction of trying to close the deal at all costs. Maybe they’ve been without a pastor for a while, and they’re afraid that if they don’t flatter you or if they let you see what their church is like, you won’t come!
TIPS FOR DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO LEAVE YOUR CHURCH
9Marks: What tips do you have for men who are in the process of deciding whether or not to leave?
ML: First, this needs to be a matter of sustained prayer.
Second, early on, you need to pull wise counselors into the conversation: your wife, your senior pastor (if you’re not the senior pastor), your fellow elders, other key church leaders. Eventually, the congregation as a whole needs to be a part of the decision-making process.
Third, you need to be clear on why you want to leave and what constitutes a sufficient reason to leave.
9Marks: What are some sufficient reasons to leave?
ML: Maybe the door has been closed to ministry. Maybe your gifts are not being given good scope and freedom to be used, and so there’s a stewardship issue. That was the case with me. I wanted to preach full-time which obviously you cannot do as an associate pastor. Maybe you’re no longer in accord doctrinally with the church. Maybe the church is not able to adequately care for and support your family.
ADVICE ABOUT CANDIDATING
9Marks: How did you approach the candidating process?
ML: I wanted to be as cheerfully angular as possible. I tried to think of every reason why they wouldn’t want to call me and bring those out into the open. I didn’t want to sugar-coat myself for them. Even as the church is tempted to sell themselves to me early in the process, the temptation existed for me as the pastoral candidate to try to sell myself to them.
9Marks: How are you tempted to sell yourself as a pastoral candidate?
ML: To downplay doctrinal convictions or pastoral practice convictions that I have which might be offensive to them.
9Marks: Can you give a few examples of what you did?
ML: I made sure that they understood that I’m a Calvinist—five points. And I explained what I meant by that, just to make sure we were on the same page.
They needed to understand that I am convinced of the regulative principle of worship: I think Scripture is sufficient to tell us how we should worship God in the gathered assembly.
In all of this, the elbows were out—not in order to hurt anybody, but to make sure that they don’t come back to me six months after I get there and say, “You never said that you believed this!”
9Marks: So let’s sum this up. What basic tips do you have for others in candidating?
ML: First, be clear about your doctrinal convictions. Be clear about the doctrines and the pastoral practices that you are willing to be fired over. If you’re not, you will be blown by the wind.
Second, make the process as transparent as you can. This is one of the things that characterizes Paul’s ministry; he points out that his ministry was not done in secret. Be transparent with your own church. And then be transparent with the church you’re thinking about going to. That’s part of what I mean by “be very clear on what you’re willing to be fired over.” Try to think of all the reasons they’re not going to like you, and tell them.
HOW TO LEAVE A CHURCH POORLY
9Marks: How do you leave a church poorly?
ML: One way to leave a church poorly is to spring it on your congregation. You show up one Sunday and tell them that next Sunday is the last Sunday that their beloved pastor is going to be there.
On a related note is the failure to replace ourselves first. Part of our job is to ensure we have been replaced well before we leave. Ideally, a pastor who is leaving—particularly if he’s the senior pastor—should play a significant role in the whole process of thinking through who is going to be next.
Another mistake, this time in relation to your family, is to think, “Okay, I’ve been called to a new work, so we gotta go! It doesn’t matter that it’s February and I’m going to be ripping my kids out of school.” I think that’s a pretty serious mistake. Part of the Lord’s calling is for you to be a good husband and father. And so you need to manage the transition well for your family.
Another common mistake, of course, is to just kind of check out. Yeah, you’re still on the payroll. But practically, you just go on vacation until you move.
You can go too far in the other direction and continue to be the indispensible man until the very last minute. That’s also a bad way to leave.
Ideally, you want to plan a transition that allows your departure to perhaps be sad, but the ministry should keep going strong. That means humbly extricating yourself from the ministry, not precipitously, but in a way that serves the congregation well.
TIPS ON MAKING THE TRANSITION TO ANOTHER CHURCH
9Marks: Let’s say you’ve decided to leave, you’ve accepted the call, what do you do now? Give us a quick list.
ML: First, you need to sit down and plan the transition on both ends. Nobody is going to do that for you. For the church you’re leaving, ask yourself, “How can I gradually remove myself from the ministry here, so that when I finally leave, they may be sad but in a few days they almost don’t notice because I have replaced myself?” In the new place, they will want you to hit the ground running, but you need to ask, “How can I manage this transition for the long haul? What am I going to need, so that when I take up the yoke I can sustain it?”
Second, I think you need to be prepared, for a season, to have two jobs and only get paid for one. You need to be able to bear that cheerfully.
Third, you will probably need to enlist the leaders’ help at the church that you’re going to, to set up some reasonable boundaries of communication and access.
9Marks: Anything else about setting your successor up for success?
ML: You need to be that man’s biggest fan. Part of your job on the way out is teaching your congregation to rightly value and appreciate his upcoming ministry.
Your congregation’s ability to profit from the next man will largely be a function of how well you have prepared them for that. Have you taught your congregation over the years to listen to the Word, rather than the man? Have you encouraged them, long before you ever thought about leaving, to listen to other men in that same pulpit? That is going to prepare them to listen to your replacement. Or have you built a cult of personality around yourself which will yield a painful transition, no matter what?
9Marks: What about transitioning specific relationships? How do you hand off specific discipleship and counseling relationships?
ML: One of the things I did at CHBC with all my individual discipling relationships was to look at my schedule and figure out when our last meeting was going to be. Then I had a series of deliberate conversations during those final meetings. I used it to bring closure to each relationship by telling them how I valued and appreciated them. I sought to encourage them. But another conversation was, “Who are you going to meet with next? Who’s going to take my place? And who are you going to start mentoring?”
With the counseling relationships I worked to prepare them for my departure by thinking about who was going to step in after me. This gets back to not leaving precipitously, but leaving well, in a way that demonstrates you’re not indispensible. You’ve been used of God for a time, and now your last use is to prepare people for the next men who come in and pick up where your work left off.