Mailbag #69: How Do I Know When It’s Time to Step Down? . . . The Wisdom of Having a Lay Elder in Politics

Mailbag
12.01.2017

Ministry is a roller coaster. How do I know if I should step down? »
How does a church navigate having a lay elder whose vocation is in politics? »

Dear 9Marks,

I was wondering what are some criteria you might give someone who is considering stepping down from ministry? I have gone through the rollercoaster ups and downs of pastoral ministry and often hit waves of discouragement. I will frequently try and rehearse and ask myself whether stepping down is the right thing to do or if I need to simply persevere through the hardship.

—Mark

Dear Mark,

I asked Bob Johnson, who has pastored the same church in Detroit for several decades how he would answer your question. Here’s his answer:

Dear Mark,

Let me begin by restating some obvious things:

1. Ministry is often discouraging.

This shouldn’t surprise us, but it always does. The presence of discouragement or seasons of discouragement are not themselves signs to step down. Otherwise, there would be no one left in the ministry. And neither would we have any books of the Bible—every human writer I can think of endured discouragement. Our world is not a friend to grace. Spiritual growth is not natural. The wind of adversity is always in our face. We all live with a limp, so the people we serve all bring a host of difficulties with them.

2. Discouragement reveals my heart.

I have thought about resigning many times through the years. In some of those cases, my frustration was more with not seeing the results I had hoped for, which ended up teaching me more about myself than it did about the people I was serving. I think that we are all capable of serving others as a means to serving ourselves, and discouragement can reveal those motives.

Now, with those in view:

Sometimes it’s okay to resign. Resignation is not always the same as “quitting” or “failing to persevere.” Christ sometimes withdrew himself from a setting because the people refused to listen to him. His withdrawal was an act of kindness, even while it was a response of judgment. (Realize, though, that resigning may be stepping from the hardship of leadership into the hardship of looking for a job.)

Here are two questions to ask yourself.

1. How would my resignation affect the gospel?

This could also be stated: how would my resignation affect the reputation of the church? There are times when a resignation could help the gospel. The people you are trying to lead may refuse to be led, and your resignation may be the smelling salts that cause them to “wake up.” The immediate impact of your resignation may bear long term fruit. A related question to ask is:

2. What would I be attempting to accomplish with my resignation?

You may conclude that you really are not a good fit for the ministry in general or this ministry in particular. Or maybe this position is having a detrimental affect upon your family. While I want to beat the drum for endurance in the ministry, there are times when you have done all that you can in a particular church and it’s time for another to take your place. I would certainly not make any decision like this on a Monday, nor do it without involving the counsel of others. But there are certainly times to move on.

A pastor friend of mine was faithfully serving a church not far from me. This brother was not only an excellent preacher; he was an excellent shepherd. While his leadership was a wonderful gift to the church, they had no idea what a gift he was, and they made it difficult for him to get any good momentum. He always responded with grace. One day I told him that his leadership would be better poured into a congregation willing to be taught. I didn’t want to lose him from the area, but I knew his church too well, and he was going to frustrate them and himself. His move from there turned out to be a very good thing.

Another pastor friend of mine came to the conclusion that he wasn’t really cut out to be a pastor. He loves Christ, the gospel, and the church, but realized after years of frustrating others and being frustrated that he was attempting to fill a position that he didn’t fit. He resigned and retooled vocationally and has happily served the church in a number of positions, most importantly of being a great supporter to the pastors whom he knows so well how to care for.

I’m sure there are a few other questions you should ask, but hopefully these will help you steer your thinking in the right direction. The Lord has seen fit to allow me to serve in one place for many years now. Some of the areas of discouragement that I wanted to resign over have become matters that I now rejoice in. While that’s not true of everything, on the whole I believe that a long run in the ministry is a gift to the church and to the pastor. May God bless you with such an opportunity.

Dear 9Marks,

We have a lay elder who is wondering if God is calling him to enter into state politics with an eye toward national politics. He has already received several interesting (providential?) confirmations that he would be well suited for this endeavor. My question is, how does the church navigate having a lay elder whose vocation is in politics? It seems this arena is fraught with potential landmines. How does the church make sure they are not seen as supporting a specific party if one of their elders openly identifies and works with that party? Will this unnecessarily compromise the elder’s ability to shepherd? Have you ever had this or a similar situation on your elder board?

We definitely want to encourage godly men to enter politics, but I haven’t previous thought about the implications if it was an elder and not just a member. I appreciate your time and insight.

—Ryan

Dear Ryan,

Our church on Capitol Hill is filled with people in politics, including elders and deacons. What I have to say here comes in part from watching many of them handle these things so well.

1) Don’t make a big deal of it, for a couple of reasons. First, you want to keep what James says about favoritism in mind (2:1–9). So you might pray for this man in a prayer meeting, but make sure you’re not praying for him specially in a way you wouldn’t pray for a teacher or a shop manager. Pray for all three at once. Second, making a big deal out of this insinuates a kind of utopianism, as in, “Hey church, we really have the chance to make an impact now with elder ‘Bob’ in office,” as if the primary impact a church makes is not through the gospel. The world makes a big deal of elected officials. The church shouldn’t. Treat it as normal and every day.

2) The elder needs to be very careful about keeping most (not all) of his political opinions to himself. He wants both the Democratic and Republican member to feel like he is their pastor, and that he loves them, and that his love for them is not contingent on their political opinions. He should want the non-Christian Democrat or Republican walking into the church to find themselves surprised by how interested he is in them as people, not in talking politics. You want people walking away from him thinking to themselves, “Gosh, I expected him to try and persuade me of his views, but instead he spent the whole time asking about me and encouraging me. I kind of forget that he works as a representative/congressman/whatever. I was just talking to a mature believer who obviously cares for me.”

3) He kinda, sorta needs to compartmentalize his office work and his church work, just like any other worker. Yes, his political work should be informed and motivated by his Christian convictions. But there needs to be an element of compartmentalization, just as there will be with the Christian teacher, plumber, businessperson, and artist. These other workers should approach their work for sacred God-glorifying purposes, too, but their work depends upon common grace competencies, just like the politician’s. They wouldn’t treat everything they do in the office as dependent on biblical proof-texts (“What kind of flange would Paul say this pipe needs?”). Nor would they seek to impose their views on teaching, plumbing, business, and art on members of the church. There’s a sense in which they leave those things “at the office.” The same thing applies to the elder who works in politics. He should do what he does in politics for Christ’s sake, yes, but then he needs to leave it at the office.

4) There are exceptions to points 2 and 3, and that’s when an elder is teaching or counseling a member from Scripture, and a particular point arises pretty directly from Scripture. Maybe he’s teaching a Sunday School class on the 10 Commandments. By all means, rail against abortion when you get to the sixth commandment. That said, he needs to be careful about blurring the line between teaching biblical principles and pushing particular strategies or tactics for obeying biblical principles. So, yes, he should vocally oppose abortion, but that doesn’t mean he should push members of his Sunday School class to write their senator about supporting or opposing a certain Supreme Court nominee. That’s a tactical matter, and Christians can in good conscience disagree on tactics. Robert Benne’s Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics deals with these kinds of distinctions. So does my upcoming, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics for a Divided Age.

Last thought: I would have confidence in a man to work as both an elder and a politician only if he has a good appreciation for (i) the limits of how and where Scripture speaks into the domain of public policy, (ii) a robust understanding of Christian freedom, (iii) a proven conviction that the church’s most powerful political word is the gospel, and that it’s most powerful political tool is being the church, a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-party family. It’s good to have biblically-informed and even strong convictions in matters of public policy, yes. But we also need equally strong convictions about Christian freedom and a reluctance to bind the conscience of members where Scripture does not.

In short, give me a guy who knows that the real action for producing change is in and through the church, and, oh, yeah, God uses him as an elected or appointed official, too. I can picture in my head one of our former elders who runs a U.S. government agency who is just like this, another two who held very high positions in the White House, another in Congress, and so forth.

I hope this helps.