nEMp2KaThis week’s question can be summed up in the advice given in Kenny Rogers classic “The Gambler”

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

But how do you know when?  This week’s question is our ministry version of that dilemma:

Dear Matriarchs,

There are lots of times in ministry when we might prefer something new – a change in situation, or responsibilities, or location. Something may frustrate us, or feel unresolvable. The search and call mechanisms aside, how have you known it was truly time to leave? What spiritual or vocational practices have been part of your process of discernment? 

A Pastor Thinking It Over

Our Matriarchs share wisdom from their own discernment processes:

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
There have been a variety of signs over the years. Twice I have had to leave because the congregation could no longer afford me. That is a painful reality that challenged me in a number of ways including, “was there something more I should have or could have done.” In both cases it was important to have the perspective of another clergy person to help me see the reality of the situation. I have also had to discern my departure due to a lack of joy. This is another time when a faithful friend can come in handy. When a trusted confident says they are concerned that you don’t seem to be yourself, listen to their words. When you sit in your car and pray that the day won’t be “too bad,” that’s a sign. My guess is that we all have interior signals that call us to consider whether it is time to move. However, I also think it is important to ask yourself regularly, annually if not more often, do I still feel called to serve these people in this place? We need to be honest with ourselves knowing that God will care for the congregation whether we are absent or present.

Sung Min Moy
As a United Methodist pastor in a system that requires its ordained elders to itinerate, it is a yearly requirement to consider whether you have a missional reason to stay in the current appointment or to request a move. Sometimes the Cabinet gives you opportunities to ponder a move. Sometimes the congregation requests a move. Sometimes God just places it on our heart that it’s time. Yes, sometimes there are circumstances where you just know because of difficult dynamics that it’s time to go. However, sometimes things can be going great, and God nudges you. This past year, I thought God wanted me to move because my husband had started a job in another state. Then his company gave him permission to work near our current home in their company office . Through prayer and an accidental opportunity to possibly move to a new appointment that never materialized, I discerned that I felt lead to move. My heart felt more joy at the thought of a new appointment than to stay at my current church. I love the people so I was considering staying another year, but an opportunity opened that I could not refuse. This process of discerning when to move when things are going well has not been an easy or pleasant one. Thankfully, I had my spiritual director to help affirm and point out things to me that gave me peace about the decision to request a move. I believe that God will make it clear to you using your circumstances and creating opportunity. My discernment process this past year was a long 6 plus months in the making. In patience God will make all things clear.

Sharon Mack Temple
Knowing when to go is truly one of the toughest calls in pastoral ministry. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to transitional (interim) ministry. That I would leave was pre-determined; the timing was not always predictable.

When I did have to discern God’s call to a new place, I have been served well by Matriarch wisdom offered above:

  • “Time to go” is not always about mutual misery. When the congregation can’t afford you anymore . . . .when the congregation is no longer a life-giving challenge or an anticipated joy for pastor or congregation . . . when things are going well — any of these may be the best time to go.
  • A God-given opportunity may come when you least expect it.
  • Discernment is enhanced by sharing the process with people who have walked closely with you — a spiritual director, a colleague, a supportive clergy group.

Not exactly the same, but my call to retirement came as a surprise. After some really wonderful experiences — and dare I say it, accomplishments — with congregations, I was getting ever more excited about transitional ministry. I enjoyed the challenges, and I like moving around. I was ready to go for another 7-10 years. When the time came to look toward my ministry future, that spark was simply not there. Its absence could not be denied. I didn’t know it was even there until it was gone. I am not one to give up or give in, so my peace at knowing came as a surprise. Looking back on that decision, made almost 2 years ago, I see how my retirement from congregational life has served God, my beloveds, and my own spirit. I pray for that deep fulfillment for all who are trying to discern new directions for ministry.

For our readers: How do you know when it’s time to go?  Add your own experiences in the comments below.

Are you wondering what to next in your own ministry?  Ask our matriarchs! Send your question to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

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