Editor’s Note: The following is a conversation with two youth ministers: one who left a position under positive circumstances and one who left under duress. We have elected to not reveal the names of either. The intent of this article is to focus on how to deal with leaving a church and leaving as well as possible, regardless of the circumstances. For more thoughts on leaving well administratively, check out Adam Walker Cleveland’s five-part series, Pastoral Transitions in the Age of Social Media.
When I started at Main Street Church, the history up to that point wasn’t good. For the kids who were seniors my first year, I was their sixth youth pastor, and four others before me had turned down the job. I felt called to the church and I really felt that I could rebuild and help. During my seven years at Main Street, I worked with five different pastors. There was plenty of turmoil. One was loved by the congregation but not by the staff, and he had come behind a senior pastor who was adored. After the current pastor started, the church membership began to shrink but the youth group grew. I felt like I was the pin holding everything together. There was plenty of tension: we went from two elders to one and I became associate pastor in everything but title. I preached more and led worship a lot. I saw one class all the way through youth group before my tenure there ended.
In those seven years I grew in influence within the church, which became a bad thing when I started to become a threat to those over me. I was starting to push back on some things and the atmosphere became divisive enough that they ultimately asked me to leave on Youth Sunday after our 30 Hour Famine weekend. I was severed. There was no good-bye with youth or parents. The way it happened made people think that I had done something terrible.
I was hired by Memorial Church at age 22. I had worked at another church for four years during college, but this was my first time on my own. They’d had lots of turnover with youth pastors and none of the kids would say that they identified any of them as “their youth pastor.” Youth ministry wasn’t “their thing.” I came in to the position saying, “This is my passion.” They had never had that before in a youth pastor. There was a good core of about 20 kids but the church never had a vision for youth ministry. We had a Sunday school room with an old futon and a TV. I saw it as my job over the next four years to give the ministry a vision and a purpose. The church went through some growing pains—the congregation was growing but we didn’t have the physical space to grow into. It was a good problem to have but we had to be creative with programming and space usage. We nearly doubled the youth budget and redid all of the classroom spaces.
I got to the point where I was able to step back and see that I had done all I could do and that it was time for me to go. I was bored. I found that things were working so well that I could come in to the office for 10 hours a week and do my job and everyone would think I was great. It was a well-oiled machine. I like to look to the future and think about how we can grow, and for four years, I was able to work on the vision for the youth group. But we came to a point where I wasn’t able to do much more and the church wasn’t willing to make the big changes that were needed. I was stuck in a box and not allowed to be as creative as I needed to be.
It’s not unusual to get bored in ministry.
I was hired by my new church very quickly and didn’t expect things to happen quite so fast. I did feel like people deserved more of an explanation and I wanted to be able to talk with them. I left without hard feelings and I still have good relationships with several of the families. Some of them have come to visit me at my new church. It’s still somewhat of a season for that because they haven’t hired anyone new. I would definitely encourage them to build a relationship with that new person.
The reality is that when your old church hires someone new, it’s really hard to step all the way back in our technology-centric world. You kind of have to die a little bit. It’s tough to navigate. I’m not returning calls or talking to “my” kids except seniors (who won’t know the new person), but if it’s something critical, there are people I can call and talk to. They have an interim who grew up in the church and doesn’t need me hanging on and giving him my baggage. It’s worth taking the high road, even though it’s difficult.
There’s a rumor going around my former church that I knew I was going to my new church when I “left.” I think it was started by a higher up in the church who wanted to take the heat off of himself. It was a blessing to find something new so quickly. The hardest part is being as close as I am: not so far away from the old church that the youth can’t come by if they really need to. The church is gossipy by nature and people want you to talk about it. There’s a huge temptation to defend yourself and you just can’t. There’s no way that goes down that people don’t act like you’re a bad person. The church and I can disagree and they have every right to make a change, but their method of doing so was terrible.
Things happened that I should have paid attention to and I should have left of my own accord. Kids were growing in faith and being called into ministry, but my bosses told me that youth group needed to be more fun, regardless of what was happening faithfully: huge red flag.
The hardest part is that the congregation is left hanging. The church leadership could learn from this; they could say why I left. The kids are very frustrated with how it happened. Kids are more mature than people give them credit for.
Dealing with the church structure is hard because the church gossips. This person doesn’t like how you do it, so how do you deal with it? By all accounts the new guy is a good youth worker but everyone is going to compare him to me. That’s not ego talking, that’s just the way it is. You have to take the high road when a kid calls you and asks what you know about the new guy. It makes it that much harder for everyone when you don’t take the high road. Sometimes you have to help the kids navigate their emotions of getting close to a new person.
It’s an ego thing to want it to fall apart when you leave. Things should go well when you leave. You should be able to phase out of a job, and your volunteers should be able to keep things running.
Just because you’re happy in your new job doesn’t mean that your old one was terrible. People need to grieve.
It’s worth doing right and leaving well even in bad circumstances. If your heart is right and you want kids to know Christ, it’s better to want to grow their faith. Whether it’s good or bad, if you stay in ministry long enough, you’re bound to make changes. The important thing to remember is that we’re called to serve and we’re going to follow that call, even if that means breaking our own hearts to do it. Doing it right is important. When parents get angry the kids get hurt and it demolishes the program.
Leave honestly. I requested an exit interview and was honest about what had gone well and what had not worked at all. I gave them advice on hiring the next person and I asked for feedback. A lot of churches aren’t prepared for that, but you have to look at the big picture when it’s time to move on. It’s helpful to have the perspective and clarity of leaving well, if possible.
In my case it would have been helpful for the leadership to lay out exactly what went wrong, and it would have been helpful to have specifics when starting in a new place. I’ve said to my new pastor that he shouldn’t get frustrated and then let it simmer—talk to me so that I can make it better.
One of their biggest take-aways is that they want someone who is called to youth ministry. I gave them a list of things to commit to in the future to help them hire the right person so that the ministry can continue to grow. They need to hire someone for whom Memorial Church will be a challenge.
Leave stuff: know what’s yours and what is the church’s. Negotiate things, such as purchasing the laptop. I never wanted there to be the feeling that I had taken things I shouldn’t have.
I got an external hard drive and put all of my files on it so that I can take all of my notes with me—I don’t need to recreate lessons from scratch; I can modify what I did in the past. You don’t want the next person to have to create all new admin stuff, so leave the files well-organized. Make sure that your files are convertible from Mac to PC. Don’t wipe everything if you leave in a bad situation. It will only come back to bite you.
When you leave it’s not helpful to say to kids, “God is moving me somewhere else.” It makes them think that God screwed them over. Yes, it’s theologically sound, but they can’t quite wrap their brains around it, so it becomes something of a cop out.
Have you left a church under either good or bad circumstances? What were your most important take aways from the experience?
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