You should really consider leaving ministry.
Before you change the date and turn in your pre-written resignation letter to the board of your church, let me clarify. Wherever you are in your ministry journey, from rookie intern to sage veteran, you should consider how you want to conclude your ministry. Because someday it will end. I should quickly add the disclaimer that all of this planning takes place loosely under the reality that Jesus could conclude ministry for all of us at any given moment. (Come, Lord Jesus.)
In either the event of His inevitable return or our passing the baton, we are all interim leaders. We have been entrusted with the joy of serving those for whom Jesus gave His life, and we are asked to join Him in building His kingdom. I am of the belief that a bad day of ministry beats a good day doing any other job, every time. And that’s because it’s about building His kingdom, not mine.
“In either the event of His inevitable return or our passing the baton, we are all interim leaders.”
The more I study scriptural leadership, the more time I spend unpacking the last days of Biblical leaders and I wish more of us did the same. I know there is no shortage of leadership material available since it is healthy to reflect along the way on what kind of leader you wish to be. But we can’t fully answer the question, “What kind of leader am I?” until we are no longer on the stage or in the boardroom. Not every ordination ends in a retirement party. The full definition of our leadership lies somewhere after the finish line.
Remembering Your Future, Numbering Your Days
In light of these truths, let’s take a quick look at the “trophy ceremony” of the prophet Samuel in order to encourage us all to finish well.
In 1 Samuel 12, we read the farewell address of a man who was called to serve the Lord from a young age. He does not shy away from the fact that he is no longer a spring chicken. As he gives his farewell speech, he brings up both the season of his calling and his retirement.
“And now, behold the king walks before you, and I am old and gray…I have walked before you from my youth until this day.” (1 Samuel 12:2, ESV)
Whatever current stage you are in ministry, you do well to introduce both young and old versions of yourself to each other.
“Whatever current stage you are in ministry, you do well to introduce both young and old versions of yourself to each other.”
If you’re in ministry leadership, perhaps your story is similar to mine. Perhaps you were a student in a youth group who was encouraged at a young age through summer conferences, church camps, retreats, and in youth group to consider entering vocational ministry. The call is often passionate and hits right at the time of transition as students look to a future after high school.
In response to such calls, young people can push all the chips of their future into vocational ministry and start on a journey like no other. Students are encouraged to unpack phrases like Samuel used at a young age, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
All of this is good, but I want to make a recommendation. Instead of waiting until Christian leaders are toward the end of their service to the Kingdom to consider the end, let’s have them envision a full life of ministry and unpack their farewell speech while they are still at the starting line and hearing the calling of the Lord. Whether you started ministry young or you shifted out of some other career into ministry long after high school, a perspective of the days you still have left will help you pursue your calling with the sober-mindedness that forestalls a falling.
“A perspective of the days you still have left will help you pursue your calling with the sober-mindedness that forestalls a falling.”
If you haven’t yet considered this farewell-speech perspective, today might be a good time to look forward through the time you have left in ministry. It’s not too late to ask yourself, “If the older version of me (who faithfully discharged all the duties of Christian leadership) were standing right before me now, what would I ask him? What would he say to me? What ministry perspective can I gain from this hypothetical conversation?”
Does your ministry today reflect that you are one day closer to your retirement party? Have you numbered your ministry days with intentionality?
Intentional in Our Integrity
We need to look ahead at our future of ministry knowing that someday people will look back on it. What legacy will they look back upon? Samuel didn’t just fulfill an age requirement for retirement. He didn’t just attain a lengthy leadership. Far more important, he kept his integrity through it all. In his farewell address, he told the people of his integrity and openly invited them to poke holes at his character.
“Here I am; testify against me before the Lord and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it. Testify against me and I will restore it to you.” (1 Samuel 12:3, ESV)
Everyone in the crowd knew the integrity of Samuel. They publicly admitted he was not an abusive leader. You don’t have to search very far to find examples of Christian leaders who were found to be abusive after they stepped down from leadership. In fact, it is often the cause of Christian leaders being asked to step away. Have you weighed your days of ministry against the standard of integrity Samuel sets here?
“You don’t have to search very far to find examples of Christian leaders who were found to be abusive after they stepped down from leadership.”
Intentional in Our Relationships
Another area of how our ministry ends that we need to keep in mind today is that of our church relationships. Will we have crossed thresholds of ministry “success” only by burning numerous relational bridges? Samuel didn’t just leave a lengthy legacy of integrity, he also maintained a healthy relational perspective as he was stepping down. We read,
“Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord but ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.” (1 Samuel 12:23, ESV)
Sometimes Christian leaders can get territorial with previous leadership. Everyone suffers when leaders do this. The preacher before me was at this church for 25 years. Even after he stepped away to move closer to his kids and grandkids, I have no doubt he continues to pray for the church where he served and for those he loves in this congregation. He was still invited to come down to do an occasional funeral for those he had known for decades.
“Will we have crossed thresholds of ministry ‘success’ only by burning numerous relational bridges?”
We even shared the stage at the funeral of an elder who passed away. At this particular celebration of life, one of the funeral directors took me aside and said, “You would be surprised how rare that is.” She went on to say that many preachers leave on bad terms and are never invited back. Other incoming preachers insist on marking their ministry territory and the previous minister is not allowed back in the building. “It’s refreshing to see a former preacher still have an appropriate connection with their previous congregation.”
The ”Hour” Always on Jesus’ Mind
Throughout his ministry, Jesus shows us an awareness of the end of his ministry. He faithfully walked the ministry path His Father set before Him, often reminding his disciples that His earthly ministry was going to end.
One of the future references Jesus often made was to the “hour” in which He would be lifted up (a paradoxical hint at both His crucifixion and glorification). When the hour was finally upon Him, He prayed the following prayer, which gives us snapshots into the purpose that guided Him up to His ministry’s end:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. . . . I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. . . . While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” (John 17:1, 6-8, 12)
Jesus models for us an awareness that each day of ministry ought to be lived with purposefulness guided by the end result: disciples of Jesus fully obedient to Jesus.
“Jesus models for us an awareness that each day of ministry ought to be lived with purposefulness guided by the end result.”
Start with the End of Each Day
If you have never considered how your ministry will end, today is a great time to start. What are some realistic gauges to help us determine how well we will end our days of service to our Savior?
My advice is to start by considering how you currently end each individual day of service. After all, your ministry mosaic will be a collection of these individual days. It doesn’t make sense to assume you will suddenly end the entirety of your ministry in a peaceful, fulfilled manner some day if you can’t adequately enter into temporary ministry rest at the end of this day. You might ask yourself these questions,
- How often do I haphazardly roll into bed giving no thought to the hour?
- Am I staying up to complete tasks I could have finished before the sun went down?
- How many days will follow this path before this path defines all my days?
- Rather than being exhausted and overwhelmed because of my limitations, can I end today with gratitude to God for allowing me to join in the work He is doing? Can I rest knowing that He continues His work?
- Did I work hard today while relying on God’s power? Did I hold fast to my integrity while resting in God’s grace?
- In the end, will my family be grateful that I was in ministry?