There is no biblical record of a pastor leaving one established church to become a pastor of another.
This is clearly seen in the starting of new churches. The biblical precedent was for a new church to start without any official leadership. Outside of the Jerusalem church where the apostles were the first leaders, I’m not aware of any church in the New Testament starting with a pastor in place. This may come as a surprise to many, but it is plainly seen as the pattern in the book of Acts and the pastoral epistles.
It was after churches were started in various areas of the Roman world that Paul determined to return and appoint elders (Acts 14:21-23). This was also done through apostolic extensions such as Timothy and Titus, as directed by Paul (Titus 1:5). No doubt there were unofficial leaders, men who were instrumental in getting churches started, but there were no settled, appointed elders at first.
I take the word elder as only one of the three designations for the same person otherwise called a pastor or an overseer. These three terms are used interchangeably in two passages, sometimes in the form of a verb (Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-3). There is no biblical distinction between “the pastor,” often taken to mean one key man who might be called to move from one church to another, and “the elders,” often taken to mean a few supportive but subordinate men who remain at home. Throughout the New Testament, the terms “pastor” and “elder” both refer to the same position, or office within the church. A pastor is an elder and an elder is a pastor. And there was a plurality of elders—several men who shared the responsibility and authority of teaching and leading a particular local church.
All of the leaders of the local churches, after the apostles or those under the apostles were gone, were local men leading local churches. They were appointed from among the gathered people in any given locality. Though Timothy and Titus and others were sent to help establish the local churches and to appoint elders, they were not the pastors of the churches. They did pastoral duties in many ways, but they were directed by Paul and were doing apostolic work.
This is not to say that this pattern, found consistently in the Scriptures, constitutes a command about how churches are to be started. Nor does it prescribe, as a command, what pastors are to do in terms of tenure. The precedent, however, is as viable today as it was in the early days, and could, indeed should be factored in to our current scene to whatever extent possible.
The Continuing Problems
It is concerning established churches that we are most often confused. In the present situation, the man we call “the pastor” (usually meaning one man who is set up as the principal leader of the church with a full or part-time salary and benefits), usually comes from some other pastorate. If, after three years or so, this man is sought out by another church, he might decide to leave his present charge and become another church’s pastor. This will likely happen several times in his life. His former church is left with the dilemma of being shepherdless if there are no other elders, until the church can find another man to take his place. This might take months, or even a few years. I recently talked with one church that is in their third year of searching.
When a pastor is finally found, the church he leaves is left without a pastor until it can secure someone. This happens down the line until someone enters into the mix coming out of seminary or out of the work world or from a church staff somewhere to become an official main pastor of a church. In other words, it continues until someone is brought in who is not leaving another church to do so. I do not doubt that the number of churches involved in the chain could be as many as ten or fifteen in some cases, especially if the first “link” is a pastor moving from a mega-church.
Since most pastors interpret God’s will as leading them to a church of a larger size than the last church, the chain of disruption might look something like this: A pastor of a mega-church ends his ministry there. The church then finds a pastor of a church of 3000 to take his place. The remaining church searches for a pastor from a church of 2500 to take their church’s leadership role; which church finds another pastor of a church of 2000 to come; which church finds a pastor of 1500 to come; which church finds a pastor of a church of 1000 to come; which church finds a pastor of a church of 500 to come; which church finds a pastor of a church of 250 to come; which church finds a pastor of a church of 150 to come; which church in turn finds a pastor of a church of 100 to come; who in turn finds a pastor of a church of 50 to help them; which church finds a student in a college or seminary who is not currently a pastor to come as their leader.
The whole process of filling the vacancies in all the churches might take as long as three years, or even five. By this time the cycle is going again, perhaps luring many of those pastors away from their present responsibility to another.
Each of these churches is searching for the perfect man. But with this kind of turnover going on all across the country, it soon becomes obvious that there are not enough dynamic leaders to go around. Some of these leaders receive many invitations to leave their churches because of this disparity. You cannot blame a good leader for doing an exceptional job and therefore being desirable. He is only working within the system that he has always known and, in most cases, is merely doing the best job he can. He therefore becomes a desirable commodity, to put it commercially.
We might add to this another, often unforeseen, problem. That is, the churches who have secured a new pastor, thinking he is the exact fit for them, often find within a few months, or perhaps a year, that they are stuck with an unacceptable person. Or, if not unacceptable as a pastor in general, at least he is a person unfit for their style church, their values, their mix of people, their educational level, their musical taste, etc. They don’t like something about him. For instance, perhaps they don’t like his interest in books, or his musical style. It did not appear that way at first, but now they see it. Vice versa, the pastor may also find the church to be undesirable.
Most likely this pattern of excitement leading to disappointment has been repeated earlier in the same church. One pastor after another has been secured, but very few actually seem to be “right” for the church. Some pastors, in fact, find it amazing (and in some cases, amusing) that they are now revered by their former churches, when their stay there was full of conflict at the time. Thankfully, this is not always the pattern.
Often a pastor leaves because of a mixture of frustration coupled with the desire to find the place where his gifts can be most effective. He can’t “move” the people any more, or there is growing opposition, or the whole thing lies flat and unexciting. That first glow of hope he had that he could be the one to change everything in the church for the better and that these were moldable people, eager to listen to him and ready for action, has now dimmed. But hope springs eternal, and he is now “willing to leave” if God should open the door (one that quite often is being heavily leaned on). He lets a few people know that he is “willing” to leave if God should provide something else for him.
Sadly, some pastors leave because of a hireling mentality. They leave their churches precisely because there are problems. When the wolf comes and tears into the sheep, they find it uncomfortable to be there and they move on. I don’t say this is always the case, but it may be true more often than we like to think. It appears that they wish to turn the church over to the wolves who are at first only nipping at them. They run because they are hirelings who do not love the sheep.
An additional problem arises from the system, one that seems unavoidably conjoined to it. The pattern we use lends itself to competitiveness and the “using” of churches to promote oneself in the ministry. I would not begin to apply this to all the men caught up in the chain of “going and coming” to churches, but there are enough cases to make it noticeable.
I know this system well, have participated in it, and have preached in many churches where pastors or church members have expressed their frustrations to me. Hardly a week goes by that some pastor or church leader does not call me about such things.
No one ever stops to think that the system itself might be flawed.
If we try to fix this problem, we have to settle for limited recovery, of course. No one could possibly dream of turning this aircraft carrier around completely. In the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of evangelical denominations, there are nearly 45,000 churches, almost all of which employ this system. Though I am attempting to address this, I don’t want anyone to say, “Jim Elliff thinks moving a pastor to another church is a sin!” I don’t think that. I don’t believe that the obvious fact that this system has major problems necessarily means God has not and will not sometimes work this way. God always works within flawed systems and, with flawed people. But God’s ability to “hit straight licks with crooked sticks” does not mean we shouldn’t try to straighten the stick.
What can be done?
In the first place, we can attempt to establish a plurality of elders (pastors) within our local churches. Thankfully there is a healthy movement in this direction. Among the SBC, if I may refer to them again, there has for some time been an aversion to the idea of a plurality of elders in a local church. The reasons are manifold, I’m sure.
W. B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC in the mid 1800s wrote clearly about the plurality of elders, yet somewhere down the line the corporate model of a CEO pastor leading a staff was adopted as standard. It’s not my purpose to examine in detail how this change came about, but it certainly did happen. I have been a witness to the opposition to the idea of a biblical plurality of elders since I began with this kind of leadership plan in the mid 70s. At the time, though there surely must have been some, I knew of no other SBC church that was being led by a biblical concept of eldership. We were definitely swimming against the tide.
The hope is that, at least in some situations, the team of elders (who are every bit pastors and overseers as well) will work so well that they can continue even if one man leaves to help another church. In this case, the situation would have the feel that you find in the pastoral epistles of a Timothy or Titus appointing elders in the churches after having spent some time with them. The “pastor,” prior to leaving, would act in some sense like an apostle, appointing elders to continue the work. This provides some semblance of the recovery we need.
If there is an official or unofficial place of a lead pastor among the team (a leader among equals), a directional pastor who perhaps is being paid and has more time to focus on the church, he should think more carefully about playing himself out of a job. That is, on the one hand, he should find ways to exercise his gifts on the cutting edge of the ministry of the church, but simultaneously leave more and more of the pastoral leadership in the hands of other men. He is one who delegates. Then, when he leaves, if the right philosophy has taken hold, there will not necessarily be a need to call in a pastor from outside to establish yet another system and philosophy. Though most churches willing to do this are smaller, it is still a viable possibility for any church where leadership training is a paramount issue. Some churches have done this well. And even if that church seeks another lead pastor, it will not be shepherdless in the interim. The other elders (who are pastors just as much as the man who left) will care for the body.
As the church grows, it could be that more and more of the elders can take on part time or even full time responsibilities, paid according to the ability of the church. When a man becomes an elder, he should have this possibility in mind, that is, that God might have him spend more time in pastoral labors, demanding that he cut back on his secular job.
Secondly, we could emphasize a better leadership pattern when new churches are started. Remember, as I said before, there is a biblical precedent of starting churches with a group of converted people, perhaps newly converted people, with no official leadership at first. Then, when leaders emerge from among the group, elders may be chosen and appointed to lead in a more formal sense. These are true churches if they include baptized believers who are participating in the ordinances together, even before their official leaders are appointed. I want to emphasize here that this is a liberating idea if we think it through, especially for those interested in church planting.
This kind of church start, once elders are appointed, could conceivably continue without ever needing the old system of calling another pastor from outside. I know one church, with 4000 people attending, that was begun by a man untrained from any seminary. He began as a layman teaching a group of people in a public class, and the church emerged from that. Most of the men in leadership and on staff as pastors came from within the church. This is not an unworkable plan. It has been done and could be done again.
Also, an existing church could spawn a new work with a better leadership pattern, one not requiring the moving of a pastor out of one church to another. Churches that are growing regionally, with pockets of people some distance away, might employ a better pattern of leadership than they presently have in the originating church for its new work. They may be able to encourage and guide the beginning of new churches in surrounding areas with the leadership of the men that are there already entrenched in the society. Again, these men who would be made elders in the new group must be willing to take further responsibility and to minimize reliance on their secular jobs if necessary as the church demands more of their time. But such a church could break the pattern now existing, that is, of calling one pastor to leave a church and go to another.
These possibilities suffice to suggest that some changes could begin among us. Again, I’m not saying that worthwhile work for God cannot take place under the old system. But it is unarguably deficient in some significant ways and in my view, does not expand the kingdom using the most helpful pattern.
We must ask ourselves if we are leading in such a way that promotes a better system or perpetuates a deficient one. How are we contributing toward a better method?
It becomes immediately obvious that such a system, if carried out more widely, has something to say about our current view of education of pastors and the seeming necessity of having a post graduate trained clergy. I cannot go into detail here. I agree that biblical training is necessary for elders. A man who is to lead and teach others must grow in the Scriptures as much as possible. But we must not make it mandatory for a man to have the formal training and the resulting educational degrees that are commonly thought to be necessary. Rather, the churches must do all they can to provide the education requisite for elders and potential elders at home.
More and more of this sort of training can be done in league with schools that provide online learning. A little searching will uncover a number of possibilities. But even this degree of formality is not absolutely necessary. A seminary degree is not required in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 among the list of qualifications for eldership. The ability to defend the faith and to be apt to teach, however, certainly is. In other words, education is essential. A set way of procuring it is not.
Some pastors reading this might be saying, “Where does this leave me?” The answer is, “It leaves you right where you are.” Be faithful where God has put you. That is of first importance. Also, think deeply about how you might be used to turn things around. It will take patience, but more can be done than you might have otherwise thought. Your determination to stay put and faithfully minister where God has placed you will play a small but necessary role in reforming a broken system. Then, develop leaders in your church who can become fellow pastors with you, capable of sharing the load. Implant this philosophy in them, and try hard not to leave (if you must leave) until they are capable shepherds.
There are many men called to preach who have learned how to work and prosper within the present system of progressive advancement and periodic movement. But the welfare of the churches must be the highest priority. In the present system it is the churches, not the pastors who leave them, that suffer the most.
(Copyright Jim Elliff 2005; revised 2021)