Fifteen years ago, our men’s group went to our first Promise Keepers event in Boulder, Colorado. During the closing session, pastors were called down to the stadium floor and honored. When I returned to my seat, the men of our church gathered around me. They prayed a prayer of commitment to Christ, to our church family, and to me as their pastor. Moved by God to reciprocate, the following Sunday I stood before our small congregation and made this promise: I would not leave Intermountain Baptist Church for another church unless they or God, in no uncertain terms, told me to leave. In the years that followed, most of the men who traveled with me to Boulder that year have stayed true to their word. And, by God’s grace, I have been privileged to remain with my church family for twenty-two years. It hasn’t always been easy. On a few occasions, I’ve come close to convincing myself that it was time to leave.
There are many reasons to change churches: a sense of God’s calling, the presence of conflict, frustration with lay leaders, stagnation, the opportunity to go to a larger church and lead a more “significant” ministry. Even so, during the past two decades I’ve learned there are also good reasons to stay. Do you find yourself thinking that it’s time for a change? Before you make a move, I hope you’ll consider some of the benefits of not changing churches.
First, staying with your present church models what Christian commitment means.
In practice, our culture has little or no regard for commitment. Divorce is easy. Being a biological father and being a dad are often two different things. Couples commonly live together without taking vows. Executives feel little responsibility for their employees’ welfare. Few employees find reason to be loyal to their employers. Unfortunately, our cultural disregard for commitment has infected the American Church. As pastors, we loathe the consumerism and the “what’s in it for me” attitude that causes many to drift from church to church, seeking “God-honoring music,” a better youth group, or a place where they can finally “be fed” (whatever that means). But in a day when pastors on average change churches every five to eight years, is it possible that we’re part of the problem, too? Where can believers see what long-term commitment looks like if they can’t see it in the example of their pastors?
I believe a pastor’s calling to model Christian commitment is rooted in the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd. In John 10:11-13, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus demonstrates what commitment means. And sometimes it means laying down our lives—our personal dreams, ambitions, and goals—for the sheep (the people in our present congregations). In contrast, those who minister with a “hired-hand” mentality are quick to run to another congregation when frustrations arise or a “better offer” comes along. This is not to say that God never leads a pastor to change churches; He clearly does. Even so, if we find ourselves continually on the move—never pledging ourselves long-term to a single congregation—how can we, and the people to whom we minister, experience the blessings that long-term commitment ultimately brings?
A second benefit of not changing churches, especially in the midst of strife, is spiritual growth.
James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.”
It’s easy to preach perseverance; it’s far more difficult to practice it when things go sour in our churches. Even so, James tells us that the fruit of persevering in the midst of trials, including the trials we endure in our churches, is spiritual maturity. What happens, then, when we habitually respond to congregational strife by changing churches? Don’t we rob ourselves and our churches of the opportunity to grow spiritually?
In Colossians 3:13, Paul is addressing a local church body when he says, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” As pastors, we are members of the local body we serve. We are not exempt from this command. When wronged, “bearing with” one another doesn’t mean sending out our resumes. Only by staying with our churches and working through conflict do we learn to persevere and forgive like God forgives us in Christ. As painful as the process may be, anything less strips us of an opportunity to grow.
A third benefit of not changing churches has to do with preaching. Longevity enhances the effectiveness of a pastor’s sermons.
Haddon Robinson writes, “Obviously, one advantage of a lengthy ministry is that the pastor has a better chance to bring perception and reality together. The long-term pastor is judged more on his pattern of behavior than on a specific appearance. People are more likely to say, ‘The pastor not only talks love; he gives love. He was there in our family crises when we needed him.’ A pattern of care can cover a multitude of less-than-stellar sermons.” Staying with one church for an extended period of time allows the reality of Christ in us to deepen the impact of our preaching.
A fourth benefit of not changing churches is the opportunity longevity provides to minister at a deeper level.
The opportunity to minister to someone in an intimate way is almost always “by invitation only.” Few believers are willing to share their secret struggles—the scars of abuse, a battle with pornography, homosexual urges, a failing marriage, or doubts about their own faith—until they feel safe. A sense of safety requires trust. Trust takes time. That’s why long-term ministry with one church almost always brings greater opportunity to minister to people at deeper levels in more intimate ways.
A fifth benefit of not changing churches is the privilege of seeing God transform families across generational lines.
When we first came to Salt Lake City to plant Intermountain Baptist, God brought our real estate agent and his family to Christ. Today, I rejoice at seeing their oldest son, his wife and their two children following Christ and serving Him in the church. His younger brother serves in the military and is considering going into full-time ministry. He sometimes calls me to encourage me and to thank me for being his pastor.
On the other side of the church sits another young couple. She grew up in a dysfunctional family and came to the church as a pre-teen. Now she and her husband are training up their children in the ways of the Lord. The privilege of watching God transform families across generational lines is one of the greatest blessings I’ve known. If I hadn’t stayed at Intermountain, I would never have seen the children of believers raising their children to believe, too. This joy is something I wouldn’t trade for a “bigger” or “better” church.
A final benefit of not changing churches is one we should take care not to ignore. Staying can enhance our prospects on the day God calls us to give an account.
In Hebrews 13:17, believers are instructed, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” If we are accountable for the spiritual well-being of those we shepherd, we must put their eternal welfare above our own personal desires or “career” goals. Whenever we consider a move, we must evaluate the impact our departure will have on our present congregation. We must ask ourselves if our departure will ultimately benefit the flock we presently serve or if it will damage them. Again, this doesn’t mean we can never leave one church for another; it does mean, however, we shouldn’t be quick to do so. Because we are accountable for the welfare of God’s people, much prayer and an honest examination of our motives are prerequisites to leaving one church for another. If we damage God’s people through an ill-advised or selfish move, He will hold us accountable. When deciding whether to stay or go, we should keep eternity in view.
There are many reasons to change churches. Some of those reasons are praiseworthy; some aren’t. In any case, before you make your next move, don’t just consider the benefits of leaving. Consider the benefits of staying, too.