This past Sunday I had to opportunity to preach one more time to my beloved family of believers at Cross Church. In two weeks I will begin serving as the Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
Thirteen years of my ministry career, over the course of two separate tenures, have been through Cross Church and under the leadership of my friend, mentor and brother in Christ, Dr. Ronnie Floyd. This second tenure spanned four years, with me serving as co-founder of the Cross Church School of Ministry and teaching pastor. I have raised my four children in connection with Cross Church and all four were baptized there. As I reflected over the last 20 years of connection and 13 years of ministry with this dear church, I found my thoughts and emotions running deep. So many connections. So many people we love. So many ups and downs, joys and tears, and celebrations. So much life lived with the best staff, lay people and pastor for which a man could hope.
Things I Learned in My Time at Cross Church
As it developed in my mind and then all the way to delivery on Sunday, my final message became a love letter to this beloved church. Playing off of Paul’s example in Acts 20 when he met the leaders of his beloved church at Ephesus on the shores of the Mediterranean and gave them one final word of encouragement, I wanted to leave Cross Church with one final word based on “things I have learned in my time at Cross Church.” In reality the list is LONG. But on Sunday I gave them the short list:
- God can use anybody.
- If you deepen your walk, God will broaden your ministry.
- The church is God’s number one instrument to change the world.
- Relationships are the secret to life.
- We have to fight for the Bible.
- The Gospel story must constantly be retold.
- Jesus changes the conversation.
Those are just the highlights and the whole message can be heard here.
How to Leave Well
But the larger context to all of this is HOW TO LEAVE A CHURCH WELL. I’ve seen staff pastors come and go across many years of ministry. I’ve seen staff leave well and I’ve seen staff leave poorly. And let me say that there is definitely a “right” way to leave a church. In my most recent case, I was determined from the beginning, before I even knew for certain that I would be leaving, that I was going to leave well.
At the risk of simplifying matters to yet another list, here is a list of what I did and why:
- I told my pastor when Grace had reached out to me. Let me caveat that churches have periodically reached out to me and I did not take every one of those to my pastor. That’s an unfair burden he does not need, especially when I know that there’s a 99.9 percent chance it will come to nothing. But Grace coming toward me was different on multiple levels and my pastor deserved to know. I told Pastor Floyd that I would only come back to him should Grace decide that I was their one and only candidate. He did not need the added burden of “updates.” What he DID need was to know I was focused on Cross Church.
- I prayed and then shelved it. I did not live with eyes for another ministry. I was happy where I was planted with MUCH to do in ministry. I knew Grace might go another direction and that God was ultimately in control, so there was really nothing more for me to do.
- The moment Grace confirmed that God had singled me out as their one and only candidate, I went back to Pastor Floyd and shared honestly my heart that this was something we felt we needed to search out and see if God was in it for us. This involved a site visit to the church and to the city of Knoxville.
- After the visit, the invitation was on the table for me to say yes, or no, to go in view of a call to be the next senior pastor of Grace. My wife and I determined to take one week to pray matters through and to then say yes or no. I met with Pastor Floyd immediately after the visit and shared my heart and plan. I was NOT going to leave him or Cross Church hanging.
- Once we said yes, I worked with my pastor and with Grace to work a common timeline so as to protect and benefit both churches. On the Cross Church side, I let my pastor steer the ship on when and how he wanted to communicate matters to the church.
- And finally, in ALL of this, I lifted high publically and privately my church and my pastor.
I believe that in doing all of this, it allowed the church, my church, to send me off well and to bless me and my family as we move on to our new place of ministry. I will never forget the moving moment when Pastor Floyd prayed over and blessed us and commissioned us for our sending to Grace this past Sunday after I preached.
My friends, ministry is a small world. My best word: Don’t ever burn a bridge. You never know when you might want to cross it again.