Your Questions Answered: Pastoral Ministry Transitions

Question MarkQUESTION:

I really enjoyed the article on calling. But how do you counsel pastoral transitions?

I’ve had friends in ministry who were released from their positions by their churches’ elders, even though they didn’t feel called to leave. In one sense, I guess it was time for them to go because our leadership made the decision. But I really struggled with one of the decisions because of how it was handled. I’m confident God is sovereign, but I was frustrated by the process.

What would you say to these men? Do they aggressively pursue other ministry? Do they wait until someone asks them to come work for them?

I think your comment that “I don’t do anything without being asked” is helpful. So if you are in a pastoral job where you like what you do and are having a good season and another church comes along and says, “Your gifts would really help us,” would you consider it? What about when a friend says, “I know this church is looking and you might be a good fit.” Would you pursue it?



Over the years, I’ve developed a dimmer view of lay eldership, so I tend to be pretty skeptical about elder decisions in churches when “elders” mean lay people who are not ordained making decisions instead of (and even against) the ordained, trained, experienced pastors (the biblical elders). So chances are pretty good that I would more or less reject dismissals of this kind as the wrong people making decisions. (But you’re right, it could still be the right decision arrived at by the wrong people in the wrong way.) At that point, it would be completely appropriate for the dismissed pastor to begin pursuing a new ministry position elsewhere. My general principle of not doing anything without being asked is a rule of thumb, but a rigid regulation.

On the second question, I would at least consider every “ask”—if even for a just a few minutes. I would listen for God’s leading in explicit opportunities and offers, but the rule for me (this is a personal thing) is this: “Don’t do anything you’re not asked to do, but don’t do everything you’re asked to do.” One of my own professors in seminary once told me, “You can’t do everything.” Another told me, “I don’t do anything I’m not asked to do.” Between these two bits of wise advice by two godly men, I find both freedom and direction in my own pursuit of the will of God. It doesn’t make decisions easier, but it does relieve me of both pressure and guilt.

In short, when it comes to ministry transitions, I would say we need to listen, pray, think, discuss with close confidants and family, and set aside those offers that don’t seem to fit at the time. I’ve tried to pray something like, “Lord, I’m going to turn this down. But if you do want me to take that path, please make that clear to me through circumstances. I want to do your will, not mine, so make your will known.”

One final point. I think the “burden of proof” for saying “yes” to an offer is greater when moving from something to something than when moving from nothing to something. The reason? The current call, having been God’s will, is the default. If we’re not reasonably assured that He’s moving us elsewhere, we’re responsible for being faithful to the place where we know He called us—that is, our current place of ministry.


[NOTE: The original question was edited to better fit the purposes of this post.]

[Church] Family Principles #2: Only Be Scared When I’m Scared

Compass.Every family has them. Little rules, proverbs, or general orders that govern everyday life. The Svigel family has several. Hang out with us for a day and you’ll hear at least two or three of them spoken by me, my wife, or sometimes even my kids. I can’t always rest these rules on profound biblical, theological, or philosophical foundations. Instead, we derived them from experience, common sense, and sometimes tradition.

As I’ve thought about the small collection of proverbs or principles that have developed over the last decade or so of parenting, I realize that the good advice that works in the Svigel household can also apply to the household of God. So, in this ten-part series, I’m going to briefly work through ten Svigel family rules, describe how they function to keep my own family healthy and safe, and then discuss how a local church family might benefit from their practical benefits. 

Family Principle #2: Only be scared when I’m scared.

A couple years ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom that have become a standing rule in the Svigel family: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

The non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity, cultural crises, and doctrinal controversies: only be scared when I’m scared.

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But think about it. When we behave as if every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to the family of faith that the Church is in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, in essence, only be scared when I’m scared. Yes, there are times we need to sound the alarm, to retreat, to take cover, to be defensive, or to go on the attack. But we should always measure our reactions responsibly. Most of the time a calm, quiet, and fearless answer will teach those in our spiritual care not only what to respond, but how.

[Church] Family Principles #1: Use Things The Way They’re Meant to Be Used

PrinciplesEvery family has them. Little rules, proverbs, or general orders that govern everyday life. The Svigel family has several. Hang out with us for a day and you’ll hear at least two or three of them spoken by me, my wife, or sometimes even my kids. I can’t always rest these rules on profound biblical, theological, or philosophical foundations. Instead, we derived them from experience, common sense, and sometimes tradition.

As I’ve thought about the small collection of proverbs or principles that have developed over the last decade or so of parenting, I realize that the good advice that works in the Svigel household can also apply to the household of God. So, in this ten-part series, I’m going to briefly work through ten Svigel family rules, describe how they function to keep my own family healthy and safe, and then discuss how a local church family might benefit from their practical benefits.

Family Principle #1: Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

When followed, this principle can lessen the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Here’s how it works in our family: Imagine your six-year-old grabs a five gallon bucket, turns it over, and tries to use it as a stepping stool to reach a bicycle helmet hanging in the garage. Suddenly the rule kicks in: use things the way they’re meant to be used. Tragedy avoided. Or your ten-year-old can’t find his pocketknife to whittle bark from a branch. Instead, he grabs a pair of scissors, opens it up as wide as it will go, and starts shaving the twig with one blade: use things the way they are meant to be used.

I probably employ this principle several times a day. In a culture in which getting it done faster is more important than getting it done safer . . . or when pragmatism outweighs propriety . . . using things they way they were not meant to be used sometimes becomes the rule. Some might even proudly embrace the rule’s antithesis: “Get it done by whatever means; the more creative the method and outlandish the means, the better!”

In a local church, the “use things the way they’re meant to be used” principle could be applied to solve a host of problems before they even begin. We often use the sacraments as a means of personal devotion rather than as their intended purpose of covenant initiation (baptism) and covenant renewal (communion). As a result we entertain inane ideas like unbaptized church members and online communion. Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Or we use the pulpit to advance moralism, political and social agendas, or our own celebrity status instead of using it to redirect, reflect, and refocus all attention on the person and work of Jesus Christ and glory of the Triune God. Too often we use the pulpit less as a place where the Word of God is properly proclaimed and more like a place where the preacher’s clever philosophies and edgy opinions are applauded. Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Instead of using Scripture to point us to the awesomeness of God, the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we use the Bible to answer questions it was never meant to answer: “How can I have my best, most successful life now?” or “How can I feel better about me?” or “How else can I focus the Bible on me, my personal feelings, my personal welfare, and my general me-ness?” Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Or sometimes we treat the office of pastor not as the “servant of the servants of God,” whose God-given task is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11ff.), but as the C.E.O. of our own brand of “Church, Inc.” . . . or as the star of our weekly Christian rock concert . . . or as the host of our laid-back, low-demand, Bible-lite, motivational happy hour. Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Yes, there’s a lot of room in church ministry and worship for freshness, creativity, and thinking outside the box. But there are some things given to the church with divinely-inspired “how-to” and “do not” labels firmly attached—the sacraments, the Bible, the pulpit, the pastoral office, to name just a few. I think the household of God could avoid a lot of problems if they would remember this basic family principle: Use things the way they’re meant to be used.

“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore

Barnes & Noble




Should You Give Your Pastors a Sabbatical?


As I write this, I’m coming to the end of a half-year sabbatical. As a tenure-track professor at a seminary, I can request a sabbatical every six years. During this time I’m relieved of teaching and committee responsibilities and can focus on research, writing, publishing, course revisions and preparations, travel, and guest lecturing. I’m also blessed with some extra time for family. A sabbatical obviously isn’t without cost to the institution, but my colleagues, who take on a little extra teaching load to cover the classes I’m not teaching, absorb most of the “cost,” for which I’m very thankful.

Over the last few years I’ve become convinced that all churches—large and small—should offer their full time pastors a half-year sabbatical every six years. I believe that such a period of rest would be just as appropriate—if not more appropriate—for full time pastors in church ministry as it is for professors in academic service. Like professors, pastors have both an up-front and behind-the-scenes ministry that requires a lot of their time beyond a normal 9 to 5 work day. Their preparations for Sunday services, mid-week programs, early morning and late night meetings, scheduled counseling sessions, hospital calls and home visits, and countless other activities make their calendars look more like block quotes than bullet-points. While many Christians only see a pastor in action a few hours a week, they’re witnessing a thin layer of snow atop a very large iceberg of responsibilities. Only the most ignorant churchgoer thinks the pastoral vocation is a “cushy” weekend job.

Let me state a few reasons why I’ve come to the conviction that pastors need sabbaticals.

First, pastors need time to catch their breath. Like a field that needs to lie fallow for the land to reclaim its nutrients for future crops, pastors needs time to rest, reflect, and recharge to better serve their fields of ministry. They need to be able to catch up on the latest biblical, theological, historical, and pastoral scholarship that has mounted since their seminary days. They need to devote time to personal prayer, meditation, and fellowship beyond their “always-on” role as shepherd. They need time with their spouses, children, grandchildren, and other friends and relatives that tend to become spokes on a wheel during the weekly revolutions of ministry life. Pastors just need a block of time to catch their breath, and in a vocation as all consuming as church ministry, one day a week just isn’t enough.

Second, pastors need to reflect and plan. At least every six years pastors need to set aside time to reflect on their ministry’s past, present, and future. Outside of the bustle of everyday ministry demands, pastors can consider where the church is and where it needs to be. This may involve both minor and significant changes in structures and programs, but it may also include themes for instruction and message planning. During sabbatical time, pastors can lay the foundation for sermons, engage in research and writing to aid them in future ministry, and finally get around to reading those books they set aside over the last few years. No weekend or even weeklong pastor’s conference can provide the kind of time and space needed to reflect and plan.

Third, pastors need to give their congregations a chance to exercise their gifts. The pastor’s main role is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11ff.). While the pastor’s on the clock, in the office, or behind the pulpit, it’s very easy for church members to forget that they’re the ones who are supposed to be doing the work of the ministry that builds up the body of Christ. As pastors look forward to and prepare for a sabbatical, they will be forced to equip fellow leaders to step up and take on responsibilities while they’re away. This will give leaders-in-training opportunities to exercise their gifts of teaching, preaching, and leading. A pastoral sabbatical isn’t just for the sake of the pastor, but also for the church itself.  When pastors are away, other leaders-in-training or associate pastors will gain needed experience in carrying out pastoral duties.

Yes, a sabbatical like this would be costly . . . but not devastating. However, I believe the spiritual and practical benefits of pastoral sabbaticals would far outweigh the financial cost to a church. Of course, the absence of a pastor might reveal weaknesses in the congregation . . . expose a lack of preparation for qualified leaders . . . or highlight the need for additional training and growth. But wouldn’t these all be good things in the long run?

I know that not all pastors would want a sabbatical. However, I think most would welcome such an arrangement with overwhelming eagerness and gratitude.

So, why not seriously discuss the possibility of instituting a half-year sabbatical for your full time pastors?