For those who are new here:
If you are new here, then you may need a slight introduction to this post. I'll start with the basics. My name is Matt Harmless. I have been a math teacher for 24 years (with a short stint as a disciplinary dean, but that's another story). For the last 14 1/2 years I was also a bivocational pastor. For those unfamiliar with the term, a bi-vocational pastor is one who normally would be a full-time or part-time Pastor, but would then have another job. This second job could potentially be full-time but its primary purpose was to help make ends meet. I, of course, got that backward. I had a full-time job as a school teacher and then decided to try to take on pastoral work. This inevitably led to what came next.
In November of 2023, I announced to my church that I was going to be stepping down as a Pastor and, well, just be a guy in the church. I finished my time preaching through December and officially started my time as "just a guy" on December 31st.
One of the ways I process things is by writing about them. Please don't misunderstand, I don't think I am a good writer at all... or is it, I don't write well? ... me no write good? ... um... I'm not a professional. In fact, one of the reasons why I try to write is because it forces me to think. In addition to being a helpful tool when formulating specifics of my beliefs, purposeful, edited writing has become a sort of therapeutic endeavor for me. This current endeavor being my mental and spiritual post-processing of my time as a pastor of a small church. This processing will hopefully take the form of analyzing what I've learned and what I am continuing to learn. The first thing that I need to tackle is Should I stay or should I go?
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
First: Cue the Clash:
Now that we have that out of our systems... or ingrained in our minds as the theme music for the remainder of this post... Let's deal with what I am trying to handle.
If you have a Pastor of a church, especially a smaller church, who decides to step down from the pastorate, one of the first hurdles to deal with is whether or not that pastor should stay at that church. Depending on who you talk to, you will essentially get three responses. They are all versions of "you should go" but they are not all for the same reasons.
Response #1: Go.
This is the first and most common response. Most people that I talk to just assume that I am going to go somewhere else. In fact, the most common response from people who hear that I've stepped down is, "So, where are you going to go to church?" I believe that the reason why this is the most common response is that this is what most have experienced. They went to a church where the pastor stepped down. That pastor said his good-byes and went to another church. This is what people are used to, so they just expect it.
Response #2: No, really. Go.
Some don't assume you should go, they just think you should. Instead of remembering when a Pastor left, they remembered when a Pastor stayed. And it weren't good.
There are several different causes for this poor experience. I don't want to delve into the multi-faceted splendor of bad pastors or bad retired pastors. There are plenty of people already doing that. I just want to mention the one single biggest cause of bad experiences when a decent pastor stays after his retirement. It is control. Whether they wanted it to be that way or not, they were in control. Some more than others. And to let go of that control, they just can't do it. So some say... "No, really. You should go."
Response #3: Stay?!? Are you nuts?
This is the response I usually get from pastors who have stepped down. Whether they retired or were just tired they stepped down and stayed, but then it didn't go well. Maybe it was that the people were too dependent on them. Maybe the people wouldn't let them rest. Maybe it was something else. Regardless of the reason, it just didn't work. So when this group of people talk to me, it is usually a version of "are you crazy?" or it is is an "OK" accompanied with that non-verbal... "poor fella. He'll just have to go through this before he understands the world."
I decided to stay. Here are the reasons why I didn't even have to think about it very long:
Number one: I'm not a control freak. I don't want to be in control. I never wanted to be in control. I have been looking for and hoping to find people to take the reigns. I could argue that those who think they have control ought to relinquish it immediately. We are not the heads of our churches, Christ is.
In fact, in the month since I stepped down, It has been a joy for me to watch others rise to the occasion and take the lead in several different areas. Not only has the other "co-pastor" of the church (who is way more qualified than I am anyway) risen to the occasion, he has also taken the lead in helping others learn how to take the lead. One of the best things he has done already is get a group of men together to start training them on church leadership, specifically in the form of being Biblical deacons.
Why Number 2: It was never about me anyway. Some pastors start to attach the success of the church to their own efforts. I get that. It is actually very easy to pour your heart into a church ministry and start to equate its success with why you are as a person. You will never get judgment from me when someone blurs those lines accidentally. I've struggled with this myself, less in the successes and more in the failures. Any time someone left our little church because of any reason, the parts that they might list as a "lack" in the church felt like a "lack" in myself. But the church isn't about us.
As I've stepped away from the pastorate, I knew that it might succeed or fail without me. Its success or failure would not be about me anyway. If it failed because I wasn't there, then it probably should fail. No church should be dependent on any one man. If it succeeded because I was not doing it, that wouldn't be an insult to me (as if I wasn't essential) ... because, well, I am not essential, only Christ is. I've been preaching it for years, but stepping away is an opportunity to watch the theory in practice.
Why Number 3: You just don't know Edgewood. This is what I usually say to others. When they say, "aren't you going to leave?" I say, "No. If that seems weird to you, well, you just don't know Edgewood." This Church is my Family. (Note: I don't say, THE Church is my family, I say "this church" is my family.)
One of the key most important things that I have learned as a pastor hinges on that one little difference. "A Church" vs. "The Church" There are a lot of people I know who love the Church in theory, but have a really difficult time in reality. They have all sorts of reasons why this is... but most of them are focused on the failures of "the church" in opposition to their own ideas of what they are expecting.
But I will stop there and make this the focus of my next post-pastoral thought.