I still recall the smell of new carpet in our first brand new home. This was our first truly big ministry post as a worship pastor and felt much like moving into that new house with fresh paint and a tiny tree in the front yard. Our new church family filled our pantry, and for the years we served continued such hospitality. Everyone should get a honeymoon, and as with honeymoons, they are short-lived.
You would think with exponential growth that one would be in an ideal job situation in worship. But truth be told, fast pace of change brings chaos, and with that, challenges. You see, not long before I came on staff, this church opened a brand new sanctuary for worship. This humble group, used to fluorescent fixtures, exploded to a building with multiple catwalks and a balcony. The scale changed everything. Now, this young guy from the west coast arrives and even more change is put upon this bustling and growing church. So many mixed emotions exist in a fast-growing church. It is hard to keep up with the work, let alone one’s own reaction!
What Do You Do When You Have To Leave Church?
I was not alone. Those that had been there and led the church to this point likely were even more overwhelmed at the changes. This resulted in conflict about worship—from every angle. We had people who volunteered for years on the team who thought they should be in my shoes. We had new people I brought in who were working the system in their favor. Staff departments saw the fast growth of our department budget and the unique personal access this newcomer worship leader had with a lead pastor who had less and less time for them. All these reactions are human, and everyone had the best of intentions—as far as we as normal people have. But add them up and a few missteps and you might find out your tenure is about to end.
The growth had caused some upheaval and direct conflict among some leaders who left under very painful terms. These were my friends, but this personal story is not about how bad it can be. It is about how, even when things go poorly for you, how healthy people react. I knew my time was up and was considering pulling the trigger to leave. My leadership, unfortunately, found out about this before I could tell them. Even in that, we sat down and talked through how I would leave. Because I had trust, we were able to basically agree with everything I wanted. My list of wishes I wrote down literally was what they agreed to without ever seeing it. My last Sunday was an honor for me. I received a blessing with a plaque, and the leadership set up a greeting reception in my honor that was unexpectedly large.
There were personally painful issues behind the scenes that were not so pretty, to be honest. Some of these took years to work through. But I remember how leaders in that team seemed to respect me and honor me in the leaving. Now, I was not treated perfectly nor was I perfect, either. Relationships were strained, to say the least, but today I can walk in my old church and worship and still many years later and miles apart have deep connections that were preserved. Crash a staff meeting, lately? I even did that once over the years. This is how an exit should look like! I have even better personal experiences where my leaders and I sat and talked about the possibility of me leaving. The next day, my boss handed me a letter that basically said they would keep me on as long as it took to figure out what my next step should be. Truly, it does not get better than that. But even the best of exits require emotional healing.
A change in ministry goes way beyond a simple change in a place of employment. This is where your family worships and where you share life with people. Your kids go the Sunday school and your spouse serves. Your heart is in your church, as well as your work. To lose both may overwhelm any staff person. To have one’s family lose their connections complicates the change even further. When you are a visible leader, there are mixed emotions by the parishioners. Some do not know how to support you while supporting the leadership they love. Others in the church are immature and therefore looking for ways to push their agenda. A staff transition is an opening to these dear saints. I am still talking about when things go the way they should, by the way. When it gets ugly, run for cover.
Watch out for the sucker punch.
One cold morning, the doorbell rang at 6:30. The coffee pot was barely awake, but my friend opened the door, and to his surprise, it was a member of the church board who came bearing a single envelope. My friend took the envelope, opened it, and read the terse statement. “You are officially terminated as of today’s date. The church locks have been changed. Call the office to make an appointment to retrieve your personal effects.” Behind the note was his final check and, without a word, the board member left the front porch, heading out into the morning fog.
Some reading this article are thinking my friend did something horrible. No scandal could be found within a hundred miles of this humble man. In fact, the church board gave him a raise and a commendation in writing just weeks before this lovely encounter on his porch. His ministry of at least seven years at the church birthed excellent music as well as volunteer involvement. He was a mentor to me, in fact. I learned from his character. Even more so did I learn how painful a hatchet job feels to a man and his family. Watching him take the high road gave me an example when I needed it.
Included in my knowledge base are leaders who say one thing in private and, before the church, share something else. They fire a person, yet state to the congregation they chose to leave. Some pastors call around town to tell everyone in town to never hire his former worship leader. There are those that make it hard to love them back with their bitter attitude. I could share many stories of injustices. You could share perhaps a bunch, yourselves. However, the fact is that we all have to deal with an exit at some point in time. Sometimes they will be healthy. Sometimes they will be an all-out sucker punch.
Reading the signs.
Like anything, we hope not to be sucker punched. My experienced friend was the last person expected to experience getting a pink slip in that manner, but there are always signs. If you are looking at entering a church staff relationship, it is best to read the signs ahead of time. Once we are in our post, getting out causes undesirable ripples to life and the ones we love. If you are in a position and conflict is in the air, that does not mean you have to leave, necessarily. It may simply be a need to confront issues—especially your own issues!
The following list is of signs that may help you identify if you need to leave church. Better yet, if you are interviewing, you may want to use this to assess the health of the potential ministry post.
Five signs of a sick church staff-leadership relationship.
Asymmetrical commitment. Staff and church are often in a one-way marriage. One side unconditionally commits at the mercy of the other that has conditions. My calling and passion then might be used by those in power. My presence in the church is only possible as long as I meet the requirements. As an employee, this should be the case, but there is an additional cost. Most worship leaders likely have to leave church entirely if employment ended. What would it look like to have a new worship leader there and the old worship leader in the third row or even the back row of the church? Could a relationship be built as a family rather than that of employer and employees? Is it possible to transcend to something more relationally egalitarian?
Mistrust versus empowerment. If there is no room for mistakes and power is hoarded, it is likely things are unhealthy. There will come a season or an event when you will make a mistake. These will test the ability of your character to grow, but also the environment to aid you in that growth. Silos in ministry department develop in a church like this. The collaboration of any kind is a forced activity with mistrust. Blame is shifted, instead of lessons learned. Be careful not to step on the wrong landmine! Any mess-up will likely be used against you. A culture that shifts blame, rather than learns lessons, is toxic!
Entitlement versus servanthood. Our contribution to this unhealthy system is to accept entitlement over the humility of serving others. A healthy church will see you as a servant and be upset when you balk at washing feet. But in many cases, you have great coffee in the green room, right? Or you are excused from more menial ministry tasks? If you find yourself playing into this, check yourself and reject the offer. Be a servant. Entitlement breeds the worst in our human nature. When we admit that we hold our job and ministry post at the pleasure of God and his people, we approach work in a healthy manner. Don’t be seduced by it.
A job rather than a ministry calling. Would you do what you do if you could do it without pay? And do those who are paying you feel the same way about you? If you walk into a church with the attitude that it’s only a job, everyone loses. Of course, we have deliverables. We show up prepared and on time to work. We follow the rules. We deserve to be called out when we miss these. But beyond the work ethic, this is a calling to serve a local church! If that is not valued by us or expected of us, we breathe the air of a less-than-healthy environment. Value the call more than the job.
Just plain ego. No one should walk on eggshells around you and you should not feel that you should have to sidestep the insecurities of your leader, either. Ego as a value means we promote ourselves, and our tribe of worship leaders might actually enjoy this. When our leader lives in the bubble of ego, dialogue gives way to monologue. Any criticism potentially becomes an overblown conflict. A difference of opinion is off limits. Does your pastor require you take notes, then check them afterward? Narcissism has no place in ministry, yet we seem to get caught up in that as an idol at times. Ego must give way to community.
Pulling the trigger.
Maybe by this time, you have done your homework and are ready to exit. You know with prayer and humility that your time needs to end. Listed below are five evils that we must navigate. I hope church boards, pastors, and other leaders take note of the unique pressure worship leaders and other staff are put under. It is an honor to serve on a church staff, but when things go poorly and an exit is needed, I hate this saying: “Hire slowly, fire fast.” Why not say, “fire at a merciful pace?” Have we borrowed the business playbook or do we have a higher ethic when taking care of our own church family? Do we asymmetrically demand commitment, or do we expose ourselves out of love for our brothers and sisters in our employ?
Five evils that plague church staff exits and advice in surviving them.
Social Banishment. You are not allowed to talk to anyone connected to the church for eight weeks. Loss of emotional and spiritual support is a painful result of an exit. In some cases, you are not allowed to interact whatsoever with your church. Now, this happens not only when there may be a legal need from a poorly behaving person; It happens when the employment simply needs to end for mutual reasons. If one chooses to leave their church staff position, it is often required that there be a break from the place that once was their home church. We are talking about support from friends, kids attendance to youth groups, and the things that socially meet basic needs. In a healthy church, there is no reason an employee should feel banished or be asked to leave church! When you are a visible minister, such as a worship leader, you usually lose more than just a job at even the friendliest of exits.
Advice: Meet and negotiate a healthy exit plan with your leadership. Have any former worship leaders come back to attend or even volunteer? Diffuse any possible retribution they might be afraid of by sharing your desire to maintain relationships. Brace yourself!
Financial Leverage. Severance? What is that? If a church does not have a policy, that would be typical. When you serve as a church staff person, there are considerations your members may not realize. Church staff members are exempt from paying into the disability or employment insurance. In an exit, this is often used as a stick more than a carrot to worship leaders and other staff members. To leverage last minute requests and protect themselves, church leaders often put extremely strict rules and conditions to a separation package. In reality, any employee will need to exit at some point–whether that is willingly or otherwise. But to bully an employee like this is bad HR practice, especially if the terms are unreasonable, such as not speaking at all to personal friends. Intellectual property makes sense if you are a business, but as a church, why should we be so fearful and combative? The public face of a worship leader seems to bring unease in leaders at times of exit. Emotions can cause poor treatment of the one leaders hold power over.
Advice: Read the church employee handbook to understand what the policy is upon exit. Get financially free of debt or at least have an emergency fund as soon as possible. Obtain disability insurance as your church likely will not offer this.
Spiritual Abuse. When typical issues are put into spiritual language, and the position of pastor is used to bully you, that qualifies as spiritual abuse. Pastors deserve our honor! They shoulder the spiritual temperature and care of the entire church. When people are unchecked and unhealthy, position often is wielded as a weapon. Employees, especially the worship leader or other visible staff, suffer the ego tantrums birthed out of self-protection. It takes time for many to recover from the lashings of a fearful leader. Worship leaders at times have to experience this.
Advice: Guard your heart and emotions with vigor and friendships. This means that you must have wise spiritual consul outside of your church. Find a mentor and seek friends who will keep you honest and help you separate “spiritualization” and reality–if need be.
Hidden Conflict. Church boards and their pastor might be in conflict over issues far above the worship leader’s pay grade. Worship is the most public thing a church does together, so what you and I do in our part of that brings out differing opinions, even in our leadership. This is especially true if the church is on the plateau or decline. This sense of panic at the highest level transfers to raging fear when there is an impending exit. Instead of openness about the real issues of conflict, scapegoats are chosen, and people get hurt. Worship leaders, in the visible role they play, are subject to the political fallout that descends from above them. They are often candidates for scapegoating.
Advice: Keep quiet about your concerns and complaints from what goes on in the leadership. Share only with outside, true confidants and for the purpose of wisdom and prayer. You will become more than a scapegoat with loose lips. Secondly, people act out of character when there is a sick system. Judge the system and forgive the people as you thank God for leaving the toxicity of it all.
Wrecked Relationships. You may have spent years, played golf, went camping or spent personal time with your leader. Now, he or she is on the other side of the table and separating you from employment as the worship leader. Or before that actual event, you suffer the distance of a once closely held friend. A broken relationship is worse than any other possible outcome! Unity in the Spirit empowers us. When we lose it, we are weakened and wounded. Everyone messes up. We all will falter in our work and at some point disappoint each other. Sometimes a role outgrows us even during our best performance as a leader. But why should we lose our family? You may not “hang out” with your old crew the same way ever again, but can you be in the same room with each other? Our enemy is happiest when we have animosity toward fellow church leaders.
Advice: Take the high road! This means that you can dislike the behavior, but not judge the motives. We can only judge what we see. So, believe the best in the other person’s motive. This will save bitterness from rooting in your heart and you can address the behavior while allowing God to convict, not your confrontation.
I can compare the best exits and worst. They all take their toll. I plead with church leaders to find a way to take care of the soul during the transition. Could there be an allowance for therapy? Might a temporary employment doing the church lawns be offered to help a family get on their feet when let go? We like to be creative in building our church kingdoms, but we build on the backs of faithful staff who are committed to Jesus as much as the rest of us. In fact, many give up gainful secular opportunities to serve on a church staff.
Yes, we should never keep a worship leader in his or her post beyond what is best for the church and the person, but how we make staff transitions matters. How we build God’s kingdom matters. People are both what our results are measured by as well as how we build ministry. Ministry is by people, to people, for people. Should not our employees, even worship leaders, be given the honor any family member deserves? I pray we learn from each other and succeed by blessing each other in the transitions God places us in.