Grand Rapids is abuzz this morning with the news that pastor Rob Bell will be leaving Grandville megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church — with its flock of more than 10,000 souls — later this year “in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God’s love with a broader audience.”
We feel for the people of Mars Hill, who have proven their devotion to Bell by standing by him loyally throughout the nationwide theological controversy sparked by his recent book Love Wins. They will miss him, no doubt.
We also feel for Rob Bell. A pastor’s decision to leave his church — especially when that church is one he has planted and nurtured from the ground up — is never an easy one. The process of leaving, after the decision has been made and announced, can be even harder, fraught with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and uncertainties about the future of the pastor’s ministry and the life of the congregation he’s leaving.
To help pastors and congregations navigate such difficult times of transition and farewell as the one now facing Mars Hill, we recommend a few helpful books.
In Ten Commandments for Pastors Leaving a Congregation, Lawrence Farris offers practical advice to help pastors avoid the common pitfalls that often accompany pastoral transitions. Farris, a pastor who himself has left three churches, here gives wise, thoughtful commandments for shepherds preparing to leave their flocks, laying out ten guidelines that can help pastors leave their congregations with grace and compassion:
- Thou Shalt Know When It Is Time to Go
- Thou Shalt Explain Thyself
- Thou Shalt Not Steal Away
- Thou Shalt Affirm Thy Congregation’s Ministry
- Thou Shalt Try to Mend Fences
- Thou Shalt Help Thy Successor Have a Good Beginning
- Thou Shalt Be Gentle with Thyself
- Thou Shalt Attend to Thy Family
- Thou Shalt (Usually) Stay Away Once Thou Hast Left
- Thou Shalt Grieve
Church members and others who may be struggling with why pastors choose to leave their calls may want to check out Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger’s Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry. Pastors in Transition brings clarity to this little-examined aspect of the pastorate by examining the main reasons why pastors in five Protestant denominations have left parish ministry.
The fruit of careful sociological research, Pastors in Transition presents the findings of the largest-ever study of recently ended ministries, which surveyed or interviewed more than 900 ex-ministers, representing the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. More than simply facts and figures, however, the book also contains personal stories, forthright opinions, and concrete recommendations from former pastors to help pastors and churches strengthen parish ministry in the future.
When pastors do leave, congregations often struggle to understand their vision, purpose, and identity without the leader who has shaped and molded that sense of purpose and identity during his time with them. Rob Bell and Mars Hill seem to understand this; the date of Bell’s leaving has been determined by the anticipated conclusion of his months-long teaching series on the Book of Acts. For churches who, likewise, want to go “back to the beginning” and recapture an fresh understanding of what it is to be an apostolic church, we recommend Luke Timothy Johnson’s Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians (just released this week!).
For Johnson, the New Testament books Luke and Acts provide a much-needed jolt to conventional wisdom — and to the church’s very human tendency toward expediency and self-interest. To read Luke-Acts as a literary unit, he says, is to uncover a startling prophetic vision of Jesus and the church — one that imagines a reality very different from the one humans would construct on their own. Johnson reveals in Luke’s writings an ongoing prophetic challenge for today’s church, grounded in the ministry of Jesus Christ, to embody and enact God’s vision for the world.
Click below to read blog posts on four other books ideal for pastors and congregations struggling with issues of vocation, identity, and transition:
M. Craig Barnes’s The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life
Lawrence W. Farris’s Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation
Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness
Eugene Peterson’s Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way