So you want to quit.

I get it.

This has been an excruciating crisis to live through and lead through.

While 25% of all workers want to quit their jobs right now, it appears  it may be even worst for church leaders. Apparently, the majority of pastors are at least thinking about it.

In this widely-shared article, Thom Rainer explains that the vast majority of pastors he and his team work with want to quit. The pandemic, division, workload, in-fighting, levels of criticism and loss of momentum in most churches is too discouraging for most pastors.

Thom is right…there has never been a more discouraging season to be a leader. And if your experience is like most pastors, everyone’s angry with you to boot (here’s a post on why everyone’s so mad at you right now).

I recently had a conversation with a top search firm CEO who predicted that next year will be a year of massive turnover in part, because the crisis has made people rethink their options.

I’m writing this post not to convince you to stay where you are, but to think twice before you quit.

Nobody has to stay anywhere forever.

There are good reasons to leave what you’re doing. Over my life, I’ve left fledgling careers in radio and law, exited a  denomination and most recently made another change.

After 25 years of ministry, yesterday I preached my final sermon as part of the teaching team at the church I founded, wrapping up a 5 year succession plan that completes a 25 year ministry.

But there are also bad reasons to leave.

So today, let me be your (free) counsellor/friend. Talk you off the ledge. I’ve needed that conversation more than a few times in my decades of leadership so I could finish instead of quitting.

I’ve been discouraged, defeated, exhausted and pretty much done more than once. But I never left in those seasons.

Looking back, I’m so grateful I didn’t.

So what do you want to do when you want to throw in the towel?

Here are a few things I learned about quitting for the wrong reasons, and a few things about leaving for the right ones.

1. Quitting is Different than Finishing

Quitting is easy. Finishing is hard.

Both quitting and finishing result in the same outcome: you leave. Nobody, after all, stays forever.

But quitting usually involves surrendering to the pain or letting the circumstances control your exit.

By contrast, finishing usually involves pushing through the pain to a moment or season where the circumstances move both you and the mission forward as best you can.

Leaders who quit usually surrender to impulse or unresolved pain. Leaders who finish well don’t.

As a result, leaders who finish well leave far different legacy than leaders who quit.

2. Your Exit Becomes Your Legacy

On that note, your exit determines the legacy you leave behind, both for the organization and for you personally.

People rarely remember how you started in an organization. They always remember how you left.

You can erase years of great leadership in moments with a poor exit. Quitting because you’re frustrated, discouraged, defeated or exhausted rarely creates a great departure.

The way you leave becomes your legacy.

Years or decades of sincere, hard, good work can get reduced to a sentence like “Yeah, he just packed up and left town”, “He got so bitter at the end”, “She burned every bridge” or “His last year left us all scrambling”.

Ouch.

3. Your Problems Follow You

You’ve probably heard the marriage advice (or given it) that all your unresolved issues follow you into your next relationship.

The same is true of leadership.

Relationally, starting over with someone new usually sounds way more promising than it is. Why? Well, you have a pretty realistic (pessimistic) view of the person you’re with which you’re  ready to trade in for an idealistic view of the person you want to be with. In your mind, this new person is perfect, while your present partner is sooooo inferior.

Of course, what you’re forgetting is not only is that picture inaccurate on both counts, but this: You bring yourself with you wherever you go.

Whatever issues you don’t resolve now, you’ll have to resolve in the future.

The same is true in leadership. You have a very realistic view of how hard your current situation is.

But you imagine your new situation with an idealistic view point. They’ll appreciate me. They’ll do what I ask them to do. Their team won’t argue.

That, of course, is also what you thought the last time.

Here’s what I’ve learned: your unresolved issues follow you wherever you go.

We went through a really painful season of leadership about 15 years ago. I wasn’t tempted to leave the church, but we were selling our house around the same time.

I was really tempted to leave the community I was living in and move to a different city nearby. We could start over again, I told myself.

But as my wife and I prayed about it, I became convicted we need to stay. We move ten minutes down the road.

Which meant we’d travel the same roads, shop in the same stories, get groceries at the same supermarket, and run into the same people we had struggled with.

It was exactly the right medicine. That forced me to look at my own failings, to see where I was wrong, and to practice forgiveness.

Escape is poor substitute for personal growth, forgiveness and change.

The challenge with quitting is that your issues and problems come with you. They didn’t quit, you did.

4. Running toward your future is better than running away from your past

So maybe you are called to leave (here are 7 signs it’s time to move on). Maybe your season is legitimately coming to an end.

If you can—and in a carefully discerned departure you usually have time to do this before you go— ask yourself what you’re called to next.

In my current situation, in addition to a sense that the current season was drawing to a close, that a well-executed succession plan was important for all, there was also a budding sense that a new calling or assignment was being birthed: to help leaders thrive.

One of the reasons transitions are so painful (particularly as you get older as a leader) is because all your best days feel like they’re behind you.

Find some wise counsel around you who can help you discern what’s next before you leave what’s now.

Running toward your future is a much better move than running away from your past.

5. A Bad Season Is the Worst Time To Make A Big Decision

So just to frame this season in context, this really is a bad moment. And it’s impacting leaders deeply.

A recent Barna survey has led Barna President David Kinnaman to conclude that the mental health of pastors has reached crisis levels.

Just look at the chart below.

In 2016, only 14% of pastors said they’re mental and emotional health was average to poor.

By April 2020, that number more than doubled, growing to 35%.

In August 2020, fully 50% of pastors now say their mental and emotional health was average to poor.

I wonder where that number will move to as the crisis continues to spiral out of control.

I know when I’m in a discouraging, difficult and depressing season, one of the first things to go is my judgment.

When I’m not in a good place mentally or spiritually, I make emotional decisions and try to back fill them with logic. Or maybe I don’t even bother trying to be logical. I just make (bad) decisions.

As a result, I’ve realized that a bad season is the worst time to make a big decision. This is true for anything from quitting your job, to leaving your spouse to (honestly) even making big financial decisions.

Never quit on a bad day.

Sure, maybe you are called to move on.

Give the decision room to breathe. Pray. Bring in wise counsel. Consult. Hire a coach. Read. Reflect. Think.

Get healthy, and if you can’t do that right now (because it will be a long journey), at least get healthy people around you to make some recommendations.

If you can, make your decision to finish up on a good day.

If it’s a bad day, stick it out or let other people make the decision with your, or if it’s really bad, have them make the decision for you.

This isn’t a good season for most leaders.

Want your life back?

If you want to truly change your life and leadership, focus on changing the systems that run your life.

What if the big change that you need is more about how and when you work, rather than where you work?

Since burning out, one of the most helpful changes that I’ve made is making the shift to a fixed calendar that has allowed me to get my time, energy, and priorities working for me, instead of against me (which they will naturally do).

I’d love to help you get time, energy and priorities working for you too.

To that end, I’m giving away the calendar template I use with leaders. It can help you structure your time in a way that helps you get far more done in less time.

You can download the High Impact Leader Calendar Template here. 

What Helps You?

I hope this helps you work through whatever you’re going through.

Hang in there my friend. Whatever you’re call to do, I’m hoping you make the decision on a good day with the right people around you.

And me and my team are cheering you on.

What do you find to be helpful when you want to quit?

What are some things you know you should definitely NOT do?

Love to hear from you in the comments.

So you want to quit. I get it. This has been an excruciating crisis to live through and lead through. So what do you want to do when you want to throw in the towel?
Here are a few things I learned about quitting for the wrong reasons, and a few things about leaving for the right ones.

31 Comments

  1. Anna on November 24, 2020 at 6:33 am

    So today I seriously considered quitting. Again.
    It feels as though all the gains won through immense pain and hard work over the last 8 years have just been falling away in the weariness of 2020. I feel like a total failure as a leader, and exhausted, out of ideas and energy and almost out of hope. But I just can’t shake a tiny, persistent thought to persevere, God is not calling me out.
    So your post was timely and helpful.
    But staying is scary as well – I’m just not quite sure how to pick up the scraps of my little church and rebuild. Praying for the next steps.
    Do you have any advice for how to “re-plant” a church? Because that’s what it feels like we need to do – re-plant, not just re-open, only, I’ve never been a church-planter!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 24, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Hey Anna,

      I’m so sorry. It’s been a difficult year for so many.

      Have you read my book Lasting Impact? It’s got my best stuff on how I grew our church from 6 original members.

      • Anna on November 25, 2020 at 12:42 am

        Thanks Carey, I haven’t read it – although I have wondered how to get some of your insights from that journey! Thanks again.

  2. Tom Ibrahim on November 24, 2020 at 12:00 am

    Hi Carey
    Thanks for this post, a timely word . God bless you and your team

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 24, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks Tom!

      Glad to help!

  3. Greg on November 23, 2020 at 9:15 pm

    Hi Carey,

    I so needed this. The past few weeks have been really awful at my work. A place I have loved for the past 15 years. It is so hard to have perspective when many things go bad all at once. You feel like a victim. So unappreciated. So much drama and things that are out of your control.

    Thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for talking about legacy and timing. Blessings!

  4. Jared on November 23, 2020 at 4:47 pm

    Man, I needed this today. Work has been a struggle, and I worry its taking a toll on my boss. I came so close to sending THAT letter today. Thanks for the timely advice.

  5. Chuck on November 23, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    Re people remembering your exit: My childhood pastor finished his final sermon this way, with no warning to anyone — he said “I no longer believe the central tenets of the Christian faith, therefore I am resigning as pastor.” He then took off his robe and stole, laid them over the pulpit, and strode out of the church. It may have given him some kind of ego satisfaction but it tore a hole in the church and no one remembered for a long time all the good that he had in fact done during his ministry. But they long-remembering its ending.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 24, 2020 at 2:31 pm

      I’m so sorry Chuck. That’s so hard.

  6. Tim Ritter on November 23, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks Carey for another great article! We finally launched a new nonprofit and ministry in a physical space this year, only to be shut down completely for the first 6 months and still struggling to survive and gain traction to date, but we haven’t quit. Everything you laid out here is very real, and I’ve experienced it in multiple prior seasons of ministry, but this year has by far been the most challenging and stretching.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 24, 2020 at 2:32 pm

      So glad to help.

  7. Claudia Francis on November 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you. Appreciate your leadership, time and counsel.

    • Dawn on November 23, 2020 at 1:06 pm

      Thank you so much for posting this just at the right time. Today i asked God for strength to not quit and right after seeking God, i saw this. Such a blessing!

  8. Drew on November 23, 2020 at 11:59 am

    I’m a younger (mid twenties) leader at a church, exhausted by the season, far from home, overworked and underappreciated. I relate so much to the balance between already feeling “called” to leave, but needing to do it at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. It’s really hard to not just check out or walk out, especially on the harder days.

    But here’s the real kicker: The week after my wife and I realized together we would be leaving at some point, things started to improve, at least a little. Good hire we’ve been waiting all year for just happened, some key issues with leadership have at least been addressed, and I’ve finally been able to scale back on some of my hours and catch my breath. I still feel confident about leaving, just don’t know if it’s in a couple of months or a couple of years.

    Thank you for your post Carey, really appreciate it.

  9. Gary Black on November 23, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Carey, I appreciate this post and will forward to my staff. We have been blessed in our church family with healthy leadership. Even so, I fight some of those internal battles to keep my hand to the plough.

  10. Matt Vanderbilt on November 23, 2020 at 9:21 am

    Carey:
    Our 6-year old church peaked at 400 a couple years ago and had 40 yesterday, I am now the only staff member and just started working seasonal for ~30 hours a week, and my confidence is at a really low level. Heading out the door in a moment to hike a mountain and spend some time with God. If you have any comments or recommendations, I am all ears. Thanks for your leadership over the years and for today’s post. Praying for you and your family this morning.

  11. Jane McDonnough on November 23, 2020 at 7:56 am

    Thanks for the encouragement! Just being reminded of how difficult/challenging it is to lead in this season refreshes and strengthens my soul. If we think as leaders we are not affected we are wrong. It was nice to be reminded that I’m human, this is a difficult time to lead but I can lead on, press forward with God’s strength and get to a better place. Our church needs me to lead on! Pressing forward!
    Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2020 at 8:52 am

      It is a difficult time Jane. Cheering for you!

  12. Chris Cannon on November 23, 2020 at 7:31 am

    This is the perfect complement to your earlier post (Seven Reasons It May Be Time to Move On). Thank you! This should be discussed at every staff meeting and every elder meeting annually.

    • Blayne A Banting on November 23, 2020 at 8:43 am

      Very timely comments for these tough times. Thank you.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2020 at 9:02 am

        Thanks so much Blayne!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2020 at 8:53 am

      Thanks Chris. It’s something I think about regularly, and it either renews you for the next season or shows you that indeed, it’s time to finish.

  13. Kirk Anderson on November 23, 2020 at 7:14 am

    Thanks! Really needed this today. Been pastoring here for 27 years. Our church hit a 25 year low attendance yesterday. Nothing works. Everyone is mad.

  14. Bob on November 23, 2020 at 7:03 am

    Thanks so much! I NEEDED THIS TODAY.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Glad it helped Bob!

  15. Jimmy Kinnaird on November 23, 2020 at 6:45 am

    Carey,
    Thank you for these words of wisdom, many I’ve told other leaders but today I needed to hear this myself. Several months ago I was released from my denominational position as a leader in church planting due to the financial downturn of Covid-19. I’ve been doing contract work that has not been in my area of passion or strength. But God has provided the work. It has been hard and there are conflicts in expectations with contract work. Your words are an encouragement to keep working what God has provided and if these doors close, then I have been faithful not to shut them myself. Perhaps others will open. Blessings to you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2020 at 9:02 am

      Hey Jimmy I am so sorry to hear that happened. Working outside your gifting and passion is hard, but I love your perspective on it. Hang on! And thanks for sharing.

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