One of the most challenging decisions for leaders is to know when to leave and when to stay. I had been president at TTU for only a few days when a man who had been very successful as a president at a very large Christian university gave me some unexpected advice. He said, “Start thinking now about how and when you will leave.” As I pondered his advice, I began to realize what he meant. He was saying that I should look at all that I was doing in the context of what I would leave for the next person. But he was also reminding me that tenure of all leaders eventually ends. Sometimes leaders stay much longer than expected, maybe too long. Sometimes leaders exit much earlier than expected, maybe too early. How does a leader know when it is time to leave? Many leaders struggle to find the answer.
The Republican candidate for president of the United States was settled once Rick Santorum dropped out in April. Yet, for many months there was much drama as to when the various candidates should drop out. As the campaign went along, many pundits criticized the various candidates for staying in when they were no longer viable, a common mistake. Military leaders will tell you that strategic withdrawal should not be considered a defeat. While the perspective of Christian ministry is different, nonetheless, the same issues must be faced. Jesus acknowledged that there were places that his disciples should leave and “shake off the dust” from their feet. (Luke 9: 5) By this action, Jesus meant that his disciples would be demonstrating that their message was being rejected and continued efforts would be futile. Likewise, leaders must be able to discern when further efforts are counterproductive, and it is time to leave.
Of course, the best situation for leaving is when the leader can exit on a positive note, having had a good and productive tenure. In such cases, the leader may be enjoying the position and still have a vision for what can be done, but feels compelled to accept a new challenge. There are a multitude of positive reasons to leave and to go to a new situation. However, below are some instances in which the leader can turn a somewhat negative circumstance into a positive outcome by a graceful exit:
When the opposition is no longer primarily about the issues but about you
Leaders can always expect disagreement. Leaders would never accomplish anything of note if they fled at the first sign of resistance. However, sometimes leaders themselves become the lightning rod for the opposition. When the leader is the focal point for the division and there is no real opportunity for reconciliation, the best course may be to let someone else lead.
When it is apparent that your gift set either never has been or no longer will be a good fit for the situation
Unfortunately there can be a mismatch of the leader and the leadership setting that is apparent from the beginning. Selection processes are far from perfect, and sometimes it results in the square peg in the round hole syndrome. If the leader or the organization cannot change or adapt to remove the dissonance, things may spiral downward quickly. In such instances, it is better to cut the losses early rather than inflict inevitable decline and stress on the organization as well as torment upon the leader.
In other situations, the leader may have been well matched at the outset but changes in the organization or environment are such that it is no longer the case. Sometimes a church or ministry organization outgrows its leaders. Sometimes the environment changes to a degree that the leader does not have the skill set to cope with the new realities. In today’s world, change is occurring at warp speed. We should not be surprised when the leader simply cannot adapt and an unbearable dissonance develops.
When the personal and family toll are simply too great
Leadership is tough work. The price can be so great that the leader can become broken either physically or emotionally or both. While God’s healing grace is better than the balm of Gilead, a new place may be part of God’s plan for the restoration of the leader. It took a season at Cherith (I Kings 17) to bring Elijah to the point where he was ready to reengage the wicked monarchy of Israel. It may take a new church or ministry to heal a wounded and tattered soldier of the cross.
The strain of ministry can bring collateral damage to family members or family relationships. Spouses or children may be pushed to the breaking point. I knew one prominent pastor whose ministry was prospering, but his daughter was struggling with the difficult environment of the new field. Her health and well-being began to seriously suffer. Health professionals encouraged him to seek a better environment. A much smaller church opened near other family members who could offer support. Though the move was shocking to many, he made the choice that the health of his daughter was more important than the prominence of the church he served. The results were positive. The daughter recovered, and the new ministry went very well. Later, the pastor was called again to a much larger situation that better matched his gifts and abilities. It was if God had given him a sabbatical ministry for the sake of his family. Ministers must realize that it is not always about them but also about their families.
When the leader can no longer sense a compelling vision for the future
This condition can occur after periods of great successes or failures, or even during a time of impasse in which leaders feel the angst of the “where do we go from here” question without any answers. At such moments, the leader will go through a crisis moment and will either get a fresh vision or will have to face the reality that it is impossible to lead without a vision. If leaders do not have a compelling, passionate vision, they need to either find one or get out of the way for someone who does.
More often than not, ministry leaders leave too early rather than too late. There is much to be said for forbearance and sticking it out. However, there are times when one should move on. In such times, ministers would do well to remember Proverbs 3: 5-6. Perhaps some of the above reasons are ways that God uses to “direct our paths.” What do you think of the reasons I have mentioned, and what are some other reasons that you think should be considered?