Knowing When to Leave (and Other Pastoral Issues)

by Greg Belser April 27, 2015

Dr. Greg Belser is the Lead Pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi. He is a long-time veternal of pastoral ministry and has seen it all. I had the great privilege once of hearing his 2011 message delivered to the chapel congregation of Southern Seminary on 2 Corinthians 4. I was greatly moved, especially as I was listening during a time of great ministry transition myself. Dr. Belser was kind enough to answer some questions prompted by his message, and I believe you who are pastors and ministry leaders will find much wisdom here for your own work and walk with the Lord. -- JW

Jared Wilson: You spoke in your sermon a bit about pastor's embracing their expendability. That resonates a lot with me, but I also have a deep sense of inadequacy already. How can a pastor embrace or cultivate a good sense of his own expendability without becoming an ineffective sad-sack full of self-pity?

Greg Belser: The answer to that question resides in one’s identity in Christ.  The fourth and sixth chapters of 2 Corinthians reflect Paul’s conversion and ministry call (4:1 and 6:3-4) as the backdrop for his hope and confidence in lasting spiritual transformation.  We simply must not lose our moorings to Christ and must preach to ourselves this great truth of whose we are.  The ministry is difficult certainly but the ministry is impossible without our constant reminder that we are not our own.  Paul constantly returned to the positive rather than dwelling on the negative.  Self-pity is spiritually destructive at best and spiritual suicide at worst.  We must run from it to our Savior and our calling as His servant.  It will be tough but God will use it all if we do not shrink back.  As much as you can, surround yourself in person or in print with people who smile at the future.

JW: How do you discern the difference between real humility and false humility?

GB: Real humility fosters a confidence in God while false humility manifests itself ultimately in blaming God.  The human heart is prone to mutter and grumble and while false humility masks it for a season or for a particular audience, it shows up eventually in private or amongst people of a like mind.  The pride of life is the seedbed for all such pretense and is a house of cards that will eventually be exposed.  Real humility manifests courage in God and toward circumstances.  We occupy a fallen world and I don’t believe that I or anyone else has ever achieved perfect Christlike humility but it remains a critical goal worthy of our striving.  1 Peter 2:23 is a key barometer for me as to whether I am enjoying true or false humility.

JW: I enjoyed your exhortation to ministers not to confuse difficulty with lack of calling. It is something I have emphasized in my own work for pastors, and I think it's an extremely important distinction to make. But how might a pastor discern if it is the right time to move on?

GB: I would certainly not deny that there is a tension here.  In Acts 16, Paul is directed by the Spirit to leave Asia and go to Macedonia.  In today’s terminology, we might identify this as a “ subjective” leading to move.  However, awaiting him there was a beating and imprisonment, followed by a departure from Phllippi.   Many have pointed to their own physical circumstances as the “objective” leadership of God to convince them to move.  I don’t have an authoritative position to offer here except to examine myself somewhat.  In temperament, I am much more of a “stay and work” kind of guy.  I believe in long tenure in the pastorate and that problems will come and go.  Other men are less inclined in their own temperament to approach things the way I do.  The other side of that argument includes the suggestion that a man’s gifts may be suitable for a season and then the circumstances of difficulty or complacency reflect that he is better suited for another place.  That’s not a very definitive answer but I think God hardwires us differently and thus, the tension in finding a clear pattern in this area.

JW: Who has been the single greatest influence on you as a pastor, and why?

GB: That is a very hard question to answer because none of us are the result of the influence of one man.  However, because you have required me to choose I would say that the very first major preaching influence in my life was John MacArthur.  I’ve never gotten over his relentless commitment to preaching the Bible.  I am not enamored with those who place homiletics in front of exposition. Being great at both is an extraordinary thing.  I greatly appreciate and admire skilled homileticians (because I am not) but I want my church experience week after week to lead me to a passionate love of the Savior as He is revealed in Scripture.  A close second is John Piper for all the same reasons.  I desperately want to be faithful to the end.

JW: What three words of brief advice would you give a new pastor that he might not necessarily have heard in seminary?

GB: First: your ministry will never be as important as your personal walk with Christ.  Never.

Second: you must shepherd people.  Be a person yourself: an extraordinary one.  Then go love your people with all their foibles as the Savior does you with yours.

Third: work hard.  Laziness casts a stench on Christ, yourself, your family, and on other pastors.