Not long ago, a group of pastors invited me to their city for an afternoon of prayer and brainstorming for strategies to improve the health of their churches. These guys were committed, godly men who believed God wanted to empower the local churches of their city to expand His kingdom, and we were able to dig in immediately and develop fresh ideas for their ministries.
But as each one told me about their particular churches, I noticed a pattern: All of them had experienced the unfortunate situation of having associate pastors leave their staffs and plant or take a position at other churches within the immediate vicinity of their churches.
As we talked, it became evident that each of them felt hurt, disappointed and, in some cases, bitter. Some felt betrayed, and others knew they had plainly been taken advantage of. One pastor said he was genuinely encouraged by the success of his past associate, but the others, without exception, felt rejected and abused.
In The Life Giving Church, my book on church government, I dedicated an entire chapter to church etiquette issues such as this. Too often we avoid talking about good, old-fashioned manners in church ministry. I was raised on a farm in a small town in Indiana, and good, old-fashioned manners still mean more to me than the latest, greatest model of ministry success.
For an associate to leave a church ministry to plant another local church nearby is to violate social grace and to dishonor God. I believe God is offended when pastors do this because: (1) it hinders God's people from worshiping Him; and (2) it is a callous violation of the spiritual authorities He has put in place. Let me explain.
We are all called to serve the body of Christ. That doesn't necessarily mean we're called to start new ministries; it just means we're called to protect the people of God and to ensure that they are free to worship Him, to learn about Scripture and to discover His will for their lives. We should never intentionally cause a rift in a congregation.
When a pastor leaves one church and begins another nearby, it forces the congregation to make a choice between loyalties--just as when parents divorce and end up forcing their children to tear their hearts apart trying to love both parents faithfully. God does not want His people to have to go through this.
What if there are mitigating factors that make the associate want to stay close to home, or if he feels God has called him to a particular region? That's fine, but only if the pastor follows what I call the "Haggard One-Hour Rule": Associates who resign or are dismissed should not serve in a church or plant a church within a one-hour drive of their previous church.
That's it. That's the rule. A one-hour drive never hurt anyone. One hour is far enough away to keep the congregation from feeling they have to choose, and at the same time it is respectful to the senior pastor of the previous church.
Is there any exception? Of course. If the senior pastor initiates the idea of a new ministry nearby, that's fine. Then it can be done with his permission and blessing.
Simply put, we are called to serve the body of Christ. Everything we do must be done with that calling in mind. If we know God is releasing us to serve another church, we have to act wisely, patiently and with good manners.
Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of The Life Giving Church (Regal).
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