In recent weeks, a spate of prominent pastors have announced that they are either temporarily or permanently stepping down from the role of pastor. Here is a list of some of the big ones, followed by the reasons they've given as to their change:
John Piper: Taking a leave of absence until Dec 31, 2010 "because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit."
N.T. Wright: Leaving his position as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England to focus on being "a writer, teacher and broadcaster, for the benefit (I hope) of the wider world and church."
Francis Chan: Leaving Simi Valley's Cornerstone Church, which he founded and has led for the past 16 years, to "move into a major city such as LA, San Francisco, or New York... to try ministering in that environment."
Jim Belcher: Leaving his position as founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, "relocating to Oxford, England for one year to live, research and write."
Mike Erre: Leaving his position as teaching pastor of Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa, California "to begin another chapter in our adventure."
In a recent article for Christianity Today, Andy Rowell attempts to make some sense of this sudden burst of pastoral transitions. Among other things, Rowell points out that these sorts of pastoral changes are not uncommon, that pastoring can be a stressful vocation, and that the types of people who are successful church planters and pastors (like the men mentioned above) often have intense entrepreneurial and creative energies that lead them to want to write books, which then become successful and require lots of travel/promotion/speaking engagements.
So, bearing in mind, as Rowell notes, that "it is problematic for us to judge people from a distance for their vocational decisions," the question nevertheless remains: Is God's kingdom benefited more by a highly effective pastor being a pastor, or a highly effective pastor being an author/speaker/leader?
I think it's probably the case that God calls both types, and uses both to grow his kingdom. On one hand, we need dynamic pastors to preach the gospel and shepherd congregations, leading Christians in their daily struggles and spiritual growth. The church needs powerful and inspiring leaders on the local level, to be sure.
But on the other hand, we need dynamic speakers, writers, and thinkers to preach the gospel and instruct the wider Christian world--set aside for a different sort of task, as Rowell notes, "so that the body of Christ might be built up."
I would imagine that with someone like N.T. Wright, who sells huge amounts of books all over the world and probably has fifty book ideas bustling around his head itching to get out, it probably became clear to him that his audience is far larger than just the people of his diocese in England, and thus to devote more time to the role of "writer/communicator/intellectual" would likely better utilize his gifts and maximize his potential to spread the good news of Christ to as many people as possible. When you have that platform to speak to so many (and with technology, it becomes possible even outside of the old models of publishing books), isn't it your duty to take advantage of this?
On the other hand, the world is not going to collapse if any of these men--even the most talented and well-known of them--simply lives a quiet life from here on out. The destiny of lost souls depends on no man, but only on the grace of God, who will save who he will save through whatever means he chooses. These pastors know that. If God has other plans to use them in the future in dramatic and powerful ways, he will surely do so. But sometimes a pause or break or recalibration is needed to seek God and discover what those new plans might be. I suspect that many of these pastors are just hoping to be faithful Christians for a time, rather than doing so much. To abide in Christ--the being of Christianity, is certainly as or more crucial than the doing, after all.
But what of the fact that so many pastors seem to be stepping down now? What is it about this time (Spring 2010) that seems to be leading so many pastors to leave their churches? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's a coincidence that so many are happening at the same time. Or perhaps there is a belief that Christianity in the west is at a tipping point, precariously on the brink of rapid deterioration as many prognosticators have forecast. Perhaps there is a sense that fresh, big-picture thinking and intellectual leadership are what the church needs now to help get it back in gear. I don't know. But I find the whole thing interesting, and simultaneously exciting, perplexing, alarming, and comforting -- but I guess that's kind of what the church always is.