Someone recently told me about a pivotal conversation he had with my father many years ago. This gentleman had been a pastor for six fruitful years but was now threatened with a looming split in his congregation. With a heavy heart he was ready to call it quits. My father literally grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him, and said, “Pastor stays, problem goes. Pastor goes, problem stays.”
One of the hardest things to discern in life is whether to go or to stay. I’ve faced this decision many times in my life. In some cases I’ve found it better to go; in others it was more advantageous to stay. It’s a difficult decision to make, but there are a few tools that will help you make the best possible decision.
First, ask yourself, “If I stay will I be able to root out and deal with the core issue?” What is the source of the contention? Sometimes it’s a deeply embedded part of the organizational culture. Do you have or can you find the resources necessary to identify it? In my friend’s case, there was an incident years ago where the pastor long before him had committed an egregious act against the congregation. That individual was long gone; however, the pain and anger he had caused was still very real. The current congregation, after letting it simmer for years, transferred their pique to their new pastor. Unless you are able to cut to the core, you won’t be able to deal with what lies beneath the surface. And if you can’t do that, you should go because there is no sense in staying. This is commonly referred to as a toxic environment and toxic environments must be cleaned to remove the poison. To stay in place will only make you sicker.
The decision to stay or go really depends on how committed both parties are. Leaders need committed followers just as much as followers need committed leaders. Loyalty is a two-way street. Are all parties committed to dealing with the issue at hand, or are they content to scapegoat, kick the can down the road, pick sides, refuse to compromise, or, in the worst case, allow death by neglect. In this case, an expert came to assist with the identification and healing process. The pastor accepted responsibility for the sins committed by his predecessor (even though he was years from being anywhere near it), and the congregation apologized for their gossip and slander. Both sides admitted their wrongs and sought to make restitution. This is the only way any person, organization, country, church, family, or nation can begin restoration.
In the end, the pastor stayed. He fought the good fight and gained commitment from all parties. As head of the congregation he was in the position to affect the most change. If you’re a change agent operating from the middle of the organization, you may find yourself pushing a proverbial rope. What the pastor accomplished happens a lot less frequently in professional, spiritual, political, or familial arenas than it should. Here’s what I learned from my newfound hero: without trust there is only manipulation. If you can’t collectively get the organization back to a place of trust, it’s time to move on. Second, we need to look at the issue, not the person. This keeps things from getting personal and allows us to get to the root of the issue. It’s not about “how” we feel, it’s about clearly identifying “what” it is that’s making us react a certain way. Lastly, and most importantly, we can forgive, but it’s harder to forget. Whenever you sense, hear, see, or smell any part of that spirit of division raising its venomous head, slit its throat. Don’t even think about it. It’s already been killed once; don’t let it come back to life. This may mean showing someone the exit door, having a private heart-to-heart, or even a public rebuke.
Deciding to stay or go is one of the hardest professional decisions you’ll face. And while there are no guarantees, using the tools outlined above will help you navigate this dangerous minefield with a greater chance of success.