Don’t Throw in the Towel

So – I heard you want to quit.  Walk away.  Exchange the glamorous life of youth ministry for something that pays and involves appreciation.  I heard you’re ready to throw in the towel.

I understand.  Most days you love youth ministry– if by love you mean survive.  Some days are brutal – and all you can do is simply crave survival.  More than a few times in the last 23 years I have considered throwing in the towel – so I get it.

  • But if you throw in the towel – what are you going to use to wipe up that orange soda that got spilled on the sanctuary carpet during the lock-in? Actually a towel won’t help, that baby is going to stain.
  • If you throw in the towel – what are you going to do when THAT junior high boy at summer camp FINALLY decided to shower….because you know he didn’t take anything into the bathroom with him?
  • Who – and with what – will someone wipe the tears from the face of a desperate mother whose kid has just made a life-altering mistake.
  • Without your towel how can you make a tourniquet for the heart of that teenage girl?  You know – the one who was in love with that jerk, but got used and tossed aside like the six girls before her?  You need that towel to stop the bleeding.
  • Washing the feet of your pastor is impossible without the towel.
  • And where are you going to wipe your hands clean after repairing the chain on your son’s bike for the 37th time – how will you wash the dishes after cooking dinner for your wife because she’s exhausted after a long day of supplementing a meager ministry income?  You finally make a moment to have a tea party with your daughter – and lo and behold, the mater de doesn’t have his towel.

Paul talked about it this way:

“Even though I [could be] free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!  You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.”

If you throw in the towel, what will you use to wipe the sweat from your eyes when the race is over?


Leaving. It pretty much sucks. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leaver or the one being left. Whether you are leaving under the best of circumstances or the direst of situations is irrelevant. Leaving sucks. Plan and simple.

In the past six months – I have experienced both. I’ve been left by a senior pastor I dearly love. And I have, later down the line, left a church I loved. There are a few lessons I’ve gleaned from those experiences.

If you are the one leaving, you should go with a few items in tact:
1) Your integrity. People have been watching, learning, and loving under your ministry and shepherding….possibly for years. Lacking integrity as you leave can erase years of amazing ministry. Don’t spend all your budget money before you go. Don’t bad-mouth people on your way out – even if they deserve it. Tell the truth – even if it stings. In leaving my last church, I wanted to sugar-coat and gloss over some issues that were problematic for me. But I had a good friend essentially call me a liar (and rightly so) for not being honest. The truth can be told in love – and people see through the bull. So tell the truth – live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Protect integrity.

2) Your relationships. I used to be a supporter of ‘love them until you leave’ – then let the next guy love them and stay out of his or her way. And while I still believe that ‘leavers’ must make room for new shepherds to gain their footing, there’s no way you’ve truly shepherded people if you can just walk away and abandon all relationships. Know that, for a time, you’ll need to walk a fine line between continuing relationships and interfering in future ministry – but God gave you those relationships for a reason. Abandoning them means disregarding your previous years of ministry. (That being said, some people are toxic….it’s OK to abandon them!) 

3) Your ministry. The smartest shepherds leave their pasture ready for a new shepherd. Hopefully you have regarded your sheep and ministry enough to have mechanisms in place for ministry to continue well beyond your departure. If you haven’t, consider getting as much in place as you can before you leave. Nothing devastates a ministry more than being ‘left in the lurch’, so to speak. Leave well – with administrative and ministerial ducks in a row so that God’s ministry through you continues long after your farewell.

If you are the one being left, consider these thoughts:
1) God always protects His mission beyond any person. God has a vision for your church. No one can thwart that. Sometimes, we worry that the church will not withstand the pastor leaving. (I know I did). And sometimes it doesn’t. (We didn’t.) But I know God’s plan is never thwarted by man – no matter how the picture looks on the outside.

2) It’s rarely personal. I don’t get my feelings hurt much (or at least I act like I don’t.) But there’s been a time or two where I really took the departure of a pastor or key leader personally (when it really wasn’t, at all.) Even if you are in disagreement with their exit, love them and continue to walk with them in ministry. It’s a balm for your soul and theirs.

3) You are still there for a purpose. Seek that out. Don’t miss God’s plan for you while licking your wounds. Shepherd as best you can and seek His guidance and direction for you and the ministry you lead. People are depending on that. Use this time to point them (and yourself) to the One who is truly, always, dependable.

Leaving sucks. There’s no way around it. So embrace it – in all its glory. Walk through it – regardless on which side of the leaving you find yourself. God saw it coming before you did – and He was already holding you anyway. Trust in His heart for His vision for such a time as this.

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