We asked six influential ministry leaders to tell us their stories of
the toughest leadership decision they’d ever made—and how they went
about making the decision. We’ve already heard from Craig Groeschel and Nancy Ortberg. Now, Glenn Packiam shares the tough decision that faced him a few years ago.
The most difficult decision I’ve made as a leader in ministry was to stay.
I’m a pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. The past five years have been turbulent, to say the least. In late 2006, the moral failure of our founding senior pastor made headlines around the world and punch lines on late night TV shows. Still, my friends and I decided to stay.
Then, about a year later, a gunman opened fire in our parking lot, killing two teenage girls. He made his way into the hallway but was stopped by a security guard and eventually took his own life. Once again, we decided to stay.
When things settled down, we realized we had also had a leadership transition. Pastor Brady Boyd took the reigns at New Life in the summer of 2007. He has been a gift to our staff and our church. Yet coming in as a new leader in a new church after a scandal by the founding pastor is difficult—for everyone. Nevertheless, we decided to stay.
Scandal. Tragedy. Leadership transition. These are all legitimate reasons to leave. Staying is no virtue in itself. There are times when leaving is the best thing to do. There are times when the Spirit leads us to risk a new step in following Jesus, and leaving what is familiar and comfortable is necessary to be obedient.
But sometimes learning to stay in the valley can make real men and women out of us. The past five years have also seen a sharp growth in my soul—sharp for its rapid pace and for its beautiful ache. I have had my “pastoral imagination” thoroughly reshaped, my theology re-worked and my vision of the Church as a colony of the Kingdom restored. It has been an awakening for my soul.
And yet that kind of awakening can bring new tensions. I felt the tension growing between who I wanted to be as a pastor, what I thought the church could be and the reality of the challenges I was dealing with in ministry. Living in the tension can be difficult. But life in the Kingdom is about standing in the middle, in the middle of two ages—the “now” and the “not yet”—and in the middle of your ideals and your reality.
Last summer I had the privilege of spending a few days with Eugene Peterson in his home. Amidst the many warm conversations, engaging stories and write-as-fast-as-you-can moments of insight, the thing that stood out to me most was that pastors will always live between the tension of their ideals and their surroundings. There will be people who never grow the way they could, leaders who won’t lead as they should, time and money that won’t be spent as you would. Peterson was a Pentecostal kid from rural Montana who became a Presbyterian pastor in suburban Baltimore. Later he became a seminary professor who distrusted academia as an end itself. Life in the Kingdom is about standing in the middle. Because of that, pastoral ministry, Peterson insists, is about training your eyes to see God at work right here, in this moment, despite the contradictions and tensions and challenges. I am convinced he’s right.
My most difficult decision was to not leave a difficult place, to believe God was still at work and still at work through me. To stay, to stand in the middle, to live in the tension of ideals and reality, is about living with eyes wide open to the Spirit at work. It’s not about settling or getting comfortable or staying for the sake of staying. Leaders must have enough idealism to see what could be, but not so much idealism they cannot see God at work here and now. That is what I’ve learned from staying.