5 Really Tough Decisions Pastors Make

The higher you rise in leadership, the fewer decisions you make, but the greater the weight each decision carries.

Leadership and decision-making are inseparable. It’s part of the territory.

Owning your decisions is the real weight.

Any leader enjoys the resulting success from a good decision, but when a bad decision is made, the great leaders take responsibility. And the truth is, if you’ve never made a bad call, you are playing it too safe.

Unfortunately, some leaders respond to a decision that didn’t go well, like putting their hand on a hot stove. They just don’t go near stoves anymore. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes and stay in the game. 

Playing it safe and dodging the really tough decisions will eventually get you in just as much hot water as making a bad decision.

So keep practicing, gain wisdom in your experience, learn from your mistakes, and you’ll make a better decision each time.

  • Poor leaders stall or won’t make a decision.
  • Average leaders often make decisions that don’t really matter.
  • However, great leaders make a few tough calls that help move the church forward.

5 really tough decisions that make a big difference if done the right way:

1) The decision to resign.

Is this about retirement? No. It can be, but there are far more comings and goings over the life of a leader than the last one, often called retirement.

This subject deserves an entire post, but for this post, there are several factors to consider.

In terms of leaving too soon, have you heard from God that He’s releasing you from your ministry? Sometimes we can be tempted by new and shiny opportunities that are good but not God’s plan.

  • Have you learned all you need to learn?
  • Are you leaving because you’re frustrated or because your ministry has been fulfilled?
  • Does your decision serve the church well, or just you?
  • Have you been treated poorly and need to leave? If that’s the case, have you made peace so far as possible on your side?

In terms of staying too long, are you there because it’s safe and secure? This is just as often about personality as it is age.

  • Is your leadership advancing the ministry of the church?
  • Are you staying because you’re comfortable and it would be inconvenient to make a move?
  • Do you sense a prompting from God, but you are resisting it?
  • Do you believe your contribution to the church is strong and vibrant?

As you can see, this is a very involved and difficult decision. However, it deserves deep consideration and prayer so that your decision serves both you and the church well.

2) The decision to let someone go from staff.

No matter what reason you release someone from staff, you carry responsibility for the decision. As a leader, some things that are not your fault are still your responsibility.

More often, you and the staff member share in the responsibility for whatever happened to allow the relationship or performance (or both if it went on too long) to decline.

Whatever the circumstance, letting someone go is always a tough decision. When I make those decisions, it’s painful. Let’s be honest, who would like to do that? But to avoid that decision is a huge and costly mistake.

I’ve talked with hundreds of leaders over the years who know what they need to do, but they just won’t do it. No one wins that way. And your influence, and sometimes even the trust people have in you, is diminished if you won’t make the tough call.

It’s best to get out in front of the situation by working toward a positive and developmental solution. But if it’s not going to work, a decision needs to be made — both for the good of the church and for the individual.

3) The decision to admit you don’t have all the answers and need help.

It’s ironic, but I’ve met leaders who would rather do the really hard work of firing someone or resign than admit they need help as a leader and are not sure what to do.

Fear is a powerful force and can cause you or me to resist doing something that is strongly in our best interest. Worrying about what people might think is a waste of time.

If you are struggling, the astute leaders in the church already know.

Ask for help. We all need mentors, coaches, and trusted advisors. You may not know what to do, but that’s not the same as not knowing what you’re doing.

The need to learn and grow is not the same as blunt incompetence. The body of Christ was designed to work together. No one has all the gifts and strengths needed to lead a church or lead within a church.

If you are genuinely concerned that you are not in a safe environment, you can get coaching from outside your church. Or, if it’s truly toxic and unhealthy, perhaps you need to pray through the first tough decision on this list.

4) The decision to carry debt.

Money brings tension to most big decisions.

If your church has more money than you know what to do with, awesome! But you are in rarified air because the vast majority of church leaders cast vision, work hard and pray much but still need greater resources to advance their ministry.

The decision to carry debt to further the mission of your church is always a tough one. Of course, there are responsible ways to manage debt, but no leader prefers debt over debt-free.

Yet, there are times when advancing the Kingdom aligns with opportunity and momentum in the church. At these times, responsible debt levels can be appropriate, especially when the leadership agrees upon a debt ceiling and a plan to retire that debt.

Pastors often confide in their inner tension to make this decision. They want the church to move forward but don’t want to carry the burden of debt. It’s one of the toughest calls for any leader to make. It often comes down to faith and prudence.

What is God saying to you, and what do your financial advisors say is reasonable for your church?

Here’s one key principle to remember, when making major financial decisions that will create debt for your church, never make the decision under time pressure, based on emotion, or against your trusted advice.

5) The decision to confront sin.

Culture has changed and gone are the days when many pastors barked at sin from behind a big pulpit. That’s a good thing. However, the tides have changed, and love is sometimes redefined within the construct of tolerance. The two, however, are not the same.

Today, many church leaders shy away from being honest about sin and confronting it. I agree that sin is a strong word, but it’s real and our responsibility. 

Talking about sin from a framework of grace and forgiveness rather than judgement always goes farther.

The pressures of today’s culture can make calling sin – sin a tough decision, especially when you are close to the person or they’re a leader in your church.

The best way to love someone is to lead them away from sin. Instead, use kindness, understanding, and grace, but call sin what it is. 

The Holy Spirit takes care of conviction, that’s not our job, but we are called to speak the truth in love.

8 thoughts on “5 Really Tough Decisions Pastors Make”

  1. “(3) The decision to admit you don’t have all the answers and need help.” Many years ago I worked under a man who was noted as being the best in the company. We knew we were in the best company in America in what we did and I was under the best boss. Within a few weeks I made the decision to whatever it took to do my best and eventually retire with that company. My boss was a very humble man who asked me questions about how to solve some issues. That began immediately. He was a man who helped others do well. He sought to give people opportunities within the company. After working at the company for three weeks I met the owner. I was not sure what to expect but I knew after a few minutes why he had built a great company. When I returned home my wife asked me how things went. I told her he made me feel about 50 feet tall. I had never had such an experience with such a great man. The experience I had at that company under my boss was life changing. He led in a away I thought a company should be led but I had never seen it done before. What he did gave me opportunities to implement what I believed in. Once a person experiences that kind of leadership everything else looks poor.

  2. Often what makes the decision hard is how you carry it out. How do you resign? How to you fire someone? How do manage debt? How do you confront sin? I would suggest that leadership that doesn’t make the decision in the timing of God for the right reasons, will not do well with the how. They are already in a difficult place because they waited too long or are pushing through a decision for the wrong reasons. In the end, leadership may pat themselves on the back for making a tough decision, but I almost guarantee others will suffer the consequences. Execution is all about the underlying motives and the timing. With poor execution, there is almost always an element of self-interest and self-preservation. Ethical leaders must have a framework in place which informs their decision making and takes into consideration all of the stakeholders while staying true to their values.

  3. Truly I get paralysed with fear of what if am missing it and doesn’t go well.Most times I ended up not making d decision and have deeply regretted such.
    Thank you Pastor Dan.
    I would be more intentional in making decisions and owning up the consequences

    1. Hope,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. On the big decisions, get wise counsel, pray, and then trust your gut. It will go well more often than you think. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on!

  4. Great insights and it’s appreciated. Always enjoy reading these. In regards to letting people go…always tough. I’ve been guilty of waiting too long, telling myself that I was acting under the umbrella of grace in hopes that something would change. End result was always the same: I had to let them go. A lesson to learn for me is delaying only creates anxiety in what is going to eventually happen.

    1. Glad it’s helpful Jason.

      I’ve waited too long too. I think I can help them turn the corner. That’s a good thing in you Jason, but when you know in your gut that the situation isn’t going to change, make the decision.

      “only creates anxiety in what is going to eventually happen.” Great statement!

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