News of Pope Benedict XVI relinquishing the papacy was surprising. He is the first Roman Catholic pope to resign since the 15th century. Abdication of the highest office is also unheard of in the LDS Church, but in evangelical churches, resignation is not uncommon.
There is no true Protestant equivalent to a pope or prophet. Most evangelical denominations have a national governing body that sets denomination policy and speaks officially for the church. In most cases, the head of such a body has very little influence on a local congregation and the resignation of a pastor would be much more traumatic.
In evangelical churches, pastors may willingly resign or retire or they may be asked to step down by their congregation. Voluntary resignation typically happens when the pastor feels called to pursue other ministry opportunities or the demands of ministry have taken their toll.
Involuntary resignation is usually preceded by conflict or scandal. Sometimes a pastor's leadership style, personality or vision for the church does not mesh with that of the congregation. While evangelicals believe clergy are called by God, each minister is also believed to be uniquely designed for a particular church.
At times, preachers take a position they know is not suited for them because they are eager to lead their own congregation or to increase their income and notoriety.
Other times, the membership are to blame for incompatibilities.
Pastoral search committees look for the wrong qualifications in potential candidates. Undue emphasis is placed on biblical knowledge and almost no credence is given to conflict resolution, administrative skills and ability to effectively manage a staff and finances.
Before selecting a leader, a church must also be clear about its future direction. The Los Angeles Times notes that the selection of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, signals the Catholic Church has recognized its focus has shifted from Europe to the Southern Hemisphere. He will serve as a bridge between Europe and Latin America. He is also the first Jesuit pope, which may signal a re-emphasis of traditional Catholic theology and social justice.
But even when a church and its leader are a good fit, there may come a time when a congregation is better served by the pastor stepping down. When a pastor is no longer able to adapt to the changing needs of the church, rather than watch the membership dwindle, it is best to retire. In an ideal situation, someone else has been mentored to take over.
Pope Benedict XVI showed immense humility by abdicating the papacy. Pope Francis now ushers in a new era.
Contact Corey J. Hodges, pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church, at firstname.lastname@example.org.