Should I Stay or Should I Go?

All gospel ministers have had or will have to make a decision about where they will serve the Lord and his Church. They all face it at the beginning of their ministry when they take up their first charge and, while serving in one congregation, may have to consider invitations from another. How does one decide where to go or, if serving a congregation, whether one should stay or go?

Having recently read Allan Harman’s tantalising biography of Matthew Henry (here) I thought Matthew Henry’s experience might be helpful to some who are wrestling with these decisions. Matthew Henry served a congregation in the country, Chester, for 25 years before taking up a charge in northeast London, in Hackney. Our situations will not correspond precisely with his yet reading about some of the thoughts and actions that led to his decision to leave Chester might well help our decision making process.

  • Leaving one congregation for another is permissible. Occasionally when a minister is inducted into a congregation the new relationship is compared to a marriage. Coupling that with the knowledge that God hates divorce would seriously discourage any conscientious minister from considering another charge. Though using marriage language Henry saw it differently. “Though I think ministers married to their ministry, yet I cannot see any scripture ground to think they are married to their people.”
  • Ministers have no direct knowledge of God’s plan. Though some ministers are convinced that God specifically tells them where they should serve, Henry thought he had no direct insight into God’s plans. He prayed “that God would guide me with his eye, and lead me in a plain path”, even offering up “many prayers to God for direction”. On the morning of his decision he confessed to, “[h]aving this morning, (as often, very often before) begged of God to give me wisdom, sincerity, and humility, and to direct my thoughts and counsels. . .”. Despite wrestling with God he writes, “Had we an oracle to consult I could refer to the divine determination with so great an indifferency, that if it were referred to me, I would refer it back to God again.”
  • Affections should yield to judgement. Matthew Henry’s love for the congregation in Chester was evident. Before his actual change to Hackney he had received numerous invitations to minister elsewhere. He systematically rejected these solicitations “because he loved the people of Chester too well to leave them”. After an attempt by a congregation in Manchester to have him as their minister he wrote, “I cannot think of leaving Chester till Chester leaves me”. Even after he decided to move he writes: “and as to my affections, though they are very strong towards Chester, yet I think they ought to be overruled by my judgement”. Matthew Henry shows that it is possible to leave a congregation while still loving it deeply.
  • Write it down. Thirteen years before he went to Hackney he had declined their invitation to come and in the ensuing years had likewise refused requests to go elsewhere. When he finally acquiesced, he put down on paper his reasons for accepting the invite and mentions that earlier he had written down his reasons for continuing at Chester. He did this for his own benefit so that in the future he could review his grounds for leaving and assure himself that he had not made a rash decision. The discipline of putting pen to paper can help crystallise our thinking about such an important decision.
  • Watch providence. Though our reading of God’s ways cannot be infallible, Matthew Henry acknowledges that it figured in his decision. He mentions the many calls he had to leave Chester and, particularly, the many he had to Hackney though he had never, directly or indirectly, sought them. In fact, he writes that he discouraged Churches from calling him. He also cites that in the postal delivery the day he was intending to send his final refusal of the call, “Providence so ordered it” that he received a letter signed by many London ministers urging him to accept the call. This letter softened his resistance and led him to offer to serve the Hackney church for a six month trial. Though he assumed they would not agree to such a suspenseful suggestion, in the surprising providence of the Lord, they actually did. Hackney’s unanimous and “very pressing and importunate” invitation to Matthew Henry along with the fact that they were willing to wait so long for his decision was taken as an indication that he should accept their call. Providence, though not determinative, is helpful.
  • Consult widely. Matthew Henry received much unsolicited counsel but he also asked for the advice of many ministers. He presented the situation and they considered it and gave their advice. He mentions that none advised him to stay in Chester and many encouraged him to move to London. He indicates that his congregation at Chester, while obviously not expected to consent to his going, were pleased to leave the decision up to him, to follow his own conscience and affection. However, one of his biographers (J. B. Williams, The Lives of Philip and Matthew Henry, Banner of Truth, 1974), remarks that after he intimated his decision to leave, Henry had to endure the anger and incivility of some. Other Christians gave their input and he suggests that his wife also urged him to go. There is wisdom in appealing for the counsel of others who might be able to survey the situation more objectively.
  • Evaluate usefulness. It is clear that Matthew Henry’s concern was to be as useful to the cause of Christ as he could be. This required both an evaluation of his present usefulness in Chester and an attempt to gauge future usefulness in Hackney. Regarding his work in Chester he came to the tentative conclusion that his work had been in a great measure completed. He determined this because of some of the discouragements he had there in the ministry, including many long-time members having left the Church and very few being added to it. Matthew Henry thought that his ministry to his people in Chester might have lost its edge because they had heard him so long and so often. He assessed that his first seven years of ministry there had been the most effective and hoped that another minister, fresh to the people, might do even more good. He also admitted that though he had often preached in the country in places outwith Chester, his weakened health, exacerbated by riding long journeys, would confine his sphere of labour to his own congregation. On the other hand, he was assured that there would be increasing opportunity for usefulness in London. Though the congregation at Hackney was smaller than at Chester, in the metropolis there were more places to preach in and more hearers. He admits that this was “the main inducement” to move to London. What’s more, he was hopeful that because he was a fresh voice to the people in London, his “ministry may, by the blessing of God, be more useful now to those to whom they are new, than to those who have been long used to them, and so constantly.” It is should be mentioned that when he reflected on his usefulness he thought beyond his pulpit ministry. Being closer to the press would benefit his writing ministry, including his Expositions on the Bible. He was persuaded that the increased opportunity for further study and conversation with other learned men that London offered would improve his ministry. It is worth nothing that while Matthew Henry was not adverse to admitting his ministry might be useful, and though he was evidently sought after, he clearly considered himself inadequate and unable to meet people’s expectations.
  • Pray against pride. When he received a call to one congregation he writes, “I begged of God to keep me from being lifted up with pride by it.” It is a temptation to think more highly of ourselves than we ought when others are clamouring for our ministry, particularly when the appreciation of those you are currently ministering to is not as vocal. He wisely notes that pride can equally arise from refusing invitations to move since “[I]t has been looked on as the honour of ministers to continue in the same place, nothwithstanding temptations to remove”.

Discerning whether he should stay or go was an unpleasant and continually perplexing experience for Matthew Henry. In addition to the distractions of well-meaning invitations (J B Williams even questions whether calling a settled pastor, living happily among his own people, and not known even to be thinking of moving, can be reconciled to the command to love one’s neighbour) he also endured harsh criticism, including one anonymous enemy who did not wish him to “go to London, for he would do there more mischief than at Chester”. At one point he acknowledged that he brought some of this upon himself by visiting with the Church in London and “then I laid myself open to the temptation by increasing my acquaintance in the city”. Nor does it seem that making the decision to go to Hackney relieved his mental distress. Though he was prayerful and, as far as he knew himself, willing to go wherever the Lord would have him, and though he trusted he had a clear conscience, he writes: “Wherein I have done amiss, the Lord forgive me for Jesus’ sake, and make this change concerning the congregation to work for good to it”.

As it turned out, Matthew Henry did not have a long ministry in Hackney, dying 2 years later. When he accepted the call to Hackney he promised the congregation in Chester that he would return annually to preach to them. His last Lord’s day was spent in his former congregation in Chester. On his way back to London he took ill and died.

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