Back in June, Eugene Cho shocked the evangelical world when he announced that he was stepping down as senior pastor of Quest Church, the Seattle megachurch he founded with his wife Minhee 18 years ago. The announcement came as a surprise, especially due to the fact that it was not preceded by any kind of scandal or drama.
Aside from pastoring his church, Cho is an author and speaker and runs the nonprofit organization One Day’s Wages. In a recent Instagram post, he shared that he is not sure what the future holds, and at times second guesses his decision to step down.
Cho’s perspective on this situation is powerful. He’s an example of what it looks like to fully rely on God’s calling, even if we’re not sure what that looks like.
We spoke with Pastor Cho regarding his decision, and what advice he has for anyone feeling God’s tug on their heart to move in a different direction.
RELEVANT: What first sparked the initial announcement a few weeks ago that you would be stepping down from Quest Church?
Eugene Cho: I made the announcement about two months ago. I’ll be stepping down at the end of September. Obviously it wasn’t a flippant or whimsical decision. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. I would say that it began to incubate a little bit when I gathered with other pastors. Along the way, one of the conversations that organically came up is that acknowledging, as founding pastors or longtime pastors, unless there was some sort of egregious immoral failure, our churches weren’t going to ask us to leave.
I shared that with my church in the recent announcement, reassuring them that there is no immoral failure, but I kind of realized that there needed to be some deep examination, some self-awareness in prayer. Like, am I honoring my responsibilities? Am I still driving the mission and the vision of our church as the senior pastor? It’s been 18 years and it’s been an incredible journey. I think two to three years ago, I felt this possibility in my spirit, but also sensed the Holy Spirit telling me to stay on board just a little longer. Which made sense, because we moved our facilities about three years ago. We purchased an incredible building here in Seattle.
Last year, we culminated our Capital Campaign. And I think after the culmination of that campaign was when I began to more thoughtfully and prayerfully, along with my wife, wrestle with that. Is it time for me to pass on leadership to someone else who can help Quest Church into its next season of ministry?
You’re a relatively young guy. It seems so counter to the Western narrative that, once you achieve success, you want to fight to stay in that position. But this seems like a really powerful counter-narrative of just being obedient to what you think is best for the church.
I have to check my heart because it’s still very raw and emotional, and I still might lose it here and there. And it’s because it’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I love this church. Having planted this church … I know it’s not the best analogy, but it feels like a child for my wife and I. It’s akin to some emotions we felt two years ago when we dropped off our eldest at college. We knew that it was coming, we had peace and felt it was the right thing to do. But as the days approached, we had so many questions: Is she ready? Are we ready? Are we doing the right thing? We said our goodbyes at the dorm rooms and drove off. And we didn’t say anything for a while, until both of us just burst into tears. It feels like this. It’s very emotional.
Something I shared with our church is that even some of my friends have told me they have trouble making sense of it. They’re asking, “Are you burnt out? Is there some sort of conflict?” There really isn’t. There’s no tension or drama. I think it’s that opportunity to really examine ourselves and as I confess to the church, I feel like we felt convicted that it was time to fire ourselves. We felt like we gave our most to the church. It just didn’t feel like I was able to help the church into this next season.
I am very tempted, because I’ve been kicking myself since I made the announcement. Every now and again I’ll ask myself, what am I doing? But I want to resist this temptation of preserving my platform and my power. Quest Church is a very well-respected, influential church here in Seattle. I love my church. I love it deeply. And I’m excited for what God has in store for it. Our theme this year happens to be a word “deeper.” I wish the theme was “coast” or “just get by.” If it was, I would be perfect for this next season.
But as I approach my 50th birthday in a couple of years, I’m realizing that I just have limitations. I don’t have the energy or the ability to handle four major things that are going on in my life. Along with being a senior pastor, I’ve got a humanitarian organization. I’m late with my second book by three and a half years. I love the privilege of traveling to encourage pastors and missionaries around the world. On top of that, I’m just trying to honor my wife and kids. In my desire to go deeper, I realized that sometimes there are seasons in faith and obedience that you have to let go of certain things. So that was that season.
How has your relationship with God changed since you’ve made this decision?
I’d be lying if I said there was a deep well of profound intimacy. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, though I have prayed for clarity multiple times and have preached about our human need for clarity because it’s connected to our control, I rarely, if ever, receive clarity. I think it’s an ongoing lesson of trusting God. This church, as much as we love it, doesn’t belong to us. It’s always belonged to God.
In the midst of all of this is acknowledging and trusting that God’s not done. Of course, with the church, but God’s also not yet finished with us. In the next season, though we’re not sure what’s next, we’re certainly hopeful and prayerful that God will continue to use us to encourage pastors and leaders here in the city, in the country and around the world. But it really is just a matter of trust.
Having been a pastor for almost two decades, what will the church going experience look like for you in this next season?
I have now been a pastor for 26 years. We know we’re not leaving the pastorate. I’m called to be a pastor and someday I hope that I can join another staff or team as a staff member or teaching pastor. I’ll never say never, because I don’t want to speak with absolute definitive clarity of the future, but it will be hard for me to be a senior pastor driving the overarching mission of a church, unless other things in my schedule change.
What I don’t want to do, as a founding pastor of Quest Church, is to cast a shadow in the process as they search for a new senior pastor. Nor do I want to cast a shadow toward the new senior pastor when he or she may join the staff.
For the next couple months, my wife and I have decided we will be worshipping at home with our family. We’re doing that because, I hate even saying these phrases, but being a pastor with some platform and influence, we don’t want to cause any awkward rumors about us stepping into local churches immediately. But beginning next year I think it’s an opportunity for us to find a local church because we feel this is extremely important. The biggest thing we’ve acknowledged is that we don’t want to be in isolation, we want to be in community. So we’ll start looking for a local church.
Tell me a little bit about what’s in store for One Day’s Wages.
One Day’s Wages is a grassroots movement of actions to alleviate extreme and local poverty. It’s extremely personal to me because one, it’s a response to the gospel of faith. But it’s also personal for my family’s story. My parents were born in North Korea. They experienced deep, deep poverty. I just found out last year that my father had spent some time in a refugee camp. So it’s a personal response of the gospel and also God’s grace over our family.
What’s exciting is, though my involvement has been somewhat limited with One Day’s Wages, my hope in the next season is to spend a little more time. So I’ll be engaging it on a half-time basis. We’ve been granting out about a million dollars to nonprofits and partners on the ground. I know it’s not just about numbers but in the coming years I’m hoping and praying that with our continual commitment to certain values that we hold about transparency, mutuality, ethical storytelling, impact … that we’re able to increase both our fundraising and granting, so that ultimately we’re able to make a deeper impact around the world.
For someone out there who may be feeling like God is asking them to go in a direction where there is uncertainty and fear, and they don’t know if they have the courage to do something so difficult. What would your advice be?
Everyone’s individual situation matters. I would love to encourage people to know that their lives and stories matter. Their faith matters. Their courage and doubt matters. God can handle all of this.
It’s important that we’re not isolating ourselves and making these decisions in a vacuum. Sometimes it’s when we’re isolated that fear tends to fester and grow. So we ought to be in friendship and community, we ought to be in prayer and God’s word. We ought to be engaging in the gift that God’s given us.
In addition to that, there are two things I would share: First, it’s always good to look back. By that I mean, when you read the Old Testament, it’s stunning how many times God speaks to His people and says, “Do you not remember?” or “Have you forgotten …?” And He does this because His people keep forgetting. And sometimes I think our memory can be like that as well. It’s important for us to look back and see the evidence of God’s goodness and grace and provision.
I would also say, as we move forward, we should never obligate God for clarity. Because He doesn’t give us clarity. And part of the reason is because if we knew everything we were going to experience in the future, I’m pretty sure that in our lack of perspective we would run the other way.
God reminds us in John 10 that He is the Good Shepherd. He protects us, He provides for us. He knows us. This is an opportunity for us to build our trust in Jesus, who says He will be with us. If I’m honest, there is an element of fear as I anticipate the future. I think all of that, God honors it in our relationship with him. We just have to make sure fear is a visitor and not this life-long companion that resides in our hearts.