By Brandon Roysden
We’ve all heard the horror stories accompanying pastoral transition. At times, they almost read like the headline of the National Enquirer: “Pastor Forced Out of Ministry by Angry Congregation.” “Pastor Leaves Church Amidst Allegations.” “Church Members Question Sincerity of Pastor Leaving After 18 Months.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of headlines are the way we often think about pastors leaving churches. But does it have to be that way? Is it sometimes possible a pastor really has been led to a different ministry? Is it possible God has used a pastor and his gifts for a particular time in one ministry to prepare him for what he may do in another? And sometimes, it’s possible a pastor simply has come to the end of his journey. He has been faithful, but it is time for God to raise another leader for the church.
When these situations arise, how the church and exiting pastor handle the situation will significantly impact the future health of them both. So, we must ask, “Is it possible to leave well? And, if so, how?”
As the lifelong son of a pastor and now a deacon at a church that recently said goodbye to a long-tenured pastor due to health concerns, I have experienced both sides of the pastoral transition. And while every situation is unique, I have noticed a few behaviors that can be applied universally to ensure both the pastor and the people part on good terms.
Perhaps the most important part of a healthy transition is good communication. Good, healthy communication from both the pastor to the church leaders and the church leaders to the congregation is incredibly important.
During our recent transition, the pastor called the deacons into his office to let us know he could no longer physically perform the duties necessary to continue as pastor. While this was a shock, our pastor did two important things that set us on a positive trajectory as he was leaving.
First, he communicated with the right people. It is often easy to share certain kinds of information with people in casual conversation, especially close friends. But it was crucial for church leaders to be the first to know. Beyond the obvious of keeping the rumor (gossip) mill at bay, these leaders needed to process the gravity of the situation while also beginning to plan next steps.
The necessity of those plans and how the news was to be communicated brings me to the second thing our pastor did well: he communicated at the right time. You might be wondering what that means. Well, if you communicate too early, you sometimes haven’t had time to formulate thoughts, or even be confirmed in your mind that a change is the right thing for you and your family. If you communicate too late, you may harm the church and its ability to prepare appropriately for your absence. As soon as the pastor knew with certainty he was going to leave, he communicated quickly with the leaders, who needed to prepare for what came next.
Celebrate the Ministry
Sadness, grief, and sometimes anger are a natural part of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, as a preacher’s kid, I experienced these emotions more often than I like to remember. However, if we’re not careful, we allow the negative emotions to cloud the wonderful memories of ministry and a life well-lived before God and His people.
As our pastor began his transition out of our church, we wanted to be sure we celebrated his legacy and contributions. Now, I know this can be especially difficult in other situations where a pastor leaves one church for another, but even those situations should not detract from the wonderful times God has given you at that church.
Pastor, as you leave, continue to love your people. Visit and reminisce. Allow them to provide help when you move. Consider writing a letter containing your vision for the future of the church (although not specifics; leave that to the next pastor). As you prepare for the next phase of your life and ministry, encourage the church to launch into its next phase as well.
Employ a Clean Break
As soon as a pastor announces he is leaving a church, regardless of the reason, the congregation will divide into two camps: those excited about a new direction, and those who question whether they will ever come to church again. Regardless of the percentage in these two camps, it is important the pastor leaves no doubt regarding who is now leading the church.
From the announcement until a new pastor is found, it is up to the deacons or leadership board to lead into the new reality. From the moment you announce your resignation, you are the “previous pastor.” Be sure to act like it. As decisions are made, as questions are asked, continually point your people back to the leadership. And, in a world of social media, this may continue long after your last Sunday. Commit with your family to love the people from your former church and not to disparage, give advice, or otherwise interfere in the next steps for the congregation. A good policy when a member approaches is to simply say, “I’ll be happy to talk to you, but if this has anything to do with the church, I’m sorry, but it’s not appropriate for me to talk about it.”
Any transition is accompanied by emotions. This is true of any area of life. And it is important we understand these emotions are a gift from God. It is also true change is inevitable, even when living in accordance with God’s will. So often, we make change about the pain and not about the beauty. Change in our children produces growth. Change in our own lives produces maturity. Change in a caterpillar produces a butterfly. And change in a church will open the door for God to work. This doesn’t mean change is easy, but it does mean change can have a purpose.
If, as a pastor, you are following God’s direction as best you know how, rest assured He will work this change out for your good (Romans 8:28). It is even quite possible He is also working in your church to move it forward as a result. However you may feel as you navigate these difficult waters, remember to rely on the Holy Spirit for direction, and remember to celebrate the wonderful people you’ve had the privilege to shepherd.
In doing so, you will be able, like Paul, to say, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Suggestions for Leaving Well
- Inform Leadership Early. As soon as you are sure, communicate with the leaders. Not only does this help keep rumors at bay, it helps them prepare how to address the congregation and begin planning for next steps.
- Be specific with the timeline (I recommend 4-6 weeks). Especially when it comes to retirement, some pastors are not clear with their people and staff about their plans. This is not helpful to anyone and can often lead to frustration. Choose your last Sunday early in the process and stick to it.
- Celebrate Your Ministry. While any transition often brings with it sadness and perhaps even some regrets. Don’t let these “negative” emotions take away the joy of all the friendships and the fruit God has allowed you experience during your ministry there.
- Allow the leaders to take the next steps. Make a clean break. From the moment you announce you are leaving, you have effectively become an interim pastor. Point people to their new leaders and move out of the way. Avoid conversations about the church with members at all costs.
- Paint a hopeful picture of the future. When you leave, many members of the church may feel they have been abandoned or are somehow not as valuable as those at the new church. Consider writing a vision letter for what you see for the future of the church. Let them know that although God is finished with you there, He is not finished with them.