One of the most important pieces of pastoral ministry, surprisingly enough, has to do with how one handles the challenges of leaving a church and moving on to whatever is next. How we leave determines to a large degree how a pastor is remembered, whether what that pastor has invested in others bears long-term fruit, and how the church proceeds into its future.
There are several aspects to consider when it comes to what it means to leave well Each of these should contribute to the overall attitude and heart with which a pastor leaves, even if the time of departure is somewhat less than harmonious.
- The departing pastor should make every effort in reconciling any relationship that may be broken. None of us are immune to relational difficulties, but leaving without making that last effort to find forgiveness and healing leaves both the departing pastor and the remaining person with the likelihood of a broken relationship continuing far into the future. However, the reality of a pastor’s moving on can often make others much more open to reconciliation. In addition, the healing of relationships adds a peace to leaving that nothing else can.
- The pastor should allow the church to grieve. Of course, grief often takes the form of anger, so one should not be caught off guard by some unhealthy behavior which might seem otherwise out of character. The pastor who is leaving is often looking forward with great excitement to what is next, while church members are hurting over the loss of one they have come to love. Expect to deal with just such emotions.
- Leave with financial transparency. The church board should not be surprised by financial issues they might discover after the pastor leaves. Often, those in ministry find it difficult to communicate about financial issues. Consequently, many churches find themselves in financial holes about which they were previously unaware. Be willing to be completely open about the status of the church’s finances as preparations are made to depart.
- Allow the church to celebrate. They are not celebrating that their pastor is leaving, they are celebrating their pastor. They are expressing appreciation, recognizing influence, and expressing gratitude for how God has used the pastor in many lives. It may feel awkward, but the church deserves to say thank you – even if the pastor is leaving either due to or in the midst of high levels of stress or tension.
- Allow yourself and your family to grieve. Ministry is more that a job. The church one is leaving has been home and family to those leaving, and in spite of the lure of a future call, there will likely be a corresponding sense of loss. Acknowledge it, talk about it with your family and others, cry together, and give God thanks for the past. Along with the grief, the departing pastor may experience disappointment if the he or she was unable to accomplish all that had hoped. And, there may even be some resentment towards some persons who have not provided support or who have been sources of pain, even if it was unintentional. Don’t be reluctant to meet with a counselor or pastor friend to work through some emotions so that you don’t take them with you to the next assignment. Unresolved emotions can become toxic to the pastor.
- Tie up loose ends without committing the next pastor to things he or she may not want to do. Finish projects, prepare staff for what lies ahead for them, but refrain from establishing plans that may not fit the next pastor’s vision. Resist the temptation to say some of those harsh things that might have crossed your mind through the years as frustration and challenges have come along.
- Express love, appreciation and encouragement to the congregation every time an opportunity comes along. They need to know that God will still be with them, that he will lead them into a new future, and that you are grateful for the time you have had with them. Be sure they know that your love for them remains, even though your relationships will change.
Leaving well is critical. Not only does it impact how you are remembered and how deeply your imprint remains in others lives, it also enables the next piece of ministry and life to get started with a right heart, a clear conscience, and “the peace that passes understanding.”