Ed Stetzer: How Pastors Can Leave Well

Leaving places can be difficult. Saying goodbye, even when absolutely necessary, can be really painful—especially for pastors.

After years of one pastor’s investment in a community, quite naturally it’s hard for a congregation to imagine being led by another figure. Likewise, from the pastor’s standpoint, it’s equally as hard to imagine entrusting a church’s care to another person—no matter how qualified that person may be.

In my experience, transitioning from one pastoral role to another doesn’t happen well by accident; it requires thoughtfulness, intentionality, and proper planning. Looking back on my first formal ‘goodbye’ to a church, it’s easy to recognize the many things that I could have done better. There are ways to leave a congregation well and there are ways to leave that often do more harm than good.

Pastors: transitioning away from your church will always be challenging, but it doesn’t have to leave scars on your community. Here are some ways to facilitate a healthy ‘goodbye’:

Let your congregation grieve

Many of the ‘rules’ I share here are being shared because they are things I didn’t do when I left my first church. My first mistake was to underestimate the hurt my congregation would be feeling once they caught wind of my departure.

What I didn’t realize was that as a Father-like figure in the lives of many of my congregants, they felt badly hurt and betrayed by the thought that I was planning to leave them. They had this person (me) in their lives who’d been a steady, heavily invested presence for many years; I completely misunderstood the effect that my goodbye would have on them.

I can vividly remember people coming to me and saying things like, “You know, you led me to the Lord, you baptized me…” As pastors, we become heavily intertwined with people’s spiritual journeys.

Knowing this, our approach to handling these transitions must allow people the space they need to thoroughly grieve and process the hurt they’re experiencing. Even if the hurt isn’t our fault as pastors, we’re nevertheless called to attend to it as if it were our own.

Keep the transition short

Some pastors are inclined to draw out their goodbyes; this, I would argue, is bad for both them and those they lead.

The moment pastors make the formal announcement that they’re planning to leave, church members will start asking, “What’s next?” This question isn’t wrong—it’s a logical step forward. Churches don’t exist because of pastors—it’s the other way around. When a pastor leaves, church still goes on.

At my first church, within weeks of my announcement, meetings were being held without me. Quite honestly, that was hard for me. I remember feeling out of the loop, as if my advice and services were no longer wanted; but, while hard, the truth is that immediately upon announcing my departure, I was no longer important to the future of my church.

In light of that, my recommendation is keep the goodbye short and sweet. Six months of transition time is much too long; keeping it to 1-2 months will allow for just enough time to fully process and grieve.

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Source: Christianity Today