Part 4 – Leave Well

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

Unless your next church will be your first church, going to a new church means, you will be leaving the church where you now serve.  This time of transition is critical to the health of the church and yet is often mishandled in the transition from one pastor to the next.  Here are some tips to aid in a smooth transition?

The Perils and Pitfalls

The first pitfall for clergy is we often find our mind is already on the new church.  Many pastors mentally move on as soon as they get the phone call.  The solution is to “Be Here Now!”  The church is going through a traumatic time, they need your care even as you go, pay attention to the details where you are now.

The second pitfall for clergy is we may begin to disconnect from the people in our church.  We hope that by the time we leave, it won’t hurt so much.  Solution:  Make a commitment to stay connected until the last Sunday.  Be aware of their grief and give them your compassion.

The third pitfall for clergy is we may be upset about a new pastor coming to care for our people, especially if we do not hold the new pastor in the highest regard.  Solution: You have to have faith in people to rise to their circumstances.  Overcome your doubts with renewed faith.

There are perils for the church as well:  besides the trauma of your leaving, they may experience a sense of abandonment.  This may be heightened for your church if they have a history of short pastorates.  Lift up you successor to your people as a capable and loving servant.  It’s only a salve, but it will help.

The church may also experience declining attendance and income because people are uncertain about their future.  Solution:  Keep reminding people that their gifts are really to support the whole church, each other, and their common ministry.  Add to that the need to be extra supportive in times of transition.  Encourage them to step up!

Beyond the perils and pitfalls, there are ways that you can be pro-active in this process.

Position Your Successor for Success

Try to set up the church to run itself for a whole year.  Try to create a church where the new pastor will have no major decisions to make or things to change for a whole year.  The new pastor can simply move in and get to know everyone.  Create the situation you would like to find in your next church?

Here are five key things to do in order to leave well.  Your successor will thank you, and your congregation will continue to do excellent ministry.

  1. Keep the Staff in Place

Go to each staff person, one by one, and ask them to please stay in their position for at least a year.  Ask them to give the new pastor their support.  Charge them with guiding the new pastor through the mine fields of church politics.

  1. Secure Strong Leadership

Look at all the best people in leadership in the church and ask them to stay in place for one year.  These are the people who know how the church runs, what the committees do, and how the church structure works.  They will be critical to the success of the new pastor and the continuation of the ministry.  Even if their term is up soon, if the position is critical, find a way!

Go to each leader, one by one, and ask him/her to stay for another year.  If you have a working Leadership Development (Nominations) Committee that needs to approve, call that meeting first and get their approval.

If there are leaders who have become ineffective, find a way to remove them now.  Promote from within the committee if possible, but secure strong leadership for every committee, and assure the leaders’ commitments to lead for at least one year.

  1. Plan your own party

OK, this may sound terribly egotistical, but it really isn’t.  The mistake some pastors make is to downplay their leaving. There are people in the church who will seriously grieve over the loss of their pastor.  The best way to help these people process their grief and move quickly to love and work with their new pastor is to give appropriate closure to the tenure of the pastor who is leaving.  So, to help your current church get ready to welcome the new pastor, help them to say an appropriate “Goodbye!” to you.

What is appropriate?  There are no rules to guide us.  Keep in mind that every church is different and the church may already have a Goodbye tradition.  If they don’t have traditions, here are some thoughts and suggestions you might pass along to them:

A nice reception with cookies and punch immediately after church on your last Sunday is always appropriate.  The congregation can be encouraged to bring cards and gifts.

If you have served the congregation for more than a few years a Goodbye dinner on a Saturday night would very appropriate.  Cards and gifts are appropriate too.  The committee might even collect the gifts and give you a nice big gift as a Love Gift for your years of service.

If you have been at the church for a nice long tenure, a nice sit-down dinner, maybe even a catered dinner may be in order.  Again, the committee should solicit gifts and say a sincere Thank You for your years of leadership and service.

Every church has one or two people who know how to throw a party.  They may not be on any committee, but everyone knows who they are.  Ask these people to take control of this event.  Keep it positive.  Do it well.  Let the love flow.  It’s good fun for you and it’s therapeutic for your people.  Be appreciative and humble, but enjoy the party!

  1. Make a clean break

There are ancient protocols for pastors.  Laity will not understand these protocols unless we explain them and abide by them absolutely.  To make it easier for everyone, here are the protocols in my own words:

“You Can’t Go Back”:

  1. You cannot offer pastoral care in any form: weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital calls, in home visitations, counseling, etc., with these guidelines:
  2. Not at all for one year.
  3. After one year, only at the invitation of the current pastor.

Note: This includes doing services for members at other churches nearby.

  1. You cannot initiate contact with former members – if they want to come visit you, it’s a free country.
  2. You cannot return to the parish without informing the current pastor. If you are going to be in town, call first to inform the pastor.
  3. You cannot criticize the current pastor to current members, even when they bait you into it.
  4. You cannot be involved in any way in the former church.

To that end, it is helpful to put these in writing and inform the whole congregation.  Do this in the last month in every available communication to the congregation.  Explain that you will always love them, but it is your hope that they will quickly give their new pastor every opportunity to love them as you have.  In order to do this, they must let themselves be cared for by the new pastor.  So, tell them you will strictly adhere to the ethical guidelines and protocols of your profession.

Spend time on your last Sunday briefly reminding the congregation you will always love them, but because you love your church, this is Good-bye.

  1. Welcome Your Successor

Always speak with enthusiasm and optimism when people ask about the new pastor.  Even if you are not that keen on this person, let nothing in your voice or demeanor give you away.  As far as the congregation will know, you are best friends in the ministry, and you are excited to think about all the wonderful things the church will do under their leadership.

Make sure the committee spends as much time planning a strong fun welcome for the new pastor (and family) as for your leaving.  A special reception, a picnic dinner, a fun first Sunday, at the very least a cake in their honor and a welcome basket for their new home.  Encourage everyone to attend.

You would like your predecessor to do this for you at your next church, so make it point to do it for your successor.  “Do unto other pastors, as you would like done unto you.”

Part 5 – Make a Good Start

You might also want to check out the Article on The Hand Off which covers different aspects of the transition period.

Copyright 2016 – Steve Petty