By Terry Shue
There is something within each of us that resists change. And yet there are few things which are more certain in life. In fact life is a process of growth which is inherently about change. Seasons in ministry, as in life, move from beginning, to growth, and finally to an end.
The task of ending a pastorate well, unlike many jobs out there, is much more than making an announcement. It is a process which takes months to prepare for and in some cases years of continued attention afterward, to maintain healthy boundaries. Ending a pastoral assignment well is good not only for the pastor who is resigning but also for the congregation who is being served. A healthy season of saying goodbye to one pastor opens the door of the congregation’s heart to a new pastor.
Change is a powerful, inevitable force which is part of God’s design—an opportunity for growth! In all of the different seasons of life we go through, we adjust to the “new normal” in stages. The ending of a pastoral assignment brings many feelings. At times it is exciting. Sometime there are feelings of grief. At other times it is frightening. But hidden in this anxious and often emotionally trying time is the great opportunity for growth, not only for the pastor, but for the congregation as well.
These transitions are life changing events, which we as pastors are called to do with all of the spiritual discernment possible. For each of us, these transitions will become part of not only our story, but the story of a congregation. Such decisions are not to be taken lightly, and yet in the present, we are almost always walking more by faith than by sight. William Bridge writes, “much as we long for external signs… we must settle for inner signals that alert us to the proximity of new beginnings.” These new beginnings are the seeds of growth.
In this short article, we won’t get around to considering the important issue of “how do you know when it is time to make a change?” Nor will we give space to “how long is the right length of time for a pastorate?” Rather I want to focus briefly on the shift which needs to happen when your resignation announcement is made to the congregation entrusted to you.
When I announced my intent to candidate at another congregation while serving my first pastorate some 16 years ago, I was totally unprepared for the fault line which developed between me and the congregation. I understood the tears, which we all had, as an expression of mutual love. I was unprepared for other responses in the congregation like anger, fear, betrayal and attempts to stop the process. What became evident was that a healthy ending of a pastorate was not an announcement, but a process. This process spans not only those weeks between the announcement and actually stepping down from the role, but requires attention for years to come for the former pastor.
On this journey there are four major sections which we do well as pastors to consider carefully. Let’s look at them.
The time of deciding and preparation of the announcement
- Increase your spiritual intuition. Surround yourself with all the resources available. Read the epistles for models of faithful transitions. Give yourself to prayer and praying friends as you move to this point. Ask your conference minister for prayer support. Allow them to walk with you as they offer wisdom and perspective from their experiences.
- Consider the healthy practice of visiting a counselor to test your self-awareness. Mid West Ministries, which is available in several locations across our country, is an excellent place to grow spiritually and psychologically alert. In fact, Mennonite Church USA contributes to their ministry in order to reduce the cost for any of our pastors. Talk to your conference minister about details.
- Work transparently with the inner circle of leaders in the congregation. Clearly state your needs, but continue to seek the best interest of the church. Deciding to resign but then telling the elders that you can’t leave for two or three years, because of a variety of reasons, is really not fair to the church.
- Prepare yourself for a variety of responses, from tears, to anger, to some completely ignoring the statement you read. If you have a family, talk about this with them before sharing publically in church.
Making your announcement
- Process with your elder group what will be said by whom and when. They need to be your words, but it is imperative that congregational leaders have the opportunity to filter sections which they determine to be unhelpful.
- Put down on paper your clear intentions and the date your resignation will be effective. Express gratitude for the opportunity and the partnership you have shared in the season of ministry together. Short is better than long.
- Consider writing a letter to each household of the congregation, which is sent out during the week. This lets the congregation read the news at home in private, while giving them a few days to get used to the idea rather than the jolt of learning of your departure in a public time of worship. Special visits with a hand-delivered letter can be done, yet sparingly.
The time from your announcement to your departure
- Refrain from attempting to influence the process from this point on! (Repeat this step often!) Concentrate on loving the people, affirming their future and getting your things in order.
- Do not make plans for the congregation which will be carried out past the time you will be present as the pastor.
- Publically tell the congregation repeatedly, though you love them, but you will not be available for any pastoral contacts. This is not a rejection of them, but part of the deliberate preparation for their connection with a new pastor.
- If there is one place to use any of your influence, direct it to assure the conference ministers are welcomed to work with the congregation through this process of filling out a congregational profile and following standard protocol for search committees. This is the best expression of love for the people you have pastored because it is the best way to get a properly processed candidate to be the pastor of the people dear to you.
- No matter what your style of leadership was before the announcement, this is a time to withhold your opinion unless it is specifically asked for. And then, do it as briefly as possible. This is a big shift for many of us leaders, but your words are decreasingly helpful when it comes to new ideas!
- Work with the leaders of the congregation to lessen your role while increasing their role in public ministry. This is a great time for lay leaders to step up in new ways, as you begin to get used to stepping aside.
- Pay attention to your own emotions and journal through the process. Whether you know what is next for you personally or not, this is an emotionally volatile time for you, your loved onesand the congregation. What is it that God is hoping you learn through this desert experience?
- Communicate with the congregation your feelings as well as your plans. Whether in print or from the pulpit, let them know what this journey is for you—the ambivalence, grief, excitement and fear all together. Let them know you love them and have a great hope for them as God’s people. Not only will this communication be helpful for them to know what is going on in your life, it will model for them healthy ways of walking through similar journeys which they all will walk someday.
When you are finished and begin the new reality of being the former pastor of this congregation
- Decline any and all invitations from former parishioners which involve pastoral acts, whether private or public. Showing respect and love for those you pastored can best be expressed through attending a special service rather than officiating the service. It is hard to do, but integrity to pastoral conduct demands it.
- Attendance of worship services if you are visiting the area or remain in the area, during the first year is strongly discouraged to help healthy boundaries develop. Giving the signal to the congregation early on in the process lets them know this is part of your intentionality and love for them, not your rejection of them. Yes, it is hard at times, but it is important.
- If following at least a year you do become involved in the congregation again, accepting any position of leadership in the congregation is harmful to a healthy understanding of boundaries.
- Whether you are visiting the area of your former congregation or continue to live in the area, pastoral care is left in the hands of the new pastor. Any visits early after your departure will blur lines between them and you as their pastor and ultimately get in the way. Understand and trust the pastoral care the congregation is receiving in this new day. If it seems insufficient, think back when you were in the early days of your ministry and find the grace required.
- There may be a time, following several years of healthy boundary attention, determined by the new pastor and leadership of the congregation, that you as the former pastor are asked to be open to special pastoral tasks. If so, the pastor, conference minister, and you should sit down and talk about possibilities, risks and limitations of such invitations. If there are any conclusions that are arrived at, they should be written down and communicated with the congregational leadership team and then the whole congregation. These crucial conversations, discussed intentionally and proactively will be the only way to understand if any congregational involvement is appropriate.
Saying goodbye well is the best way to be ready to say hello to the next stage God has in store for you and the congregation you previously served. It is not an easy or comfortable stage of life, but one which through careful planning and honest communication can be a growing time for all involved.
For further reading our handbook A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership has helpful sections as well as the Alban Institue publication, “Saying Goodbye: A time of growth for congregations and pastors” by Edward White (1990).
Terry Shue is director of leadership development for Mennonite Church USA