Pastoral Transitions — Leaving Well

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If you will be moving to a new congregation this summer, keep in mind the importance of ending your ministry well at your current location. It is easy to shift one’s thinking and emotional energy to the anticipated new congregation and neglect some key elements of leaving well and preparing the way for your successor. Most mistakes clergy make in their last months before moving are not intentional but the result of oversight from not planning carefully for leaving.

Many clergy do not have an adequate plan for their leaving. This can leave a feeling of incompleteness for the pastor and congregation.

Remember that the primary goal of the transition is the continuing faithful witness of the congregation in which you have invested much energy. There is an important dimension of the leaving time that is about you — in that people want to express appreciation for your ministry. But you will want to find every opportunity possible to receive their thanks graciously while reframing what is happening as God’s ongoing purpose for the congregation.

Many clergy do not have an adequate plan for their leaving. This can leave a feeling of incompleteness for the pastor and congregation. One also wants to be very careful not to do things in the closing months that will undermine one’s overall ministry there or make the entry of a new pastor difficult.

Communicate

There can never be too much communication during times of change. Give people information and then do it again and again. The pastor does not need to do all the communicating, but the pastor needs to ensure that such generous information sharing is taking place.

Adhere to all denominational protocols and timelines, but do not be content to think that just because “the change was announced” or “a letter went out,” the task of communication has ended. Find multiple ways to give people information they will need to understand and to interpret to others the upcoming change.

You will want to give special attention to some persons with whom you will plan to have personal conversations to express thanks and discuss the transition. For some you may want to prepare personal letters of appreciation. Who are the persons that need particular consideration because of close personal relationships, extraordinary service, or key current or past roles within the congregations? Who are the people with whom your relationship has often been difficult and troubled — and you would not want to leave without some kind of personal communication?

For the congregation as a whole, find multiple ways to say in speech and writing your thanks for how much they have meant to you. Always lift up positive things from your tenure, even if there have been unhappy or rocky periods. Share ownership for the move and for your church’s polity. Do not blame others for the move or use closure to get back at others; be gracious to all. Clarify in spoken and written communication your new relationship with the congregation. Define what is over and what is not.

Also think of communicating with public and community leaders. They often do not have access to the information shared within the congregation. Make sure that ecumenical and community partners know what is happening. Tell them about your successor. You might also serve as a linking person in connecting the new pastor and key community leaders.

Mark the Endings

It is particularly important to find ways to mark the endings that are taking place. Rituals, ceremonies, and litanies that mark occasions of celebration and goodbye are essential for all. It is important to capture the significance of what is happening by acknowledging what has been accomplished, what is changing, and what lies ahead. Such services create common experiences that make it easier for everyone to move forward.

One component can be your final message as pastor. George B. Thompson, Jr., provides some suggested themes for consideration (How to Get Along with Your Church: Creating Cultural Capital for Doing Ministry, Pilgrim, 129).

  • Accomplishment — “See what God has done in our midst!”
  • Affirmation — “You continue to be God’s people.”
  • Anticipation — “Behold, God is making all things new.”

William Bridges, in his work on transitions, has noted how important it is to give careful attention to such markings. “Most unsuccessful transitions start with failing to handle the ending well,” he says, in that such endings rarely get the thought and planning they need. (The Way of Transition, Da Capo, 144-145)

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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