5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church: The Pastor Edition

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In my last post on leaving well when you’re a member of a church several respondents pointed out that pastors often leave churches in very poor way. Sadly, they’re correct. We’ve all heard the horror stories about pastors who announce their departure after the morning service and U-Haul arrives first thing Monday morning. Or, we’re familiar with the all-too-painful accounts of pastors who apparently take a scorched earth approach to leaving, destroying everything they touch before they leave. We can add to that those pastors who leave by splitting the church. The pain abounds.

It’s hard on everyone when a pastor leaves–usually. Sometimes congregations are happy to see a man go and seem to do everything they can to ensure it happens. The story is told of the irate pastor who stood before the unhappy congregation and announced in no uncertain terms that he was leaving. Today would be his last Sunday at that church with those people. Then the congregation spontaneously and in union broke out in song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

We don’t want to be that guy or that church. So, in response to those concerns, I want to offer five things pastors should do before they leave their local churches. The aim would be much the same as the goal of members who leave: to leave in as healthy and Christ-honoring a way possible.

1. Talk with Your Fellow Leaders When You Begin to Think Seriously about Leaving

Most of the problems begin right here. Far too many pastors either lack sufficient trust with their leaders or fear man to such an extent that they don’t talk about their interest in leaving until it’s a done deal. That’s devastating for a church’s leadership and for the church as a whole. Showing up with a decision to leave without having allowed the leadership to speak into your life is tantamount to serving divorce papers to a totally unsuspecting spouse.

So, if a pastor wishes to be faithful to his charge and humbly submissive to others in leadership with him, he should share his desires with the leadership well before he has made a decision to leave. This is tricky and requires some thoughtfulness with regard to timing. The pastor shouldn’t “think out loud” about a possibility he’s not seriously considering, otherwise he’ll make his fellow leaders uncertain when he doesn’t need to. Better to not share comments about leaving when you’re frustrated or when you’re having the occasional bout of “what ifs.” Instead, at the point that you think leaving could be a serious possibility, then talk with your fellow leaders about the possibility. Perhaps meet with them individually first so that their initial reactions, often emotional and sad, aren’t first offered in a group meeting of the elders. Prepare them for the group conversation by allowing them to process individually. Give them a general heads up on your thinking and take any initial questions or reactions they may have.

2. Be Genuinely Open to Counsel and Correction

I tend to stay away from the sometimes mystical and authoritative language of “call.” Far too many pastors have led congregations in unhealthy directions or abandoned a pastorate because they “felt called” to do so. Sometimes people use the language of “call” or “calling” as a way to circumvent any hard thinking and testing of motives. We speak as if a “call” ends all debates because the decision was really in God’s realm and will. When, truthfully, God extends and affirms calls through His people and leaders in prayer together (Acts 13; 1 Tim. 4:14).

Rather than making a highly subjective and privatized decision in the pseudo-spiritual language of “calling,” pastors should actively seek the counsel and correction of others. Don’t just take advice; go after it. They should be willing to hear hard things about their hearts and motives. They should be willing to accept the challenge of those who think they should stay, especially their fellow leaders who most likely know them best. They should be willing to lay out their potential plans–as far as they know them–so that their fellow leaders can shepherd them through their thinking. This would be a good time to receive counsel and correction about how they’re leading their families, since wives and children will undoubtedly be affected. These talks should take place over months of meetings, not a meeting or two. The meetings should involve significant prayer rather than fleshly reactions.

Then heed or take the counsel and correction. Don’t dismiss it. Receive it. Make yourself accountable to the leaders by stating your agreements where you can and by explaining why you won’t or can’t take counsel where you can’t. Not everyone will agree about everything in situations like this. But where there’s disagreement and the pastor wishes to take a direction the other leaders advise against, he should humbly explain his reasons and hear again the elders’ admonishment or affirmation. Here’s the place and time to be ruthless with your motives and desires.

3. Resolve Any Conflicts Before Leaving the Church

According to a couple of surveys I’ve seen, the number one reason pastors leave churches is conflict. They feel embattled about a direction they wish to take. They are constant recipients of criticisms. Sometimes their wife and children bear the brunt of unloving and un-Christian attacks in the body of Christ. And a great many pastors feel they have no friend in the congregation with whom they can talk about these things. Most pastors feel overworked, under-appreciated and put down by some of the people they serve. Conflict abounds.

But before a pastor leaves, he should allow plenty of time to mend relationships and settle conflicts in as biblical a manner as possible. In fact, as much as it’s possible, he should plan the timing of his leaving in accord with his being able to restore peace in the ministry. The same things that are required of members who leave are required of pastors. Obey our Lord’s instructions in Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15. Go and be reconciled to the best of your ability.

If pastors obey the Lord in this before moving on then everybody wins. Lord willing, pastors win their brothers and sisters over and relationships are mended. You may find you don’t have to leave at all and experience renewed joy in the church family you’ve already invested years of life with. Even if you still need or want to leave, you’ll experience freedom from guilt because you’ve “made every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The church you leave behind will, by God’s grace, be in better repair for their next pastor. Don’t make the next guy do your work in healing the sheep. Position the next guy to begin smoothly, or at least make his own conflicts and mistakes. And your new church family will be able to receive you without the baggage associated with the previous church.

One person in the comments section of the last post suggested churches should contact a candidate’s previous church to see if they left in good standing. I think that’s a wonderful idea and am surprised at how many do not check references or complete background checks before calling a pastor. Many have simply inherited unresolved problems from previous pastorates because men have not left well and have not dealt with their relational demons before moving on.

4. Plan Your Transition and Succession with the Elders

Don’t just pack up your books and disappear into the night. As much as you’re able think with your fellow leaders about how to address the condition of the various souls in your care, the state of the various ministries and major needs in the transition. The church may feel like it’s stopped with the announcement of your departure and you may feel tempted to disengage, but keep your head in the game. Life continues apace and that means people continue to need shepherding, decisions continue to come before the leaders, and time remains (or should be taken) to get things in order for transition.

Hopefully you’ve been grooming a potential successor as part of your ministry in the church. Hopefully you’ve been sharing the leadership so that others have “stepped up” long before any prospect of your leaving was on the table. And perhaps you have a successor in mind. Talk that through with the leaders. Give them your honest assessment of a prospective replacement. Resist the urge to simply speak in glowing terms about the next guy because you want everyone to feel good after your difficult announcement. The truth lovingly spoken will make them free. And if there is no successor on the horizon, help the leaders think through their recruitment strategy. Give them counsel from your unique perspective on what they did well when recruiting you and what they could improve. Let them benefit from your watching this process unfold with many of your friends and associates. Lead through the transition.

5. Express Your Appreciation to the Church and Say “Goodbye” to Friends and Saints

Sometimes pastors fall into the trap of thinking they’ve done the church a favor by being their pastor for some season. We can fall into thinking we’ve made all the sacrifices, borne all the difficulties, and exercised all the patience. But, truthfully, the church has put up with us, patiently prayed through our shortcomings and failures, and sacrificed to partner with us in the gospel. It’s been our privilege to shepherd the people of God–no matter how difficult we found the shepherding or how rowdy the sheep. We were not called to pastoral ministry in order to enjoy a life of ease. We were called to get in the pen and smell like sheep. And we should be happy and grateful for the opportunity to be Christ’s under-shepherds!

Which  means we should be able to step back and express sincere and profound gratitude for God’s people. Paul could do it with Corinth, surely we can do it with out congregations. Before we leave we should make every day an expression of appreciation and thanksgiving. We should do it publicly and privately, in groups at planned functions and in chance encounters in the hallways or grocery stores. We should do this as an act of love and with the hopes that the people would be reminded of God’s grace at work among them and strengthened for the transition ahead.

Pastors should spend adequate time saying “goodbye” to friends. They should make sure their wives and their children have opportunity to do the same. From the time of your public announcement to the actual date of departure, give yourself plenty of time to have dinners, coffees, small group meetings and the like to make the rounds and relay personal appreciation with people. Weep together. Rejoice together. Pray together. Be together so that being apart might be softened in time to come.

CONCLUSION

Well, there’s much more that could be said. A thousand details need to be attended and without question lots of sticky issues addressed. But in broad strokes, here are some thoughts that I hope churches and pastors find helpful in the sometimes painful process of losing a shepherd.

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