Well, today is the last day of tenure as a pastor at Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago. It’s been a full eight years filled with lots of laughs, tears, sweat, frustrations, and joy. I am grateful to God for the sanctifying influence that my church has had on me as a pastor, disciple, father, and husband. Since we made the decision to move back to Maryland, the last few months have been filled with lots of conversations, meetings, notes, action steps, more conversations, dealing with misunderstandings, forgiveness, some more conversations, and finally closure. I remember having one conversation with a friend who told me to make sure I leave well. I wasn’t sure what that meant so I asked him to clarify. He explained that leaving well is to edify the church, give glory to God, and to set up the church for success. It was a wise and God-supplied conversation. As I finish out this last day of employment at CF, I thought it might be helpful to list a few of the things I experienced as part of the leaving process. In essence, here’s my thoughts on how to transition out of a church well and what to expect.
1. Be prepared for a period of grieving and sadness. If you have loved your church at all, there will be a deep melancholy. Strangely for me, this period happened earlier in the process than later. I think it was just before I made the decision to move and about a month after the decision. It was a crucial time of crying, reconsidering, wondering, and second-guessing because it allowed me to acknowledge my love for the place I’ve been in. It was an emotional outlet to wrestle with unbelief, obedience, and trust. As I’ve talked to others who’ve made transitions like this, there seems to be a pattern in this (at least among the guys). The mourning and grief will happen closer to the decision, and when time comes to actually leave/move, there’s a bit more sobriety. I’m grateful for the forewarning on the last part because I would have foolishly interpreted my lack of emotion recently as hard-heartedness or apathy. It’s not. I’ve had the chance to mourn and grieve, and now I am doing what needs to be done.
2. Leaving a church should never be seen as “career advancement”. Unlike the NFL or NBA, leaving your church team is not just a “business decision”. You don’t leave a place for the sake of career advancement or better opportunity. Why do I mention this? Because I think nothing can be more hurtful to a church than for her to think that the pastor left for something “bigger and better”. Congregations are not commodities or rungs in a ladder to be used for position and power. Shame on us if our leaving causes a church to feel demeaned or inadequate to the point where they neglect the great work that God is doing and has done among them. I think about John Piper’s book, “Brothers, We are Not Professionals”, as a manifesto intended to kill such ecclesiological entrepreneurism.
3. Don’t be afraid to admit your failures. Nobody get it completely right. You’ve hurt people over the course of your ministry. You’ve neglected duties, overlooked people, not followed through, and disappointed. If you’ve been preaching the Gospel to your congregation and they have recognized the power of the cross in relationships, be ready for some confrontational conversations. Don’t be afraid of them, but receive them as gifts. Someone loved you enough, cared enough about the integrity of your ministry to put themselves out there in confrontation. It may not come across the best way, but remember that they are more nervous about bringing it up than you will ever be surprised in hearing it. You could respond pridefully by thinking, “I’m leaving and this is how you treat me? How rude?!” To do so would be folly because you and I both know that you didn’t do it all well. Wouldn’t you want a realistic picture of your ministry as you leave?
4. Preach the Gospel to yourself. Along those lines, aforementioned conversation is an opportunity to receive grace in a time of need. Looking at our failures reminds us of the redeeming and empowering presence of the Savior through His Spirit. When we admit our failures, we don’t wallow in them or make excuses for them. Rather, we come to the cross and recognize that it’s only by mercy that we didn’t make a bigger mess. Preaching the Gospel to ourselves helps us avoid the extreme errors that pastors are prone to when we leave a ministry. It saves us from pride over a job well done. Every success we have had, every life changed is due to the grace of God working in spite of us. It saves us from pity over all the things you didn’t do. We can be grateful that our performance rating as a pastor doesn’t determine our approval rating with God. There is only one Savior, and ‘job performance’ is not its name.
5. Be fully present up until the “hand-off”. When we decided to move to Maryland, my wife and I resolved that we would not look for a place or get bogged down with the details of getting settled in Maryland until my official end date here in Chicago. We didn’t think that we could handle having one foot here and one foot there, nor did we think it was fair to our church here. I went through some serious struggles here because I gave away ministry too early. So early, in fact, that two months out from my leaving, I felt like a lame duck. I was here, but people were moving on in ministry as if I wasn’t. It caused inner turmoil as well as tension with the rest of the team. They felt abandoned. I felt ignored. When I finally came to my senses, I realized the foolishness of my actions. My community and the ministries I led needed me more now than ever before (save maybe the at the inception). So I re-engaged and took the reins again. However, my approach was different. I wasn’t just leading. I was leading with the intention of showing people how I lead and what I do. Not so that they will do it exactly like me, but so that they might have a framework within which to develop their own style. I planned lots of meetings, trainings, and equipping times. I had conversations with people I wanted to establish in my absence. I worked and am working until the very end (even until 8:30 pm tonight).
6. Work to leave well. The longer I’ve been in church ministry, the less tolerance I have for pastro-centric ministry. That’s the kind of ministry where the professional fishermen does everything, makes every decision, and every ministry hinges on him/her. When said pastor leaves, the church is ultimately paralyzed because ministry in essence halts. My dad used to always say, “every pastor needs to be ready to pack his bags.” I believe that, but not in the sense my dad originally intended. I believe it to be so in the sense that every pastor needs to work himself out of a job. We must lead our ministries in such a way that we are constantly giving ministry away to people – people who will do it in ways different than we’d like, people who will fail, people who will get discouraged, people who will think they can’t do it. One of the most incredible encouragements I received from a beloved sister was that I believed in her, that I forced her to stop using the words, “I can’t.” Build your life into people in 1 Thess 2:8 sort of way. When you leave, you will be glad you did. If there’s one phrase that we’ve been using a lot since my decision up until now, it’s “borrowed time”. We are on borrowed time with each other. We may think that we’ll always be around. In the heat of the moments of serving and working together, it’s easy to think it’ll always be like this with these people, but things can change, and change they will. So work, lead, pastor, and love in light of that.
7. Don’t start up too soon. Finally, I would suggest to pay attention to your own rhythms of when you should start with another church. Take the time to grieve, breathe, thank, repent, and reflect. Don’t start up at a new place too soon. Give yourself at least a month, maybe more. I know that a lot of prep needs to go into this especially financially, but don’t let the need for a paycheck dictate your spiritual and emotional health. I can count on one hand the times I regret starting something too late versus the times I started something too soon.
That’s my list. I know that some of it is pretty situation-specific, so I’m not by any means offering a prescriptive principle except in a few places. I’ll leave that to your discernment. Any other transitioning thoughts out there? What would you add? Leave a comment below.