Pastors Leaving Well: Love Them Enough To Really Leave

It’s Spring, and soon to be Summer. This is the season for clergy and church staff to move. We are keenly aware of this for two reasons. Quite a few pastors are initiating Leadership Coaching relationships with us for the purpose of managing their goodbyes and hellos as they transition. These pastors want to manage their leaving well as a final way to love their congregations. In addition, they want to start well with in a new ministry context.

Another set of clergy seeking coaching and churches seeking consulting are doing so due to problems with clergy or church staff who have left…but not really left. They did not and are not leaving well. These clergy and congregations are experiencing difficulty and complications because former pastors and staff members continue to hold on in various ways. Some remain in the same community or nearby, making them very accessible. Others remain nearby and accessible through social networking and technology. Either way, this interference makes it difficult for current clergy and the congregation to move ahead in mission and ministry.

Recognizing the desire of most clergy and church staff to leave well and leave well-enough-alone, while also starting well, the following suggestions may help us on this journey.

Decide if you trust God in this experience.

Do you see God’s providence in your move? If so, everything else will go smoother. Sometimes a move is not our preference, but comes to us. Our work then is the same as in other life experiences - to look for God in whatever circumstances come our way. When you can trust God with the move, then everything flows better.

Really grieve your leaving.

Last Fall I left a church wherein I served as the Renewal or Redevelopment Pastor for 4 years. We struggled, worked, and sweated together. We did the heavy lifting required of redevelopment ministry. Leaving them was difficult. I was very sad, even while I was completely sure my ministry among them was complete. By grieving with them those last months, I and they were more able to move ahead afterwards.

Acknowledge your sadness as others express theirs.

Our tendency when disciples in the church express their sadness about our leaving is to try to make this OK for them. We point out how great the next pastor will be, or how God is really in this move, or some other message which tries to talk them out of their sadness. Instead be real. Be sad with them if you are sad. The best way to move through sadness and grief is to acknowledge it head-on. You are ministering to them by being authentic about sadness. This facilitates our movement through the valley of the shadow.

Let goodbye mean goodbye.

When you leave, you are no longer the pastor or a staff member. If you continue to hold on or stay involved in any way, you are taking up space in the system which does not belong to you. You are occupying pastoral space which rightly belongs to their current pastor and staff members. When you remain involved, even ever so slightly, your shadow darkens what is meant to be a new day in the life of this congregation. Love them enough to say goodbye, and then discipline yourself to be gone.

Resist the seduction of distress calls.

These will come. You know what I’m describing. “Yes, we could call our current pastor, but we love you so much, and you meant so much to our family, wouldn’t you please come to the hospital?” Translation: “We know you left, but we don’t want to make room in our hearts to share significant life experiences with this new pastor.” By going, you undermine the potential of a new pastoral relationship with their current pastor.

Realize when you ask the current minister to return, there’s only one answer he/she can give.

What would you say if the former pastor called you and shared that church members requested him/her to come to the hospital to see them? If you say yes, then you know your potential pastoral relationship with this family is delayed or diluted. If you say no, then you come across as petty, small, and controlling. Either way, the current pastor pays a price. As the former pastor, is this what you want for your former congregation…divided loyalty? Instead, don’t even put the current pastor in this hard place. Just say no; and then inform the current pastor of your conversation with these church members.

Realize it’s not about you.

This is the big one. It is so sweet to our ears when we hear people say they cannot live without us. O how they miss our wonderful sermons, our great pastoral care, and our excellent leadership skills. When you hear these things, know the seduction is begun. This is when we learn how well our ego needs are being met. If we rely on the affirmation of a congregation to meet our ego needs, we will give into the seduction every time. If we are more differentiated, have a systems understanding of congregations, and are convinced God is in the leaving experience, then we will resist this attractive call. Remember, ministry is not about you, it’s about God’s kingdom. Get your personal love, affirmation, and ego needs met elsewhere.

Leaving well basically comes down to love. How much do we love this congregation? Enough to let go and trust them into God’s care as expressed through the next pastors and staff members? It’s your call.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA

Contact Mark at