Transitioning Well: A Pastor’s Story Plus Resources
Eric Spivey, Pinnacle Associate
Resource link at the bottom of the page
At the beginning of 2019 I said “yes” to God’s call to become the senior pastor of a new Baptist church. In my Baptist tradition, saying “yes” meant allowing a pastor search committee to submit my name to their church for an official vote after a call weekend and trial sermon. At that moment of saying “yes” to a new church, I took my first step of saying goodbye to my current congregation.
Ending well as a senior pastor allows both pastor and people to move more quickly into God’s future. Unlike other pastoral skills, though, it is an infrequent skill set. Ending well requires high intentionality, constant attention, and low ego. In the 2 months between my “yes” to a new church and officially turning in the keys to my former church, I learned 5 lessons for ending well as senior pastor.
1. Prepare to end well
Begin with the end in mind. For several weeks, I knew about my upcoming move before my current congregation. I used these silent weeks to envision what ending well would look for my church and me. I reflected on the question: “What can I do to help my church enter into its next season?”
While working out details with my future church, I spent time reading, listening, and working with a coach on the steps needed to end well. By the time my family and I were driving home after a wonderful call weekend, I had a plan in place for how I would say goodbye. I prayed God would use this plan to help my church and me end well.
2. Control the narrative … until you cannot
I only had one shot at breaking the news to my church about my departure. To do it well, I needed to control the narrative. In the days of social media and smart phones, information moves quickly in our small religious circles. I did several things to control the narrative of my exit before the news became public. I wanted individuals and the congregation to hear the news from me first. I controlled my narrative in several things.
First, I asked my new church not to use my name in any digital, online mediums. This meant passing out brochures and resumes on paper to the congregation. I also asked the congregation to withhold any social media posts until I told my current church.
Second, I acted quickly. Once I was officially called as pastor, I contacted the key personnel leaders in my current church. I told them of the news of my departure, my desire to end well, and the need for confidentiality. These calls were my first experiences of the grief on the horizon.
Third, I worked with my congregational leaders to address ending details. I wanted to answer all questions about my departure - my final Sunday, my last day in the office – at the same time the church heard the news.
Fourth, I shared the news with my staff personally. This required some late night visits for they to be the first in the congregation to know.
Fifth, I made the effort to communicate in person my departure with key leaders and friends within the congregation. Many of these were on the pastor search committee who brought me to the church.
Finally, within two days of the call to the new church, the church sent out an email with two letters to the congregation. The first letter, from the congregational leaders, explained my departure and the congregational process for moving forward. The second letter from me announced my resignation, my love for the church and my hope for its future.
My intentional efforts to control the narrative of my departure allowed me to share with staff, friends, leaders and the congregation a message of hope for their future as they prepared to enter an uncertain future of transition.
3. Educate, Don’t manage
From the moment my email to the congregation went public, my pastoral, positional power began to shift. Automatically, the congregation and leaders began to look past me to what was coming next. My ability as leader to manage what happened after I left disappeared.
Rather than manage the future, I chose to educate my leaders and the church. While transitions remain rare for pastors, they are also rare for congregations where leaders move in an out.
I developed a Stages of Congregational Transition worksheet for my leaders. I outlined first steps in securing guest speakers, the bylaw provisions for selecting an interim pastor, and the churches process of selecting a pastor search team. I outlined a variety of resources for churches from our denominational partners.
I also made myself available to key church leaders if they wanted more information. These conversations opened opportunities to explain denominational politics and answer questions.
Choosing to educate rather than manage the transition allowed the church to shift its eyes from me as pastoral leader and to the congregational leaders who would lead them through the coming transition.
4. Shift relationships
Once the initial work of communication and education were complete, my work as pastor shifted to relationships. I spent my time around tables and living rooms laughing and crying with many within my congregation as we recounted stories of our life together.
My goal in shifting these relationships was to move from pastor to friend. The congregation would call a new pastor. This person would be their pastor, not me. Ending well means no longer being enmeshed in the life of the church. Helping the church see me in a new way – as a friend – allowed them to look forward to their new pastoral leader.
5. Turn in Your Keys
Finally, ending well means making sure all the personnel and administrative logistics are done correctly. If we do everything else correctly and miss this important element, we can leave a stain on our departure.
Depending on the size of the church, leaving a pastorate can vary from a highly cooperate personnel exit process to a simple family departure. Either way, the pastor needs to take responsibility to make sure the details of their weekly work are properly accounted.
For me, this meant handing off access to the church website and social media. I worked with our office staff to transfer important files. I transferred data from my computer, wiped it cleaned and returned to the church.
Eventually, two months after saying “yes” to the new congregation, I stood in the empty pastor’s office of my former church. With my books resting on the moving truck outside, I stopped for a moment. Memories of incredible moments of pastoral ministry in that room flooded my spirit – professions of faith, confessions of sin, vocational callings, staff meetings, leadership meetings, and Bible study. In that moment, with tears in my eyes, I thanked God for the blessing to be pastor of this wonderful church. Then, I walked out the door. I was now pastor of a new church. A good ending led to a wonderful new start.