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How to Leave Your Church Without Hurting It

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“A few lessons that may help make your last Sunday be a happy ending rather than a hurtful one.”

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Those of us who have the privilege of serving on a church staff will eventually leave our ministry posts. A few years ago, I resigned from the church I loved and served at for 13 years in order to accept my new ministry assignment to serve pastors with LifeWay.

I would like to share a few lessons I learned from this transition that may help make your last Sunday be a happy ending rather than a hurtful one.

Step 1—Inform Key Leaders Early

In Baptist circles, the pastor does not usually choose his successor because of our congregational polity, but he can leverage his influence to help make the transition as smooth as possible.

It was both a matter of integrity and practicality to immediately inform a handful of the most obvious leaders of our church of my plans to transition out. Soon after, I invited them to my home and asked them to guide my decisions by becoming my personal “transition team.” From that first monthly meeting, every decision would be a “we” decision, which paid off later for the church.

Step 2—Overcommunicate to the Congregation

Fortunately, our church constitution plainly laid out the next steps for the search and interim process. My job was to make sure those policies were implemented fairly and communicated consistently. You cannot overcommunicate transition steps, because their need for clarity and reinforcement is exponentially greater during a transition. Sheep tend to get “sheepish” whenever a shepherd leaves, so make sure they hear and read about what is about to happen next from you as well as other visible leaders.

Step 3—Think and Act Like an Interim

I understand why some of you might be uncomfortable with the idea of turning over your keys of leadership to a group of leaders so quickly. It was almost counterintuitive for me, but I knew that the moment I said “yes” to LifeWay, I literally had become a temporary (interim) leader.

In regard to long-term ministry initiatives, it gradually became easier for me to “become quick to hear [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Step 4—Love Your People Deeply

It may seem natural to withdraw emotionally during the weeks or months of your transition, but I want to strongly encourage you to fight that temptation. If you want to finish strong, then love without reservation until the very last day. Better yet, love past that last day because they need to be loved by you even when they are no longer led by you. Go the second mile by reaching out to them in small ways that will not become a distraction or competition.

A church is a family, regardless of where you are on the org chart or payroll. After a new pastor has been chosen to succeed you, back way off, but don’t feel compelled to disconnect to the point where the sheep feel abandoned by you.

Step 5—Serve Enthusiastically to the End

Early into Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, the San Francisco Giants’ second baseman Joe Panik made an amazing catch-and-release double play. Royals’ first baseman Eric Hosmer was initially called “safe” on first, but it was so close that it was challenged and overturned (a World Series first). They showed several replays of Hosmer diving headfirst, which actually slowed him down and may have cost him an out and the close game. Regardless, I LOVED his enthusiasm!

It was more than ethics that motivated me to devote myself fully to my job at hand. My desire to finish strong was rooted in my conviction to the calling God had given me 13 years earlier.

Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men. (Col. 3:23)

Step 6—Focus on Both Your Staff’s and Successor’s Success

Helping the staff that is staying through the transition will not only benefit them, but it will also set your successor up for success by reinforcing a culture of honor. “Double honor” is a biblical principle for all pastors, not just the senior pastor.

Look for opportunities to support the existing staff both publicly and privately. I asked our personnel committee to help our church to observe Pastor’s Appreciation month for our staff after I left, which they were very happy to do.

I want to commend Second Baptist, Conway, Arkansas, for sending me out with the kind of love and honor that any pastor could hope for. I also want to thank William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird for their very helpful book, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, which taught me that, “The one cardinal rule for pastoral succession is that there is no cardinal rule for pastoral succession.” They wrote about several successful models that have been used, as well as several models that were used unsuccessfully.

What are some transition steps that proved helpful in your personal experience? What are some missteps that other pastors should avoid?

Mark Dance (@MarkDance) is a veteran church planter, pastor and director of LifeWay pastors at LifeWay Christian Resources. This article was originally published on LifeWay.com/pastors. For more: MarkDance.net