Pastoral Transitions 20
For several months now on this blog we have been looking at pastoral transitions. I have sought to address this from as many viewpoints as possible, but my overall approach has largely been chronological. We have discussed how to know when it is time to go, how to decide what to look for next, what to do for your current church once you have made the decision to go, how to execute your plan to look for another ministry, how to handle delays, what the candidating process looks like, how to deal with being voted down, and how a church should approach the pastoral search process from their side. That brings us to the next step in this process – your own resignation. At some point, almost always after you have secured your next ministry position, you will offer your resignation to your current ministry. What is the best way to do that? How can you soften that blow? How can you do it in such a way that even in this you are ministering to your people?
First, inform your deacons privately. For years, they have had your back. For years, you have labored together in partnership with them. You have wept together, laughed together, prayed together, planned together, worried together, struggled together, fought together, lost together, won together. They deserve better than to be blindsided in a public service. Instinctively, your church will turn to them in the storm that is about to come. Let them prepare themselves for that by telling them ahead of time.
In that deacons meeting, it is important that you emphasize your decision is not because of their lack of followship or problems you are currently experiencing as a pastor. And that needs to be the truth. Next, explain the reasons that have dictated your decision. In such settings, it goes without saying you should not lie. It does not then follow that you have to say everything you think, believe, or plan. Some men give no reasons because they do not want to have to answer questions or try to dance around things. I think that is bad pastoring. Tell them why, though not necessarily all the why. They will naturally have questions, perhaps even angry, antagonistic ones. Accept that. They will be surprised and hurt. Minister grace and truth to them in your responses.
Following this initial notice on your part and succeeding discussion, take a few moments to plan what comes next. Do not overload them here. They need time to process this before you dive into the specifics of their responsibilities in this transition. Explain to them the timing of the events that will follow – how and when you will tell the church, how long you will remain as pastor, and when your next planning meeting will be.
I would also counsel that you and your deacon chairman prepare a statement that he can provide to the church. Following your public resignation, he should come to the pulpit and read this statement. Its purpose is to help settle and calm the initial nervousness that will come to your church when you resign. As he reads it, he should seek to portray a calm, controlled, everything-is-going-to-be-ok vibe. He should express gratitude on behalf of the church for your service, but a desire that the pastor continue to follow God’s will for his life. He should announce to the people that the deacons will meet very soon to begin planning the transition, and then he should close in prayer.
Second, decide what format to use to resign. Some men do it via letter or email. Some men do it in a huff, or in a rambling and emotional speech at the conclusion of a service. In my opinion, it ought to be done in person via a prepared statement. Your people love you. Look them in the eye when you tell them. Do it in person, but use a prepared statement so you can ensure clear communication. I think it is best done at the conclusion of the Sunday morning service. The end of a service is better than the beginning for they will not be able to think about anything else once you resign. Plus, you can tailor the service to help prepare them for it. Your Sunday morning crowd is probably your largest crowd, and yet many of them will return Sunday night. This will allow you to minister to them the same day, softening the impact. Otherwise, you have to send them away from a service with your resignation the last thing on their mind for days. So do it in person on Sunday morning via prepared statement.
Third, in the message that immediately precedes your resignation preach about trusting God. They will forget the message when you resign but they will remember the context of the resignation later and the message will help them.
Fourth, read your resignation at the conclusion of the Sunday morning service. It needs to be a relatively short (not more than a few hundred words) summation of what you told the deacons in the prior meeting you had with them. Have your deacon chairman follow immediately with the statement he has prepared, and then have him dismiss in prayer.
Fifth, decide ahead of time whether you are going to answer questions or not. I think this is an either/or kind of thing with no middle ground. I resigned on Sunday morning, and I chose to stand up on Sunday night and answer every possible question I could from the entire church. I did this in public because I wanted to control the narrative of what everyone heard, and I did it for an entire service because I wanted to get it largely behind me and behind the church. Such things are curious combinations of fear, worry, anger, confusion, frustration, and misunderstanding, yes, but they are also opportunities for you to display patience, grace, and lovingkindness. The next sentence I write is probably the most important one of the entire blog post – the way you conduct yourself as you leave a ministry determines whether your continued long term influence is beneficial or problematic. Do not throw hand grenades over your shoulder as you walk out the door. At all costs, be gracious and loving. They have no idea how much you have struggled, to get to this point or once you got to it. They do not know your deep pain and almost certainly never will this side of Heaven. Now is not the time to vent that. Jesus suffered the little children. Suffer God’s children. Minister to them in your suffering and take yours later to Christ alone. And continue in this mindset for the weeks remaining of your service to them. It is absolutely critical.
Sixth, brace yourself and your family. Several times in this post I have alluded to how your people will respond. I have not undersold it. If you are a good minister of Jesus Christ your people will love you. They will trust you. And your decision will come as a betrayal to them. They will feel like a jilted wife, one whose husband has just told her he is leaving. This is not rational; it is emotional. It is also eminently understandable, or ought to be on your part. As a result, they will lash out in numerous, sometimes contradictory ways. They will accuse you of lying in your explanation, of being under-handed in how you have approached it, of abandoning them, of never loving them in the first place, of hypocrisy, of hiding something, of leaving them to flounder while you sail off on smooth seas into a beautiful sunset. They are hurt, and hurt people hurt people. You cannot control their response nor are you responsible for it, but you are responsible for your own response. It will help you to respond with grace and charity and deep patience if you and your family prepare for what is coming ahead of time. As the weeks pass, they will go through the stages of grief and finally come to acceptance. Do not damage your relationship with them while they are in that process, minister to them in it.
We have spoken before in this series of how to prepare your church for your resignation. That context was earlier in this transition process, before they were aware of it. Now your resignation is open and public. How do you lead your church well in the weeks you have left? What should you do? How do you prepare your church for its future after you have resigned? That is the subject of next week’s blog post.
See you all then.