No one is an expert on leaving, but I believe we clergy might learn together how to leave well. My first performance in the role of a pastor leaving came as I finished my internship. In my farewell remarks, I declared that since the seminary was only 50 miles away, it was not as if I were really leaving. Being so close, I could come back often to visit.
As I drove away, I realized what I had done. I had avoided the fact of my leaving. Although the seminary was close, my education had its own drives and deadlines. When I returned to school, my classes, activities, research, and just plain life would keep me on campus. Struck by the insight, I vowed to say good-bye to the congregations I would leave thereafter—out of respect for the people and for my own integrity.
Since I work as an intentional interim pastor, leaving is a continual part of my ministry. A typical interim stint lasts between 8 and 15 months. By necessity, leaving is on my mind and heart from the first time I hear about a congregation. This does not mean that I leave well—just that I do it frequently.
The Well-Done Exit
Leaving is no trick. You just get up and go. Yet in his book Generation to Generation, therapist Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman declares how great a gift it is for clergy to leave a congregation well. He further implies that by not leaving well, we may cloud the parishioners’ future pastoral relationships more than we imagine.(1) Few of us intentionally make a congregation’s life more difficult, but that outcome can result from our words or actions. An exit done well enhances the value of a congregation’s and a clergy leader’s ministry as much as or more than the attention originally given to the relationships. Leaving well graces a congregation, since it allows the organization and its members the best opportunity to grieve and regroup. It allows the pastor time to mourn while saying good-bye. He will move on to the next chapter in his life with some measure of closure and a healthier focus on the future.
The intellectual clarity we have about leaving well is difficult to put into practice. Since clergy do not spend much of ministry leaving congregations, we are inexperienced at making graceful exits. The process of leaving can be bewildering and stressful for both congregation and clergy. Under stress, we are likely to rely on old, familiar patterns of behavior.(2) As clergy, we are trained to connect with others. Little attention is given in our work to disconnection. In the face of stress, personal effectiveness ebbs. We may feel distracted, unbalanced, off center, our focus skewed.
Moreover, what passes for care nowadays is often superficial. Instead of caring, we learn to be nice. If the congregational system has practiced niceness, then the hard, gritty, graceful, effective work of leaving can be lost in a flurry of well-meaning activity or avid avoidance. Such behaviors have more to do with covering all the bases than with productive ministry.
Wherever you and the people you serve are in ministry, the issue is not leaving, but leaving well. Some suggested strategies follow.
Above all, provide yourself periods of quiet with God in the midst of leaving. Yes, there is much to be done. But you do not have to do everything before you leave. Nor must everything that needs to be done be done by you. Presumably, even a pastor is saved by grace, not by works. Therefore, doing good in the closing weeks will not improve your chances with our ultimate boss!
Plan for quiet time alone. Arrange quiet times with family and friends. Throughout your ministry, it is wise to reserve blocks of unscheduled time in your weekly calendar. Perhaps you have already discovered the value of making time for prayer, devotion, retreat, or reflection.(3) If not, now is a good time to start. Especially while leaving, allow extra time for the unexpected. The fact that you are leaving is no guarantee that unforeseen events will not happen. Indeed, your imminent departure might occasion “unexpected” events generated by people who always meant to say or do something. These incidents may yield last-minute confrontations, reunions, and reconciliations.
Draft a Plan
Draft a plan for your final weeks. The Alban Institute offers a variety of helpful resources. I recommend the books Running Through the Thistles and New Beginnings, as well as “Ending Well, Starting Strong” (a six-cassette audio series), all by church expert Roy Oswald; Saying Goodbye by consultant Edward A. White; and Critical Moment of Ministry by consultant Loren B. Mead.(4) Ask your colleagues for other recommendations.
At its core, leaving well involves for me two elements: grief (mine, the congregation’s, and ours together) and the reality of the impending change. To the best of my abilities, I mean to express my grief over the severing of long-standing, close relationships. I also want to attend to the varied expressions of grief from individuals and from the congregation as a whole. The ways I grieve may not coincide with how others around me feel the loss.5 At the same time, I intend to declare steadfastly that the upcoming separation is upon us. For me, this admission is difficult. I like making attachments. I like being admired for who and what I am. It would be far easier and more gratifying to maintain my personal contacts, but what would my continued relationship with parishioners do to enhance the ministry of the one who comes after me? While I do not like the impending loss, I have to assert that loss to be real, and to be coming soon for all concerned. Craft your plan for leaving around these elements.
Involve other people in that plan, perhaps those you consulted during your decision to leave. Maybe those who helped you decide to come here in the first place will offer their support. Include your family members in formal and informal farewells, giving them opportunities and space to grieve and say good-bye. Discuss with them your hopes, fears, and dreams about leaving. Listen to their emotions, thoughts, and sensations. What was best about your joint venture here? What patterns would you want to repeat? Which would you hope to avoid or minimize elsewhere?
Since much of the work we have done is ongoing, it is essential to leave a paper trail. Ensure that pastoral records are current. Make certain that information which only you might know either goes with you (if it is confidential), or is readily at hand (if the congregation or the next pastor may need it). Leave an envelope (sealed, if need be) with a trusted leader or a denominational official, indicating your perception of your 10 or so greatest triumphs and your 10 or so deepest regrets. Include items you wish you had known when you first came, as well as insights and epiphanies regarding your years with the congregation. List projects and plans that are in process. Indicate your perception of where members are with the plans.
List also potential contacts in congregation and community. Include a listing of significant community-wide groups, clergy Bible studies, ministerial groups, useful denominational meetings, formal or informal support groups, gifted counselors, community leaders, and the like. Establish a format and timetable for your exit interview.
The Exit Interview
Surprisingly few congregations that I have served had had previous experience with exit interviews. An interview is an excellent way to summarize your learning together. Your judicatory office may have a document or recommended format. One good method: Write a list of questions for the congregation’s council or governing board to use at its last meeting before your departure. I ask council members to submit additional questions. Sample questions are mailed three weeks before
our meeting, giving sufficient time to ponder the questions. At our last meeting, I answer the questions face-to-face and hand a written copy of my report to the secretary. The format includes my initial expectations of the parish, my unfulfilled aspirations, my major accomplishments, my perspective on the congregation’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, my hopes for the congregation’s future, and other pertinent insights. I ask the members to provide written and spoken comments on my chief strengths and weaknesses, and to assess the effectiveness of my ministry among them.
Before our final meeting, council members agree whether we will discuss these matters as a group, or if a smaller group will meet beforehand for this conversation. The congregation may need to hear again how its strengths are perceived, so that it can use these resources as it prepares to welcome a new pastor.
The Temptation of Silence
As with any other crisis, the end of a mutual ministry focuses the minds of individuals and groups on a common topic more sharply than usual. Their rapt attention gives you as their spiritual leader enormous leverage to interpret their past and to suggest possible futures. Use this gift wisely. As pastors, we sometimes shrink from power. When we recognize an opportunity for wielding authority, at a time when people are most attentive, we may choose silence with the best of intentions. We want to be fair-minded and evenhanded. We do not want to influence unduly the place or its people.(6) We may decide to say nothing. But that choice may rob us of the opportunity to bestow a great gift on the congregation.
Recognize that your silence will influence a congregation as much as speech. Silence may be misinterpreted as indifference or disapproval. As people, we project emotions, fantasies, and motives onto others’ silence. I think of students from my adolescent years who I first assumed were haughty. Only much later did I discover that many were painfully unsure of themselves. I misread their silence as arrogance, when in fact their quiet manner reflected their own fears. Consider making an extra effort while leaving to express your feelings to church members.
Make a Clean Break
Disengage from community affairs and obligations. Schedule no events for the new pastor, and make no promises to third parties about what he will or will not do in your stead. If groups are truly interested in securing the gifts and talents of the next pastor, suggest that they wait to make the contact until she arrives. Inventory your current commitments to civic groups, community organizations, boards and commissions, retirement-home worship services or visits, chaplain relief work or on-call duties. Resign from them if you are leaving the area. Do not promise that the new pastor will take over your areas of interest. Create space for that person’s ministry to develop as yours did.
In regard to planned events like weddings, begin meeting with engaged couples as you regularly would. At the same time, remind couples that you will not be officiating at their wedding. You can make conditional plans with the bride and her fiancé, but final plans need to be cleared with the incoming pastor, who will officiate. The fact that you prefer, require, or prohibit certain practices does not mean that your successor will hold those same views.
As you prepare to leave, make a list of essential contacts and farewells. Note those to whom you want to say a special good-bye—in the membership at large, the leadership, staff, and wider community. Then determine how to visit them. Keep a core group such as the executive committee, church elders, or senior officers apprised of your plans and your timetable. Remain open to their guidance, insights, and questions.
Church consultant Lyle Schaller once said that if an organization or a group of people is told something six times, in six different ways, most of the folk are likely to hear it once!(7) As you depart, seek to include several means of communication. Routine means include the sermon, verbal announcements, leaflets, the church newsletter and worship bulletin, and local newspapers. One way to let everyone know that you are leaving is a special letter. You might use a mass mailing to the entire mailing list, as well as some individual correspondence. For some contacts, you will want to send a personal card. You will preferably want to tell key officers, staff members, and influential though unelected leaders face-to-face, or if that is impossible, in a telephone call. For personal visits, plan where to meet—at the member’s workplace, at a home, in a restaurant, at some favorite spot, or at the church.
While planning visits, be aware of the meeting times of significant groups. Ask to be placed on the agenda. Give yourself a time limit with each group. Prepare to be flexible. Practice being a gracious giver and receiver. A pastor’s list of contacts often includes significant friends; key lay leaders, formal and informal; favorite supporters; “sparring partners”; and even long-term adversaries. Plan what you intend to say and then listen to your conversation partner. Remember, you are the one who is leaving. Your longed-for outcomes may not come to pass. Your expectations for the visit may not be shared by the one with whom you meet, but it is a faithful act to make the effort.
Work the Plan
Within limits of personal wisdom and stamina, give attention to working out your farewell plan. This plan is your “agenda” for the time remaining. Everything else is secondary. This is especially true of those “emergencies” that crop up, those that only you can solve. Really? Only you? Have the members no other savior? Are people fundamentally helpless without you? How have you contributed to making them helpless? These last weeks are a good time to begin letting others handle matters that you have “taken over” during your tenure. The members will need to learn to do without you when you go. Why not help them, by standing on the sidelines, cheering them on? Let them emote with you and survive that confrontation. As you go about your work, be generous and gracious with yourself and others. Remember to be yourself. For example, if you hate saying good-byes, admit it. Take the time to say what needs to be said—and to listen.
The fact that we live and work in redemptive communities is of enormous value in times of farewell. Where better to note our failures and accomplishments than at the foot of Christ’s cross? During this time, farewell scriptures will come to mind. Many Old Testament pilgrimage stories are appropriate. Philippians 4:8 reminds us of God’s blessings in everything. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul declares that we are all common laborers in God’s extraordinary enterprise: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the increase.” In 1 Thess. 4:13, we are called to grieve with hope. In the biblical narrative we are continually reminded where to ground our hope. Our hope is in Christ Jesus. How have you effected hope in Christ Jesus here? At the Last Day, if never before, we shall be united with one another. The gift of that news can carry you and the people you serve through any separation.
The Next Place
Sooner or later, the “new” place, if you are called to a new place, will get in touch, asking your opinion is on something. Unless it is a matter of long-range planning (or something like the color of carpeting for your office), avoid the temptation to instruct the members of that “new” congregation.
While they have no resident pastor, their system is open in ways that it will not be until another pastoral vacancy. If you jump in to tell the members what to do, you will never know whether they have the capacity to make wise decisions on their own. Let them be. Allow them to act. Let them see themselves making wise choices.
You might even instruct
them that your deepest desire is for them to make good decisions on their own. This knowledge should have a freeing effect on a group’s capacity to want to think and act. This quality will serve you well when you arrive as the pastoral leader. The lay leaders will be strong and confident if their choices went well. If not, they will have learned valuable lessons about themselves and the congregation they serve. An added benefit is that you will be free to spend time at the place you are leaving, instead of dividing your attention unduly, worrying both about the members of the congregation you now serve and the one you are soon to lead.
Restrict your decisions with the next congregation to matters of taste and decor, such as the types of furnishings you desire or require. You may have to consider housing—certainly if you plan to buy or rent a place in the new area. If the congregation is planning renovations to the parsonage (manse, rectory), what is the nature and extent of the plans? A design-conscious member of your family will want a role in those decisions. When opinions differ over simply fixing up a parsonage or fixing it up for you and your family, how you, your family, and the congregation address the question may provide clues to how you will work together in the future.
If you or the new congregation’s leaders must deal with the future in a concerted way, suggest that you hold a short (two- to four-hour) retreat with the leadership to agree on the coming year’s top two or three items of focus. Then let the “new” leaders use that structure to keep their focus and channel the congregation’s direction until you arrive.
One of the best ways to say farewell is to say good-bye. The English word good-bye is a contracted form of the phrase God be with ye. May God be with you and the congregation you serve as you go your separate ways. We are all sojourners on this earth. As temporary residents, we work and serve together for God’s glory to the best of our individual and collective talents. Go in peace. Serve the Lord.
1. Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation (New York: Guilford, 1985), 251–253.
2. Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works (Bethesda: Alban Institute, 1993), 13–14.
3. Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 22–23.
4. Cf. The Alban Institute, 7315 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 1250W, Bethesda, MD 20814. Phone (800) 486-1318. Web site: www.alban.org.
5. Wayne Oates, Grief, Transition and Loss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 25.
6. Of course, if that were consistently true, then we would resist preaching the gospel, for it is God’s intention always to influence people and places unduly through the preaching of the Word and the hearing of it! We might similarly refrain from administering the sacraments.
7. Lyle Schaller, Hey, That’s Our Church! (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 113–115.