by Grady King
It’s over. The long awaited day when the minister would say his last parting words to a church has come and gone. Whether choosing to leave on good terms, follow a new call, or being terminated, there is grief. The emotions run the gamut from deep sadness and grief to relief. Some church members who have cared about the minister, choose to be gone when the minister says, “Goodbye and God Bless,” while others make snide remarks about the ministers departure. After all, it is a way of coping; of dealing with loss.
A ministers transition is unlike any other in life. Presidents leave office. CEO’s change. Principals move schools. Board members resign. And there are common characteristics to all changes in leadership, however, the relationship of a minister and a church is like no other relationship. Shared life at a spiritual level bonds people in ways that make transition complex. I have come to refer to it as “entering and leaving sacred places.” It is those places in people’s lives when they let you in–when doubt, fears, failures, regret and pain comes out. These are sacred places of deep trust and shared life.
Entering sacred places:
- Is when a sermon has opened up someone heart in life changing ways–even when you don’t know it.
- Is a prayer offered in a time of need
- Is time spent in a hospital room, or a Starbucks in the corner or on a long road trip
- Is an exchange of text messages with someone while experiencing the dark night of the soul
- Is facilitating pre-marital counseling, in officiating a wedding or having a hard conversation
- Is visiting a grave with someone a few days after their loved on is buried
As my heart surgeon friend, Larry says, “No one gets to enter the lives of people quite like a minister.” So, when the minister leaves there is an absence of one who walked into sacred places in their life. It is like the sacred place has closed like a portal that can be only opened by “that” minister.
Simply because the minister has left, does not mean the transition is complete. For both the minister and the church, it continues. The departing minister leaves the church feeling vulnerable. The familiar is gone. The bond has been severed. Even if the next minister is a “perfect fit” for the church, it will take time. Trust does not come quickly. Trust is forged on the anvil of service to others over time. There are no shortcuts.
Here are a few things that might help:
- Know the transition will be hard. This keeps you from being blind-sided by your own stuff and if you know it will be hard, you can get through it more safely.
- Anticipate some people being absent when it comes time to say “Goodbye.” Some people just don’t have the capacity to express how they feel and don’t trust their own emotion.
- Expect some people to be angry. They may displace their anger with distancing, increased sarcasm, questioning motives or blame.
- Allow people to share how they feel without patronizing them–“Oh, you’ll be just fine–you need a new minister anyway.” etc.
- Look people in the eye and speak sincerely about who they are and what they have meant to you.
Take a deep breath.
Thank God for the blessing of ministry.
Lead with humility.
Leave with grace.