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How to Leave Your Church Without Hurting It

Those of us who have the privilege of serving on a church staff will eventually leave our ministry posts. I recently resigned from the church I have loved and served 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 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—Over-Communicate 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 over-communicate 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 Differently

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 seven of the World Series last week, the Giant’s second baseman, Joe Panik, made an amazing catch and release double-play. Royal’s 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!

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Mark Dance serves as associate vice president for pastoral leadership at LifeWay Christian Resources. A native Texan, Mark pastored churches in Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas before joining LifeWay. He has been married to Janet Kendrick since 1988, and they have two children: Holly and Brad.