When a pastor leaves a church, it is always difficult for both the congregation and the pastor. Often it can be a time of confusion, grief, and even anger. In this blog entry, I would like to look at this issue from the pastoral viewpoint. In a future blog, I will look at it from the congregational viewpoint. Feel free to respond via e-mail or in one of the social network sites on the “Contact Us” link.
It is important to make a distinction between a pastor leaving voluntarily or because he/she is forced to leave a church. How a pastor leaves will have a huge impact on how he/she reacts to the exit. If the exit is due to being forced to leave, often anger and bitterness can result toward the church or towards God. There may be often a feeling of relief that the “ordeal” is over. It is also important to distinguish that “force outs” can take place in different forms. Some pastors are forced out because of church conflict and turmoil which has its own set of dynamics of anger and bitterness. Other pastors are forced to leave because they are in a denomination where someone makes the decision for them-a bishop or a district official for the denomination. This takes place within denominations like the United Methodists who are appointed to pastoral positions and the decision is made by someone in authority rather than the congregation. This can cause a variety of reactions in the pastor including disappointment and anger toward the denominational hierarchy or great relief especially if the local church setting was not a pleasant one. In this case, the feeling may not be all unlike the feeling a pitcher gets in a baseball game when the manager comes to take him out of the game after giving up eight runs. The result may be a combination of anger and relief-anger that the game did not go as planned and relief that someone finally put an end to a night of having every pitch being hit out of the ballpark. Pastoral ministry can resemble that at times. Other pastors may be forced to leave due to health reasons or other personal reasons. No matter what shape the “force out” takes, a variety of issues face the pastor including anger, guilt, bitterness, relief or a sense of failure.
But what about the voluntary exit? This is one I can readily relate to. Things are going well at church. Generally speaking, conflict is held in check. The pastor has a good rapport with the people. Often a pastor in such situations has had many years in one church and has a number of close relationships. But in spite of a satisfying ministry, sometimes there is a call to a new church or a new ministry. In my case, I was at a point in life that it was time to pursue my long-time vision of being a church consultant. It wasn’t over being disappointed in what I was doing, but it was clearly in the Holy Spirit’s prompting for me to move in a different direction.
As I reflect on the different “phases” I went through in leaving voluntarily my pastorate of almost 19 years in my church, I can clearly see how God’s hand was on each phase. But in this blog, I thought it might be helpful to outline each phase of making the voluntary decision to leave.
The first phase, I would call the DECISION phase where the choice is actually made. Up until then, there may have been some soul searching as well as fact finding about the future. Once the decision is made to leave (which can happen months or even years before), steps are taken to begin the process of making the exit-resumes and profiles are sent out or, in my case, training and certification is pursued.
The second phase can best be described as the ANXIETY phase where all of the fears and questions race through one’s mind. For me, it was the struggle of how I would tell the congregation that I deeply loved (and I know who deeply loved me) that I was leaving. For me, to leave the church that I had pastored for nearly two decades was one of the most agonizing decisions I had ever made. What made the decision so agonizing was realizing how hard it would be to tell the congregation.
The third phase is called the RELIEF phase. After I told the leaders and the congregation that I was leaving, a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. Since there were some things that needed to be taken care of before I made the announcement, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the upcoming announcement hidden from the congregation. But when I finally was able to spell it out to the congregation, there was a sense of relief.
The fourth phase was the GRIEVING phase. It was a time of many tears and the replaying of many memories. This phase can go well past the actual day that one leaves especially if it involves retirement or in the pursuit of a much different type of ministry or career. As I reflect back, my worst day of grieving was on the day after I had stepped down from my church. I realized that I was no longer a pastor and there was a certain emptiness in my mind and heart. However, this phase can often be intertwined with the fifth phase, the phase of JOY, GRATITUDE, and CELEBRATION. I actually experienced these phases simultaneously and it was not unusual to find myself oscillating back and forth from depression and sheer joy that I have much to be thankful for.
The final phase is what I call the RELEASE phase. It is the time where there is a peace that the church will survive and will move on and with God’s help, will do just fine. It is the phase where the pastor can let go of the ministry and give it to the hands of God. I found myself actually beginning this phase even before I preached my last sermon on the last day of my ministry in the church. During the last month of meetings, I realized that the concerns and the direction that each church board was dealing with was no longer my issue. I could release these concerns knowing that it was no longer on my shoulders and that God would raise up another leader to help guide the church. It is important to note that the “release” phase takes time and I find myself still in the process of working though this as I am barely a month past the date when I left my ministry to move in a new direction. Releasing 19 years of ministry is a slow process that cannot be unraveled in just a month and takes time to work through. Yet when a pastor is able to release his/her former church into the loving arms of the Savior, God is able to do a new work and the Kingdom is advanced for the glory of the Lord.