General CBF

Leaving the church peacefully

By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed

When a minister leaves a church, people in the congregation experience a range of emotions. Sometimes they are angry that the pastor is leaving, or maybe the way in which the pastor is departing. Some members are relieved. Many are anxious about the transition time, wondering, “Who will lead us? Who will care for the church?” 

Usually the most common feeling is sadness. Your minister has walked with you through significant moments in your life, celebrating and grieving with you. It is hard to let go of a leader to whom you have offered trust and access.

This is why exiting ministers set boundaries. In many traditions, this is a requirement set by the judicatory (e.g., state or region in CBF terms) or the denomination. In our autonomous local church polity, CBF and its states and regions cannot require this boundary-setting, but it is still the best practice.

These boundaries limit the interactions a departed pastor can have with congregants—both with in-person interaction and in the case of online contact. For example, former pastors should not attend worship or other gatherings at the church they have left for at least a year. (While there are sometimes exceptions for funerals, even then the prior pastor should contact the current leader in advance for consent.) They should not provide pastoral care to people for whom they are no longer spiritually responsible. They should not seek out social engagement with those who remain in the congregation, because it can be hard to clearly see the difference between friendship and pastor-parishioner relationship. 

These restrictions might seem harsh or unnecessary to parishioners who feel left behind. Why is my pastor cutting me off so abruptly? Why won’t my new pastor let me stay in touch with the outgoing one? Here’s the thing: Your ministers – past and present – are doing this for you and your church.

When the former pastor stays involved with the congregation or its members, it is hard for the church as a whole to move on and for individuals to bond with the new minister. When the new leader makes a proposal, everyone will swivel their heads to look to the prior pastor for approval. When the incoming pastor has a different style, those who don’t like it will go to the former pastor for spiritual accompaniment – or will at least complain about how the new person doesn’t do things the same way.

I served in an associate pastor role in my first call. There were two earlier ministers hanging around in that setting. One was the pastor emeritus, who purposefully still wielded a lot of influence, even though the senior pastor had been in place for years by that point. The last associate pastor was still hanging around as well. She didn’t attend worship on Sunday mornings, but she still popped by the office to borrow materials or the church van since she still had keys to everything, or to pick up her personal mail more than a year and a half after the end of her tenure. 

My tales are tame compared to others that I have heard, though: Parishioners who cut their current pastors out of planning and officiating funerals or weddings, turning instead to their departed minister; former pastors who leave a church and take a swath of congregants with them to seed a new faith community.  

When things like this happen, the incoming minister will have a shorter tenure than necessary, because it’s hard to compete with a beloved predecessor who won’t go away. So, the cycle of the departure of the pastor, the interim time, the search for a new minister and the installation of that leader begins again. This is costly to a congregation in terms of energy and money. It  particularly lessens momentum in fulfilling its mission.

So how can we all make this transition easier? Here are a few thoughts.

For departing pastors:

Clearly communicate the what and the why of your boundaries after you leave. Yes, it will still sting for the people you care about. But you are doing what you must to help them make space in their hearts for the new minister. You’ll probably need to reiterate your boundaries a few times, especially if you don’t fully remove parishioners from your social media or if you plan to keep living in the same area.

For congregants:

Honor your former pastor’s boundaries. It will be hard. You will want to tell them about your life or catch up on theirs. This is a loss, and it is okay to grieve that.

Know that this is hard too for your prior pastor. The last church I served has had many of its pillars die in the time since I left. Every time I learn of one, it pains me deeply. These were people who were important to me. They were key leaders in the church. But I am no longer one of their ministers, and so I lament from a distance.

Make an effort with your new minister. Take a holy risk by opening your life to a new leader. You will experience grace as a result.

For new ministers:

Know that it’s difficult for your church members. They don’t know you like they knew the former pastor yet. Give them time to trust you.

Fulfill the role. When your congregants see your capabilities and care, they will come around.

Pastors journey with congregations for a season. It’s not a marriage. It’s not intended to last forever. We do everyone a disservice when we think of pastorates this way. When pastors and people come to a fork in the road and go separate ways, may each party give thanks for all that was shared and bless the other for the next stretch of the road. 

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama

2 thoughts on “Leaving the church peacefully

  1. Good article. Exiting Pastors can damage a church if they don’t do it the correct way. I experienced a past pastor who didn’t want to hand over the passwords or the control to the website and Facebook page. Made my job so much harder. He is still in touch with many in the congregation which has made it hard to bond with them. He also has his hand in their choices of leadership. He has set them up to fail and eventually close their doors.

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