Thoughts on navigating transition
If you have been in ministry for any period of time, you have experienced the conversation. You get an email, a text message, or a soft knock on your door and the words "can we talk?" Instantly, you get a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, and a valued teammate shares that they think their season of ministry at your church is coming to an end.
When these conversations happen, our emotions are typically all over the place: panic, relief, betrayal, rejection, confusion, exhaustion, and fear for starters. If we aren't careful, these emotions can take control of our response and do significant damage to the church, our leadership, and the teammate who is leaving. When having transition conversations with church leaders, I typically find myself reminding them of three things:
- Breathe: This is not a surprise to God. He is not unaware of what is going on and he has not forsaken you.
- This is not about you: It can be easy to make this personal. Feelings of betrayal, rejection, and resentment can creep in if we are not on guard. So often, a person's leaving is the result of a significant time of wrestling with God and discerning what they are being called to. Be careful not to allow your hurt feelings to be an impediment to someone pursuing a new calling from God.
- Pastor your people: A transition is a time of mourning. When someone who has been relationally knit into the community discerns that it is time to leave, there is a grieving process that takes place, within your staff team, your congregation, and in your staff member and their family. It can be easy to write off the needs of the person who is leaving (and their family) as a punishment for their abandonment, but we are called to pastor them well through the transition.
As a youth ministry major during my undergrad years, I was encouraged to give a church 90-days notice when my season of ministry was coming to a close. We were taught that this would allow us to create a transition plan, a communication plan, and allow for any loose ends to be tied up before leaving. This also would give the church's leadership a head start on determining what next steps should be for the position, and allow exit interviews to be conducted.
Over the last few years, I have noticed a disturbing trend where a staff member is essentially terminated on the spot (or relatively quickly thereafter) upon revealing to church leadership that they believe that God is calling them to something new. While there are times when this can be an appropriate course of action, I would argue that these are rare. The vast majority of pastoral staff want nothing more than to finish their time at your church well, in a God honoring way. It behooves us to remember this in our conversations. I believe that the corporate practice of (relatively) immediate termination upon revelation of a change of God's calling does more damage to your congregation, your staff culture, and your own leadership than good.
During these awkward seasons, celebrate the move of God in the life of your teammate. Allow them to opportunity to transition well out of your church, and shepherd them through this season. Expect the best out of them and you may be surprised at how a tough season might strengthen you church in the long-term.