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Leaving Well

The way a minister leaves can profoundly affect a congregation more than ministers often realize. And we’re under obligation, as far as it depends on us as ministers of the Gospel, to leave well. But what does that mean?

But that doesn’t constitute leaving well. In fact, the way a minister leaves can profoundly affect a congregation more than ministers often realize. And we’re under obligation, as far as it depends on us as ministers of the Gospel, to leave well.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
But what does that mean? 
 
First, leave when it’s time. How do you know when it’s time? They may tell you, which raises a whole different set of issues. More likely, though, you’ll come to the place where it just doesn’t fit anymore. In one church, I realized quite suddenly one day that the next set of issues facing the church would require a different leader.
 
From that day, I began looking for God’s next opportunity for me.
 
In Baptist life, it commonly takes pastors one to two years from the time they begin looking to make a move—which means we need to pay attention. One minister friend tells me he prayerfully re-examines his situation at least every six months. He stays alert to the Spirit’s promptings. So should we all.
 
Having said that though, don’t leave too quickly or impulsively. All ministry situations are stressful. All entail conflict. Storming out the door never helped anything. The minister who leaves without God’s specific call elsewhere may create a far bigger mess for those she leaves behind.
 
Second, leave enough time to say goodbye. An amazing number of pastors hate saying goodbye. Some wait until the last possible moment to make their announcement. When I left this year, I made my announcement two months in advance. That felt like a very long time to me.
 
Still, it proved to be much more useful than I expected. Some said goodbye that first afternoon. Some weren’t ready to take leave at the final reception. Others came by at their own initiative during those weeks, as they got ready. And my family and I got the chance to process with friends, which proved to be important for all of us.

Third, leave behind all the blessing you can. It took me a while to learn this. I titled my last sermon at my first church, “A Few Things I’ve Been Meaning to Say.” They said, quite rightly, “So why didn’t you tell us this before?” The simple answer is, “I should have.” 
 
So keep the relationship as clear as you can along the way. When it comes time to go, offer the church the gift of your gratitude, your appreciation and your blessing. In the church I left this year, we devised a litany of exchanging blessings for our final service together. They seemed very grateful, and I have seldom been more moved. 
 
Fourth, leave prescriptions sparingly. In one sense, you don’t have to worry too much about this. No one’s more irrelevant to a church’s decision-making processes than a pastor who’s just announced his or her resignation. Still, we pastors tend to think we know what’s best for others, including the church we’ve just decided to leave.
 
Trying to determine what they do next, though, is always a mistake. For your friends, it’s important that they know you trust them to do well. For the others (and there will always be others!), it’s important that they know you’re not continuing to exert leadership from afar. 
 
So what can you say? It depends on the situation. Generally, I’ve confined my remarks to a few trusted leaders, always making it clear that I encourage them to take my perspective as just one piece of information, and to do what they believe best under God.
 
One pastor friend joked, “Seeing who the church calls next is like seeing who your ex-wife marries!” So it is. But that’s part of the price of saying goodbye. 
 
Fifth, leave. Nothing can harm the church you say you love more than trying to stir the pot after you’ve gone. The American Baptist Code of Ethics for ministers specifically says, “I will, upon my resignation or retirement, sever my professional church leadership relations with my former constituents, and will not make professional contacts in the field of another professional church leader without his/her request and/or consent.”
 
Once they have a new pastor, don’t do funerals. Don’t do weddings. Don’t give pastoral counsel. Especially, don’t give pastoral counsel. Leave the field free for those who come after you, and they will rise up and call you blessed.
 
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.