Friday, March 25, 2011

Leaving Well

People leave churches.  It happens.  Unfortunately, it happens a lot.  While it may be common, it does sometimes put pastors in awkward situations.  When it's the pastor leaving the church, it puts the congregation in an awkward (at best) situation.  A pastor friend of mine was just describing it as a break-up.  We say we'll be friends and we have the best of intentions, and sometimes we do stay friends, but the truth is we used to be so much more than friends.  I think that's a pretty good description.

Sometimes the person's decision to leave is a personal reason, other times it's not.  Either way, I've always taken it personally.  I used to feel kind of guilty or weak for this feeling until I read a blog post from Adam Hamilton in which he said that no matter how many thousands of people call him pastor, he still takes it personally every time someone leaves.  And then I just read this honest and emotional article from Leadership Journal. 

The reasons for and methods of leaving have run the gamut; from people mad that I talked about money in a sermon to people needing a church with a youth group.  I've been on the wrong end of emotional explosions and attacks on my character to people tearfully telling me how much they love us and the church but that they need to make a change.  And of course, there are those who just stop showing up for worship but never bother to tell myself or anyone else.  Those are the awkward ones.  Even the bitterly angry "breakups" eventually get resolved or healing happens, but when people just ditch you without saying anything - those are the ones that cause me to duck down the aisle at Walmart when I see them coming toward me.  I used to try to hunt people down but sometime in the past couple of years, I decided I didn't need to chase people. 

But of all these different experiences, the ones that stick out in my mind are the solid leaders who have left.  The people who were "pulling their weight" so to speak - leading, serving and/or giving in significant ways.  Again, this is all over the spectrum.  Some people who have had significant leadership roles just told me they were done and then basically walked off the job, leaving us scrambling to fill the gap or compensate for that gap.  While I completely understand the desire to simply be done, that's not the healthiest way to transition out of a leadership position.  The most extreme example happened one Sunday after we'd just finished loading up the trailer.  In fact, we'd just locked up the trailer door and were turning to leave when a person who had been serving in a significant role announced that he'd just finished his last Sunday and wouldn't be back.  Geez... that was sudden.

But those unfortunate instances highlight the examples of leaders who have left well.  Those who were willing to finish strong, help train a replacement and work for the well-being of all - despite the personal awkwardness the situation may have caused them.  These people let me know far in advance of their final Sunday that they'd be looking for a church home but followed through on their ministry commitments until a predetermined date.  It's not easy to continue to show up to your leadership position when those you're leading and/or serving know you'll be "breaking up" soon.  Those are the leaders who have inspired me to whenever my turn would come, to leave well. 

Well, sometime in January of this year, I knew my time to leave had come.  It was one of the most incredibly difficult decisions I'd ever made, but I was confident that the timing was right.  Although this may sound overly spiritual, I felt released from my role as pastor of TFC. 

But I had a couple challenges facing me:  1) This is one of my two income sources, so I depend upon the paycheck.  2) Due to Erin's teaching position, we couldn't make a serious change until the end of the school year.  But despite those challenges, I knew it was time for me to leave.  I set a goal of leaving by the end of June but I wasn't exactly sure how to leave well nor whether I'd even have the guts to do so.

The easiest thing would've been to hang on in my pastoral role until the socially acceptable time-frame for a pastor's resignation; usually within two weeks to one month of announcing the resignation.  Basically, just keep going through the motions until submitting a formal resignation at the beginning of June.  This would allow me to keep getting paid through June and to avoid the awkwardness of a "lame duck" pastor.The only problem - that wouldn't have been a very loving nor honest way to treat the congregation.

While I was sharing with my District Superintendent that it was time for me to leave, he challenged me to leave well.  In fact, my DS used the examples of other leaders who have left TFC well in challenging me to do the same.  The fact that I'm the only pastor TFC has ever had was going to make this potential pastor transition different than your average church - meaning I needed to handle it differently than most pastors would do so.  My DS challenged me to not wait until June to share with the Advisory Council that I would be leaving but to tell them way in advance, to best prepare them for my departure as well as give them enough time to figure out the next step for TFC.  While this wasn't going to be a comfortable conversation and it would lead to a potentially awkward few months, I knew my DS was right.  So I had that conversation with the Advisory Council.

Honestly, it couldn't have gone any better.  It certainly was difficult, though.  During that meeting and throughout the next few weeks, the Advisory Council members went through all the stages of grief; shock, denial, anger and acceptance.  Some people shed tears and some balled up their fists in frustration.  But they responded to my vulnerability and honesty with a commitment to leading TFC to the best possible future.  (I'll blog more on that later).  And when it was time for me to share the transition / resignation with the congregation, they stood with me and have helped lead this transition. 

Of course, my worst fears haven't been realized.  It has been awkward, not with the Advisory Council anymore but with some members of the congregation.  But people are also supportive, understanding and trusting of my decision and leadership.  Secondly, I'm going to get paid through June!  While the Advisory Council decided to make this transition happen as quickly as possible, they honored my commitment to stay through June and have decided to pay me for that time period.  If I've done one thing right, it's help TFC manager her finances well, so we'll be passing along quite a bit of money to TFC Midtown.  And it possible that I might be starting a new position July 1st.  But I won't know that for a couple more weeks.  If it happens, believe me, I'll share it here.

While I've certainly made plenty of mistakes while leading TFC, I've always tried to do the right or best thing no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may have been.  It seems to me in navigating the most difficult time period for our church, I've been able to follow through on what was right, allowing me to leave well.


David Brush said...

It was by far the most difficult decision of my last 5 years as well. There is nothing at all easy in 'breaking up' especially when you deeply care about the other person(s).

What we started with and built was exactly what many folks needed a church to be in our town of Gardner, and for the time it was and the Kingdom it revealed I am thankful to God for the chance to be a part of it.

Donnie Miller said...

I agree with your sentiments and I'm glad we got to be a part of it together, man.

Em said...


I have been "blog MIA" for the last couple of weeks. While I don't read as much as I would like, I do try to keep up. I just wanted to pop in and say that this entry in particularly has helped me with a current situation that I am facing, I couldn't figure out how to express exactly what I was feeling. Break up seemed kind of "cliche" and not exactly the right words but that does express what it feels like when we separate from the norm of a relationship; be it with an individual, or in your case a congregation. Any change or unknown is scary, but when we listen to His calling...comfort is always found.

May His peace be with you during this season of change.

Love and prayers,