What Does A Pastor Experience When Leaving a Church?

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If you had told me 6 months ago I would be in pastoral transition, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

But here I am.

After 5.5 years of serving at one church, I find myself in the midst of pastoral transition to a new role at a new church.

In a previous post, I detailed a few reasons why a pastor may leave a church. In this post, I share what a pastor experiences in the actual transition stages itself.

But an important note before I share - Not all pastoral transitions are the same. Much like how there are different types of pastors, there are many kinds of pastoral transitions. Some can be really ugly and downright discouraging. Other transitions can be uplifting as it points to a larger Kingdom story. There are some transitions that are just confusing requiring attendees to read “in between the lines” while others are just too drawn out and end up souring over time. The point is process (how the pastor transitions), motivation (why the pastor leaves), and context (who the pastor is leaving) will color in a pastor’s transition experience. Therefore, every transition experience will differ to a certain degree.

So with that being said, here are a few things I’ve personally experienced in the midst of my transition:

1. Grief and Sadness

In NBC’s The Office, there’s an episode called “Goodbye, Michael” which centers around the last day of Dunder Mifflin’s Regional Manager, Michael Scott. It’s a hilarious episode because no one else in the office knows it’s his last day setting the stage for Michael’s agonizing struggle to communicate his departure to his staff. But it’s a tear-jerker because it depicts the emotional nuances of goodbyes, that we grow to love people through the mundane rhythms of life.

Pastoral ministry ranges from spontaneous lunches with pastoral staff members, monthly meetings which become a part of life’s rhythm, to sitting in the trenches with God’s people in the midst of their pain. Active engagement in the local church for years creates deep memories and bonds which means parting ways will be painful.

And what’s surprising is how the pain comes in stages. There is a deep pain once a pastor realizes a transition is looming. There is pain when the transition becomes public to the church. There is pain when the transition has happened and the people are no longer rhythmically embedded into the pastor’s life.

No matter how bad or redemptive a pastoral departure may be, there is true pain.

2. Relief

I remember asking a pastor who was leaving his church what he would miss. He responded, “the people.” When I asked if there was anything else he would miss, he simply smiled and said once more, “the people.” It wasn’t hard for me to read between the lines. He would miss the people, but there were a lot of things he wasn’t going to miss.

While I think that’s a more extreme example, I think every pastor in transition realizes there were things (“ministry thorns”) they endured that they didn’t want to and couldn’t admit while they were in their roles because such an admission would be too scary to live with. And so when a pastor realizes he no longer has to operate with a certain style (culture) or jump through a certain hoop (expectation), or deal with a certain issue (conflict), it can feel liberating.

But on a much deeper and more important level, I think a pastor’s relief experience comes from the completion of a ministry assignment. This is where the pastor can say with a clear conscience, “I know I was far from a perfect pastor, but by the grace of God, I was faithful to the task He gave me.” For a pastor to be able to say this is an amazing gift from God.

While I think every transitioning pastor experiences the relief from certain ministry thorns, not every pastor experiences the relief of completing a ministry assignment.

3. Gratitude 

I believe one of the greatest ways a pastor receives the grace of God is through the very people of God.

The people of God dispense the grace of God for the pastor through encouragement, honesty, partnership, prayer, and so on.

I think about the radical trust that was given to me by the leaders of the church. I remember the sacrifice and support made by many volunteers who did it not only to strengthen the ministry but to buttress my family. I recall the upward and downward mentorships that occurred organically week in and week out. I can see the faces of people who deeply love my wife and children.

All of this fills my heart with gratitude. Even a pastor who leaves a church on the worst terms can write a laundry list of moments, seasons, and people to be thankful for.

4. Spiritual Warfare

As an avid podcast listener, one of my favorite episodes of a leadership podcast I regularly listen to featured a pastor named Kevin Queen who shared his transition story. When the host (Carey Nieuwhof) asked Queen if he had any tips for those transitioning, Queen shared an insight given to him by a friend - “The longer [transition] lasts…the more of the playground it is for the devil."

I didn’t understand what he meant when I listened to it a few months ago, but I understand now. There is so much change happening in transition. There are “mind maps” or mental road maps of thinking that are being broken after years of cementation. This means there are new thoughts and new interpretations of reality flooding one’s existence.

This can make you think all sorts of crazy things. I found my heart pointing fingers at people I never expected to, for reasons I didn’t think mattered. I found myself wrestling with prideful thoughts, followed by defeating ones, only to loop back again.

I see now that there was real spiritual warfare going on with the the triad enemy (flesh, devil, world) of the Christian. I also understand the wisdom of keeping the transition period shorter than longer.

5. Anticipation of What God Will Do Next 

In his book Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud writes that “For the right tomorrow to come, some parts of today may have to come to a necessary ending.”

This rings true to the Biblical narrative. The Law was a gift to Israel. But the coming of Christ altered the relationship of God’s people to the Law forever. The created order is good and beautiful as we know it today. But the present age must come to an end in order for the New Heavens and Earth to become the new reality.

This also rings true in my own experience. The conclusion of Kingdom work in one context has led to a new Kingdom work in a new context. Every time I’ve seen God move, it’s been on the heels of an ending and death to a specific context, role, life stage, or season.

And this brings me eager anticipation to see what God will do next. There is genuine excitement and hope because I know He’s on the move.


Concluding Thoughts

If you’re a pastor in transition, I’d personally recommend a sabbatical period once things wrap up. Use the time to heal up, get some sessions of Christian counseling, go on a trip with your family, and discern with others what God has next if it isn’t clear yet.

If you’re in pastoral ministry, be faithful where you are until those who are trustworthy around you affirm a transition. But at the same time, keep both hands open. Jesus is the one who builds the church, and He can move you as He pleases.

If you’re a Christian who has recently experienced a pastoral transition, don’t be afraid to be honest with God about your frustrations, fears, or pains. You don’t have to assume the best about that pastor, but you should fight against assuming the worst too. Pray for your transitioning pastor and pray for your others pastors who are still faithfully plowing away.

Every pastor is an interim pastor. Jesus alone is our true senior pastor.