- Thoughts on leaving ministry when it’s not your choice.
I remember all too well my senior pastor’s shocking words, “Tim, I think the Lord is saying that your time here is done.” With nearly 12 years invested as my church’s worship pastor, I was stunned. I hadn’t even seen it coming. The following months became a whirlwind, especially for my wife and me. Also impacted were the congregation and my children. In the fog, I remember trying to simply hold on and transition well. The trick was finding out how.
One way or another your time of current ministry will come to an end. It’s going to happen. If statistics are correct, about a fourth of the time ministry change isn’t by choice. Such times shake your ministry and even faith to the core. I’d like to suggest to you some survival lessons I’ve paid dearly to learn.
1) Take a deep breath before responding.
This isn’t cliché. You’ll need time to adjust to the enormity of the situation. After hearing the news, take a couple of days to retreat (with your spouse if married). In my situation, this gave me enough oxygen to remember that although I didn’t understand what was happening, I remained in the Lord’s hands. It also allowed the Lord opportunity to nudge my devastated heart to react in a way that would minimize subsequent damage to the church and my family.
When I returned the following Monday, I was able to respond, saying, “When the Lord called me here, I trusted your judgement. While I’ve been here, I’ve trusted your judgement, so why should I not trust your judgement now?” It was his turn to be stunned. This was difficult for him as well – we had served together as friends for years, and my words did much to relieve him and refrain myself from igniting harmful conflict. His mind was already made up; this wasn’t negotiable or a correctional situation. Besides, if he was right, then it truly was time for me to go. And if he was wrong, well, it probably was still wise to leave.
2) You won’t understand yet.
My confusion remained throughout conversations that followed. As we talked through his decision, none of the “maybe it’s because ___” added up to it being my time to go other than that it was what the Lord had impressed on his heart. At first I simply felt overwhelmed by the enormity of everything being torn apart: my ministry, my finances, my house, my wife’s job, my family, me.
Gather what information is available; however, allow the Holy Spirit to unravel that with you later when you will be better able to listen. Even if you are as shocked as I was, this did not take the Lord by surprise.
3) Create a plan for communication and damage control.
Transition is hard even on healthy congregations. Keep in mind Sam Keen’s poignant observation, “Where there are gaps of knowledge, the demons play.” Agree upon a simple, accurate explanation and stick to it. For me it was “Pastor senses that it’s time for me to go, so I’ll be stepping down.” It was particularly important that those close to me, including my children, not take on offense for my part which could further damage them or the church. The wrong message could start a devastating firestorm possibly resulting in people harmed on an eternal scale.
Agree upon a timeframe allowing you to personally contact those you must, a period to inform the congregation, then a final day. I suggested we move quickly as it would have been extremely difficult to continue leading without “spilling the beans.” If possible, have someone else cover your public responsibilities during the gap between the public announcement and your last day. Not only will this give you an emotional buffer, it will also help prepare the church to handle some of the gaps you will be leaving behind.
On my final Sunday, I led worship (my request), and we had a cake/farewell time between services (his request). That dreaded farewell line turned into unexpected blessing upon blessing as the long line of people stretching out beyond the far end of the gym filed by to pray for me, share of my impact, and speak into my life. Painful as it was, I treasure that day.
4) Follow this 4-Step transition process.
a) Allow time for grief and confusion to unfold
b) Learn what you can
c) Ask the Lord what you are to be about
d) Seek His timing and location for the your step.
While it may take months for these steps to unfold, especially if you’ve served that congregation long-term, it is very important to allow each step time to develop before engaging in the next. Unexpected triggers will draw up surprisingly deep feelings of denial, anger, hopelessness, loss, confusion, and depression. You may find yourself trying to bargain with God or replaying (and rewriting) conversations or events in your mind. It takes time for the Lord to help you sort these very real thoughts and emotions.
Temporary employment before moving to the next big thing may allow you vital processing time. The Lord doesn’t want to waste your pain, and because of the price you pay for these lessons, make sure to get everything out of them that you can.
As the initial tumult begins to recede, seek the Lord’s guidance regarding any behavior or attitude adjustments needed on your part. Address questions about your identity, gifts, and values. Only after making any adjustments that the Holy Spirit prompts, begin asking what He wants your life to be about, whether or not it is in ministry. Once your sense of focus begins eventually to clarify, only then you can begin finally to ask the “where to next?” question.
During this time, guard well your spiritual walk. A new sense of freedom or lack of accountability may entice you to step into gray areas you previously avoided. Keeping yourself clean in every way will protect you and help you hear the Lord’s voice as you cling to Him. He may become close to you in ways you have not experienced for a long time.
One of the greatest dangers you will encounter is simply the temptation to jump right into another ministry position and thus lose this valuable growth process. Do so, and you’ll probably have to repeat it again. Remember, Jesus loves you enough and desires to incorporate you into His work enough to give you more opportunities – with increasingly greater stakes – to experience transformation and His glory. The question is how many times will it take?
5) Pre-plan for your next transition.
A church has no obligation to provide a severance package, and even if offered, you likely will need financial support before completing the 4-step transition process. To provide a financial cushion for yourself, as soon as you take on a new position begin to weekly place aside at least 1/50th of your take-home pay. (That will be equivalent to the low end of corporate recommended severance pay of 1 week per year.) You will also need to consider health insurance options, such as a medical expense sharing group like Samaritan Newsletter, Medi-Share, or Christian Healthcare Ministries (my choice).
Side note to churches: Consider preparing for potential upcoming staff transition now by setting aside funds for severance pay if needed. Not only will you have funds ready should the need arise, you will also be able to bless your staff by easing their transition into a new ministry position. And if you require a severance contract, please word it sensitively and provide clauses to protect the staff person leaving as well as the church. Additionally, consider upcoming holidays or special needs. How you treat them at their moment of hurting reveals much about your character. Restoration is the key.
Renewal takes time. It took at least six months for me to no longer feel completely displaced, and at times that feeling remains. I’m still learning from this major life event and discovering its impact upon myself and others. I’m celebrating the small success steps, like feeling joy for the first time on a working day. These things will come. Regardless of circumstances, leaving well provides healing for those who remain and softens the path for those coming in. Allow Jesus to transform into growth the transition you face. If handled well, even harsh transition can become a crucible the Lord uses to refine your life into precious gold. Use the opportunity well!
Tim Miller has served small, medium, and multi-site congregations for over 30 years in volunteer, part-time, and full-time worship-related roles. He consults for growing church worship programs and delights in walking with other worship folk facing transition. Read his Smashwords author interview. He would love to hear from you!