All’s Well that Ends Well

I don’t know much about Shakespeare, but I do know he once wrote a play with this as the title.  Further, I’m really not sure what the play was about, but it popped in my mind as I was thinking about the next month and a half of my life as I prepare to change appointments.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to “leave well.”  As an itinerant pastor, I have a great responsibility to do my best to finish in such a way that it sets the congregation and the next pastor up for success.  I haven’t been through this process before, and it has been a real challenge to discern what steps to take along the way.

Several good friends have shared advice with me, and I appreciate their counsel.  This morning, I did some searching for resources online and came across a blog post from the Greater Richmond Area Christian Educators.  The post is called, “Leaving Well (If you’re going to go, go!)”  The formatting at their blog is a little wonky, so I’ll repost the major portion of it as I go.

Don’t plan for the congregation’s future. When it’s time for you to leave a congregation shorten your vision. Concentrate on leaving well and give the congregation’s future to the congregation—it’s no longer your responsibility. To be blunt, once you decide to leave your congregation’s future is none of your business.

To be honest, this one is a little bit hard since we are required to be working on the strategic plan for our conference.  I’ve struggled to find a balance of promoting the strategic plan with the realization that I’m leaving.

If you’re going to go, go. You don’t need to burn your bridges, but you need to get clear about what leaving means. Most clergy seem to do well once they get clear. For example, they will communicate with their congregation that when they leave they are no longer the pastor. So they’ll not make pastoral calls, conduct weddings and funerals, or get involved in church business. Clergy who are not able to go tend to become the bane of the new pastor and often do a great disservice to the congregation. It’s amazing how many clergy have trouble leaving their congregations. Sometimes they try to come back as members. But I’ve yet to see a former pastor of a congregation able to successfully return to their former congregation as just a member. It seems hard for them to appreciate that they weren’t just a member before, and never will be.

This one is the most common piece of advice I receive from my friends and colleagues.  Several have mentioned the shift from pastor to friend, and the need for a period of disconnect to allow the new pastor to join the new system.  I won’t comment on the few examples I’ve seen of people who simply don’t get this, because I can see how this is a difficult process.  However, because of those examples I think I’ll be more mindful of how I handle myself in this regard.

As you are leaving the function of your preaching needs to change. That change in function is primarily one of prophetic theological hope. This isn’t the time to try to plant insight into your congregation—if they didn’t get what you’ve been trying to say all those years they’re certainly not going to get it now. They’re listening to you differently. What they want to hear, and need to hear, is the affirmation of hope that they’ll be just fine without you! The second function of preaching at this time is to remind them of their story. Clergy often are the resident storytellers of the narrative history of the congregation. Too often a congregation experiences an episode of corporate amnesia when a pastor leaves. Now is the time to tell, and retell, the story of the congregation as a local people of God. Remind them of how they came to be, who they were, and who they are.

It has been more difficult than normal to preach the past few weeks, and I think this is helpful advice.  The lectionary has been helpful in keeping me from the temptation toward “last-chance indoctrination!”

Stay connected. One common emotional response of clergy who are leaving is to emotionally defect in place and begin to disconnect from their congregation. That’s understandable and may be a function of anticipatory grieving. But clergy need to work at staying emotionally connected to significant persons in the congregation—its leaders as well as others worth investing time with. Work on your grieving. Leaving a congregation, under whatever circumstance, involves loss, and loss requires grieving. Own it. Find ways to mourn appropriately (mourning is the outward expression of grieving), but don’t confuse your grieving with that of the congregation.

These have been unanticipated challenges.  As I said earlier, this is my first time to go through the leaving process.  I grew up in a denomination that would often have months in between pastors, and the first pastor would often leave fairly abruptly.  So, I’m experiencing a whole new system and process in that regard.  I’m working on this one!

Focus on your own vision and work on your own self. I’ve mentioned that in the early stages of discernment it is difficult to sift the important from the insignificant. In the midst of the fog of discernment I’ve seen clergy get stuck by weighing in, with equal weight, issues like, the children (even when they are grown!), the house, their age, the spouse (his or her job, friends, hobbies, etc.), giving up a short commute, the club, the salary, a perk, their nice office, the computer the church provided, etc. To be sure these are all important—but they are not as important as pursuing your own vision, calling, and goals. Change involves risk and it involves loss. As someone said, you can have anything you want, but you cannot have everything you want. The question becomes, What are you willing to give up in order to pursue your calling, vision, dreams, or desires?

This final aspect may seem to have more to do with people who are discerning whether or not to leave in a more congregationalist setting, but I think it applies to United Methodists too.  This paragraph helped me see that this next step in my journey is indeed something of a risk, but it’s also an important part of my attempt to pursue my calling and vision.  Change is hard, but it’s worth it to follow God’s call.

Altogether, I have a lot more work to do.  However, one of my most important tasks will be leaving well.  I think this list has been fairly helpful in thinking about some of the issues.  Any other advice or commentary on “leaving well” out there??

7 thoughts on “All’s Well that Ends Well

  1. Somewhere in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation, he says that the way we handle leaving affects the impact of our entire ministry in a place. Part of the idea is that the impression we leave on the congregation affects how they remember our whole time there.

    Thanks for the excerpts you gave in this post.

  2. This is excellent, Matt. I need to pass this one on to our conference at some point…might be a good workshop for our pastors! Thanks for posting it…

  3. I just moved this summer, and for me, leaving well meant preparing the new pastor for success. I put together lists of the way things were done, especially the unspoken rules (so he didn’t get the surprises that I got). I included every list I had, including e-mails and meeting notes.

  4. There is a book entitled “Making A Good Move.” (what a creative title.) It’s by Bishop Michael Coyner and it has lots of good advice about making a good move, including chapters on Leaving Well and Letting Go, Leadership Style Makes a Difference, Your First Conflict, and many other very practical topics.
    Throughout my 10+ years in the intineracy I have noticed how UM Pastors often blame the “system,” while almost always it was either the Pastor’s decision to move or the Pastor’s decision to not decline the offer to move. I think we as Pastor’s should fess up to our churches. I know we want them to have good thoughts about us after we leave, but I would rather them be mad at me, their former Pastor, than at the denomination. The “system” gets blamed more than it needs to be blamed.
    A meeting with the incoming Pastor lasting much longer than 30 minutes is also necessary. Take him/her out to eat. Spend a day with them. Let the congregation see you together around town or even at meetings so they know there is no competition. A good move can by made, but it takes diligence and wisdom.

  5. I made my first appointment transition last year (2007). I didn’t realize it until after my first full year that it took me that whole first year to really grieve leaving my last appointment, especially since it was my first appointment. Also, watch for spiritual attacks during this time. I was beginning to think something was seriously wrong with me until I realized that I was having a normal response to the situation.

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