You’ve made your decision; it’s time to resign your pastoral position. Or perhaps it’s been made for you; either submit a “constructive resignation” or be terminated.

How do you set the stage for the next pastor to succeed?

Change ahead

It’s never easy to resign a pastoral position.

If you’ve been called to another ministry you’re probably leaving a good church filled with good people behind. They will grieve your departure and you’ll be breaking loving bonds with people you’ve walked with through life’s trials.

If you’re bailing because you’ve hit a dead end you’ll have to deal with feelings of failure and doubts about your abilities. You may be burned out and in need of professional care. If your departure has been hastened by personal failure, you will need the help of groups that specialize in restoring fallen pastors.

When the decision is made it’s time to strategize your exit so that you set the church and the next pastor up for success. Here are 10 tactics I wish the pastors I followed would have known!

Tactic 1: Renew the Leadership

Take the church’s elected leaders and ministry leaders through a refresher course on church leadership. Help them provide the leadership behaviors the congregation will need during the interim until the next settled pastor arrives.

There are several books that you could use to help them brush up on their leadership. (Full disclosure: these are affiliate links)

Whatever tools you use to prepare the church’s leaders, make sure it’s practical and hands on. Classroom and lecture based leadership training is largely a waste of time.

Tactic 2: Review the Mission and Vision

Review the church’s mission and vision with them. Reassure the congregation that the Head of the Church is still on mission to make disciples in this community. Refresh and remind them of the vision – what the church intends to do in order to fulfill that mission.

Lay the groundwork for the search process by encouraging them to embrace the process of re-evaluating the mission and modifying it. Urge them to the work of taking a fresh look at the community and the congregation to find the overlap. A thorough assessment will help them discern anew what God intends for the congregation to do in cooperation with his mission.

Tactic 3: Leave a complete set of keys

Make sure that the incoming pastor has access to everything other than the safe where the offerings are kept and the electronic accounts where the books and bank records are managed.

  • Keys to the church builds
  • Keys to any on site or off site storage units
  • Keys to the janitorial closet
  • Passwords for the church email account
  • Passwords for the church website and web-based services

Tactic 4: Help everyone process grief

  • You will experience elation at the next step in your ministry
  • You will experience great sorrow over leaving people you love or over the manner of your departure
  • The people will experience sadness and perhaps shock
  • The people will have doubts and perhaps fears about the future
  • The people may feel disoriented (see Tactic 2 above)

Tactic 5: Let them express their anger

Don’t be surprised if some of the folks, even those who have been close to you, react with anger. One pastor writes of his experience.

I expected the sadness, shock, and disappointment that the congregation felt, but I wasn’t ready for the anger that a handful of good, loving people vented. I remember one of these people, a guy my age whose first Sunday at the church happened to be my first Sunday as pastor. I met with this friend weekly during his early days in Christ, walked with him through the pain of his divorce, officiated at his wedding, and dedicated his first born son. After my resignation, I heard second-hand that this friend was angry. He would not return my calls, text messages, or emails. He accused me of abandoning the church for greener pastures and threatened to look for a new church, even though he had been a very active member. I was not only surprised by his angry response to my resignation, I was crushed that he would question my motives for leaving. This person knew me better than most people in the church. I was hurt until I came to realize that some people treat a pastoral resignation like adeath; some get angry, some get sad, and some get both. It is important to allow everyone to ride out the wave of emotions they may feel, even if those emotions seem unreasonable. Many of those who seem angry will, after some processing, move from anger and sadness to celebration and support of you and your new ministry opportunity. Lenny Luchetti, Pastoral Resignation: When You’re On Your Way Out.

This isn’t the time to be defensive. Let them experience the anger and listen attentively. Empathize. Love them.

Tactic 6: Prepare them for the new pastor

As soon as you’ve submitted your resignation to the congregation, turn their thoughts toward the next settled pastor. Begin using phrases like

  • “I’m only here for a short time” (While I’m on this subject, please don’t give them a six months’ notice. Make it shorter rather than longer)
  • “When your next pastor arrives”
  • “Pastors come and pastors go but Jesus remains Head of the Church”

If the calendar allows, preach several sermons that outline the pastor’s role in the church, identify the scope of the pastor’s authority, and teach them how to treat a pastor. A quick search on the Internet will give you millions of resources to use for this.

If they’ve treated you well be sure to thank them.

Tactic 7: Assemble a Notebook

You can shorten the next pastor’s ramp up time by assembling a file with information about day-to-day operations and some of the key influencers and leaders.

  • A manual of policies and procedures for handling money, managing communications, delegating pastoral responsibilities, various deadlines (e.g., for the bulletin), purchases
  • A list of key people who make things happen. This might include the webmaster, ministry or department leaders, favored vendors and the “portfolios” carried by various elected officers
  • A leadership dossier on various key influencers, elected officers and ministry leaders. Helpful information to include: communications style, work habits, reliability, how to nurture and areas of ministry passion. BE CAREFUL – do not use this to register your personal gripes about people.
  • The ropes to skip and the ropes to know. What are the aspirational values and what are the actual values of the congregation? What traditions around holidays and special events are held? What has worked well in outreach and what does not?

Tactic 8: Recommend an intentional interim

If your tenure with this church has been longer than six years, or if you are leaving under duress, you should make a persuasive argument in favor of an intentional interim ministry before they begin the search process for the next settled pastor. If the church doesn’t use this transition period to re-evaluate and retool then it’s an 80% chance that the next pastor will be an unintentional interim.

Vocational interim pastors generally have skills and privileges that settled pastors don’t.

  • Objective church assessments that uncover hindrances to ministry
  • Intervention techniques to remove system behaviors that thwart growth
  • Conflict management and church discipline skills
  • Preparing lay leaders for meaningful ministry
  • Training the search team to conduct a successful search

Tactic 9: Leave your contact information

It’s likely that the interim pastor or the settled pastor who arrives after your departure will have questions that only you can answer. Make sure to leave your contact information – phone number and email at the least – so that the arriving pastor can contact you on short notice.

Tactic 10: LEAVE

Some departing pastors have great difficulty at this point. If you’re not planning to relocate, make sure that the congregation knows that you are gone. This may challenge you to break contact with people who have become friends. You owe it to the church, you owe it to the people and you owe it to the next pastor to remove yourself from the church.

Your continued presence in their orbit will make it difficult for them to take an objective look at themselves during your ministry.

Additional Resources