Thursday of last week we received a well written letter from our pastor explaining that he was moving to Texas to take a different job. Very few people saw it coming (including him in some ways). On Sunday morning he read that letter to the congregation, people discussed the news during our Sunday school class and in the lobby of the church. It was an emotional morning for many people who love him and his family and are sad to see him go. I get that some mourning has to take place when you hear your friend and leader is leaving but since I’m not too great at emotions I’m usually thinking of the practical steps that we should take.
What should you do when you hear your pastor, your boss or anyone in a leadership position is leaving? I’ll answer that question from the perspective of a church member but you can apply the answers to many other groups with a leader in place.
1. Act normal. There is a tendency when the leader departs to put as many things on pause as possible. While major structural changes to the organization aren’t encouraged without a leader to help you see them through I think it’s a great time to consider getting more involved in your church family. Unity is key in any organization but in families it’s more important than almost anything. Do you want things to come to a halt? Do you want people to leave? Do you want people to fight to gain more power or influence in your leader’s absense? No. We want to keep the family moving forward into the world with good news through loving action. So do what you want to see done.
2. Consider leaving. Some people take the departure of a pastor as a pass to leave their church family. That deeply troubles me. It says you were there for one person and that’s not healthy. I believe it’s appropriate to leave your church family if there is a revolving door because of an unhealthy structure. If your leaders are being pressured by unrealistic expectations then either try to change that culture or go find a healthy one. Just like people who weren’t good spouses so they got divorced, only to find the same issues in their next marriage, church members can’t jump from one church to the next thinking the church will fix their involvement. You either care or your don’t so either dig in or admit your lack of commitment and start getting involved now.
3. Propose changes. Leaders create unique cultures. A void in that leadership position can become an open door for you to propose some changes or additions to the organization. This isn’t a way of “getting back at” the leader. Proposing something new in a time of transition is healthy because the family is in a time of evaluation. Evaluation is healthy and making change is healthy as long as it is well thought out. My wife and I are proposing adding marriage ministry to the core ministries at our our church over the summer not because our current pastor was resistant to the idea but because we’re feeling called to do so. Don’t push back God’s call or your own great ideas just because there’s a vacancy at the top. It’s a team game and everyone can and should contribute at all times.
4. Have productive conversations. Nothing good, healthy or productive will come from talking about your current leader in a negative way during this process. If you want to see a different kind of leader then talk about the characteristics you want to see. Don’t trash your current leader and their lack of ability in that specific area. There are always two ways to say most things. Don’t say, “We really need to get a pastor who has a master’s degree because Mike wasn’t educated enough and it showed when he preached.” Instead you should say, “I think it would be healthy for us to pursue someone with a higher degree because in my experience that adds to their knowledge as they teach on Sundays.” If you have questions about the leader’s departure ask the leader, no one else. If they are neutral questions about “Did they pursue him or did he pursue the position?” then perhaps you could ask others but most of the time our questions aren’t neutral. Even that example could be a question filled with gossip. When in doubt go to the source for the answer.
5. Keep working. It’s tempting to take a vacation from your responsibilities when there is a void in leadership. The rest of the staff can feel overwhelmed and they’ll be less likely to keep track of the work you’re doing. This is especially tempting if you reported to the now absent leader. Just because your boss is gone doesn’t mean your work doesn’t need to be completed. In this case when a pastor is gone we shouldn’t change much of anything about our daily lives as believers. Pastors provide teaching, encouragement and leadership but every Christian should have a Bible and can talk to God. If you’re feeling stuck on what to do then open your Bible and start reading or just ask God what He wants from you. Don’t use a vacancy in your church to stop doing work that’s much larger than your church. When in doubt, lean in to the work, not away from it.
What actions have you seen when there was a transition in leadership that were helpful or hurtful?