Transitions are a part of life. We transition from the womb to the world, from childhood to adulthood, from educational pursuits to the workforce, from the workforce to retirement and from life to death. Through faith in Christ, Christians will celebrate the transition from death to life!
For those God calls to full-time paid ministry (he calls everyone into ministry for his kingdom), there are times when we feel God leading us to serve him with our gifts in a new way and a new place. Some years ago, after serving God for over nine years at a church in Iowa, I felt God leading me to serve him in a new way. I began to consider that the work God called me to do in a specific season and a specific place could be coming to an end. In such times, we may feel guilty having conversations with another church or ministry endeavor. Despite valuing transparency, leaders in a search process must often keep this process of discerning God’s leading a secret. If you find yourself in a discerning rather than transitioning stage, let me recommend a book I have found very helpful entitled “Before You Move: A Guide to Making Transitions in Ministry” by John R. Cionca.
What happens after a new call is accepted, a change is announced, and a final date of service is determined? In that season of weeks rather than years or months, how does one finish well before transitioning to a new field of service?
As I write this blog, I find myself in that place again after nearly ten years of serving in my second pastorate. There are twenty-six more days that I will occupy the pastoral role I am in, the office I drive to, and the congregation I have loved serving on behalf of Jesus who called me here for “such a time as this.” The thoughts that follow are not only pieces of wisdom I have gathered through the years. They are not only actions I sought to carry out in a previous transition. They are my goals for the next twenty-six days as I strive to finish well. They represent a pursuit of what the Apostle Paul declared when nearing the end of his ministry, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).” This effort and attitude of finishing well was modeled by Jesus who “humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).” We serve a God who did not give up on this sin tainted world, but fulfilled a promise made in Genesis 3:15 by sending Jesus the Savior to finish the work of redemption. Someday, that redeeming work will be ultimately fulfilled through Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgement and the glorious day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).”
If or when you find yourself completing a God-given assignment, consider how you can apply these principles in order to finish well:
- Allow grief – The process of saying goodbye will bring about emotions of grief for those transitioning and those who remain. Don’t be surprised to find yourself going through the stages of grief in some form. Let tears roll, cherish good memories, allow people to say goodbye, say your goodbyes, celebrate how God has been at work. When I transitioned from my first church to the church I now serve, I lost 10 pounds without trying! It was stress, grief, the decisions necessary for completing a move, and the effects of saying goodbye to people I loved and would not continue to see or serve in the same capacity.
- Offer hope – In past weeks since announcing my upcoming transition, I have sought to offer words of hope. I have reminded the congregation that this is, always has been, and always will be God’s church. Jesus is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18). I believe that God called me here for a season of nearly ten years to use my gifts to carry out his work. I believe that another pastor will follow me with different gifts in order to do ministry I am not equipped to do. God has a master plan. It’s not our church. It’s an honor to be used by him. He gets the glory. A pastor may be leaving, but Jesus, the king and head of the church, isn’t going anywhere. Remind people of the hope of Joshua 1:9, Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 41:10.
- Prepare leaders for the future – How can you be a resource for ministry during a vacancy? Can you pass on names of people to consider for pulpit supply? In the weeks ahead, I will be transferring any helpful documents onto a flash drive that I can give to key leaders. How can you help facilitate the work of a classis or other body in choosing a moderator or transitional minister? Are there ways to equip people for ministries of pastoral care and worship leadership?
- Communicate well – The congregation is likely asking questions. Who will preach, who do we call if there is a hospitalization or death, who will lead meetings? After the leadership team makes decisions that help answer such questions, communicate the answers to the congregation. Have a gathering after worship, publicize plans and phone numbers of appropriate people to contact, and let the church know a realistic timeline for going through the stages of a vacancy and pastoral search.
- Encourage Staff – Your transition may increase their workload or cause them to wonder about how they will fit with the gifts and vision of a future leader. Challenge the congregation and leaders to bless and encourage staff. Find ways to express gratitude to those you have served alongside and affirm the gifts God has given to them.
- Share helpful insight – You know the position and the people well. As appropriate, share helpful feedback in order to promote continued faithfulness and fruitfulness. This can be done through an exit interview, a conversation with the leadership team, or wisdom shared to denominational leaders. You know what is going well and what the current struggles are. You know the skeletons in the closet. For the glory of God and the impact the church can have in the kingdom – what would be helpful to share? Likewise, don’t push beyond your role. Some things are better left unsaid!
- Finish strong – Make the most of the time you have left. Don’t coast or become lazy. Don’t start to work ahead on opportunities for the future that jeopardize the impact you can have in the present. Make a list of what needs to be done, who needs to be visited, what meetings should occur, what loose ends tied up and then finish strong as you cross these items off of the list.
- Respect boundaries – When the final day comes and you turn in your key, recognize that you change hats. The hat of “pastor” is replaced with the hats of “friend” and “brother or sister in Christ.” Some denominations have pastors and churches complete a healthy agreement for how they will interact in the future. The goal is to do all that you can to help the church prepare for, welcome, and support their next pastor. This may involve pre-determined agreements for future wedding or funeral requests. It will involve future communication with the person who takes your place so that they know you support and defer to them, rather than act like someone trying to sabotage their ministry.
A transition is much like a relay race where one runner passes the baton to another. If or when God calls you to transition that baton, how can you do all you can to make sure that the baton is not dropped, or the receiving runner tripped? A season of transition can be used by God to benefit, strength, stretch and revitalize churches and pastors. This season can enhance our prayer life, dependence on God, and the gifts he has given to each of us to use for his glory. When you make a transition, finish well! May the way you leave cause others to feel and God to say, “well done, good and faithful servant!”