In April of 2010, I announced my resignation as lead pastor of a thriving congregation that I loved. We were experiencing significant God-momentum, with more people coming to faith in Christ and coming to our weekend services than ever before in our 95 year history. We were serving our community in substantial ways. Yet, I sensed God was calling me to another place of ministry. Pastors don't usually leave when momentum and congregational love is at a heightened level, but I did.
That church went without a lead pastor for nearly a year. The four other pastors on staff guided the church with skill and integrity, as they rotated the preaching and shared the leadership load. Some might think that a local church would tank without a senior leader, but the church continued to emanate vibrancy in worship and vitality in mission. I am convinced that the church's present health is due, in part, to how we weathered the transition from the announcement of my resignation until my last day as pastor 10 weeks later. If you are planning on resigning from the church you serve, here are some things to keep in mind on your way out.
Ride out the wave of emotions
The weekend I announced my resignation was one of the most difficult moments of my pastoral ministry. I was sure that once I announced my resignation, my sense of relief would increase and my grief would decrease. Such was not the case. I did have moments of extreme excitement about the new ministry before me. At other times, however, I was deeply saddened by the thought of leaving a group of people I had come to love.
There was no easy way to navigate the variety of emotions I was experiencing, but I did try to keep a couple of things in mind. I tried not to get so excited about where I was heading that I didn't finish well where I was serving. Additionally, I tried to avoid becoming so sad about leaving that I didn't prepare internally for the coming transition. By God's grace, on most days I was able to avoid both extreme excitement and extreme sadness. While I allowed myself to feel the various emotions, I tried not to allow my emotions to detract from the congregation's healthy processing of my resignation. Of course, on my last weekend as pastor I cried like a baby; I couldn't help it even if I tried. My tears were, however, ones of healthy celebration, love, and release, not guilt, manipulation, and regret.
My congregation was dealing with their own emotional roller-coaster as well. I was not prepared for the wide array of emotional responses within the church. 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 released. One of these people was a guy my age who's 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 a death; 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.