If you've ever witnessed the turbulence of losing a long-time pastor, it's hard to believe that the church will even hold together. Most will recover in time and discover a new normal. Unfortunately, getting there is a wrenching experience leaving behind wounded pastors, scattered sheep, and a tarnished witness in the community.
But there is a better way. It begins with acknowledging the existence of individual and corporate emotions in grieving the pastoral loss. Deeply invested church members feel an organizational, spiritual, and relational deficit. Only with time can they begin to grasp the many ways in which this loss will change their lives.
Grieving is a slow process. After a person loses a spouse, we caution them not to hurry into a new relationship. Similarly, church leadership needs to resist the pressure of moving too quickly. Two years may seem like an eternity before hiring a new pastor, but it's a small price to pay for a healthy transition. Take your time. Slow the process down. God's people need time to feel their grief.
Organizationally intentional churches will often bring in leaders to focus on the transitional process. Systemic issues and strategic priorities should not be neglected. But rarely do churches offer an intentional process to prepare the congregation for the emotional impact of a new pastoral relationship. If they don't process through their emotions, the congregation runs a risk of either selecting the wrong pastoral successor or turning a perfectly good one into a Sacrificial Lamb—all because they didn't fully let go of their last pastor.
Finally, the congregation needs to be told what to expect in the days to come. Expectations can be discussed from the pulpit, in print, and in small groups. There will be change, discomfort, disappointment, and a range of emotions related to this loss, especially for those with a deep personal investment in the previous pastor. Acknowledging these expectations does not reveal a lack of spirituality in church members; it honors the gift God gave them in their previous pastor.
Churches often overcompensate in the selection of a new pastor. They find a replacement with all of the strengths lacking in their previous pastor, but ultimately resent her for being unlike what they knew and loved. This is a sign that the church has not grieved the loss of their pastor enough to acknowledge their true ministerial value. They underestimate their loss and overestimate their readiness for change.
Losing an effective pastor will always be a profound personal loss for those who are deeply invested in that pastor's life and ministry. If congregations do not meaningfully and spiritually process this grief, emotions will emerge in unpredictable ways. All too often this means the next pastor will serve little purpose beyond acting as a Sacrificial Lamb, taking on the frustrations of the many, and carrying them away in exile.
After a period of healing, Pastor Grant returned to fruitful pastoral ministry, proving that he really was all of the wonderful things that First Church originally believed him to be. But it's hard to see clearly when we haven't yet wiped the tears from our eyes. He was the right guy at the wrong time, trying to follow in the footsteps of a pastoral legend before the church was ready for transition.
There is a better way, for the health of the church and the health of the pastor. Shepherding the people of God through profound losses prepares them to embrace new possibilities. If you are preparing to leave your church after many years of service, train the church to handle your absence well. If you are called to replace a long-term pastor, check if the congregation has properly grieved before instituting major changes. As the author of Ecclesiastes writes, there is a time to hold on and a time to let go. Wise leadership helps people discern the difference.
Mike Fleischmann is pastor of GracePointe Church in Milwaukie, Oregon. He blogs at MikeFleischmann.net
* Read Part One of "Sacrificial Lamb Syndrome."
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.