How Do You Exit a Church Gracefully?

How can you leave a leadership position in a way that benefits those you have led? It’s easier when you remember leaving is a process, not a point in time. You can be thoughtful about several steps along the way: 1) when you are thinking about leaving but aren’t sure, 2) when you are actively looking for another position, and 3) when you have announced your leaving.

First of all, when you begin to think of leaving, your attitude impacts the whole organization. This will affect people even when they don’t consciously realize it. When I began to consider leaving the church I had served as pastor for over a decade, more people got angry with me about a variety of issues than ever before, even though I hadn’t told anyone what I was thinking,

Most leaders keep their thoughts of leaving secret. They think it will compromise leadership if they tell. “Lame duck” is a favorite phrase. And while I wouldn’t recommend that you announce your thoughts via the pulpit or broadcast e-mail, you may find places to discuss it. Are there trusted leaders you could raise the question of your future with? Others may have a valuable perspective on whether you are the right leader at this time—or not. When parents keep a secret from children “for their own sake,” children often sense that something is off. In the same way, when leaders keep secrets from followers, it affects the functioning of the whole organization. More openness is generally better for a group than less.

Second, what do you do if you’ve decided to go? Sometimes it takes a year or two to find the right new position. The same principle of being as open as circumstances allow applies. Then, keep doing your job: do what you are getting paid for. Keep working on key relationships (always part of the job anyway). Use preaching and other public talks as opportunity for self-definition. At times of uncertainty like a job hunt it can be hard to focus. But what do you think and believe and what are your principles? Your perspective can be grounding for those you currently lead—and your increased clarity may help in the job search.

Third, when you have announced you are leaving, it’s important to be well-connected, to be visible. Make a list of key people you want to keep in touch with during the transition, and track your contacts with them. This could include making calls to them in between weekly or monthly meetings, or having lunch and coffee meetings. E-mail is not enough at a high-anxiety time. This strategy of connection is always important, but even more so at transitional moments. When the atmosphere is fraught, it can be tempting to hide out in the office with the door closed, but you need to be visible. Your presence will help people weather the change.

It’s not easy to be thoughtful and neutral when you are in the process of leaving, particularly from a long-term leadership role. And in fact, you won’t be able to be neutral. Ending relationships raises emotional issues for us all. We are all dependent on the roles we occupy for our sense of self. My colleague Larry Matthews, retiring after 32 years, looked around the office he had designed. He realized it wasn’t “his” but was the office of the pastor of that church—which very soon would not be him.

Even if you can’t be totally neutral, some degree of stepping back will help you as you let go of the role you have occupied, and help others let go of you and say good-bye.

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