When a Minister Leaves

The Church is a living, breathing organism which is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes that change is subtle and not really noticeable, evident perhaps with a tweaking of how one understands the Gospel or theological principles that finds its way into a sermon or lesson. Sometimes that change is a little more obvious with the upheaval or start of a program, or maybe with a change in leadership. One of the more dramatic events that could happen in a church is when a minister leaves his congregation. With a resignation comes a myriad of natural, emotional responses: anger, frustration, sadness, to name a few. A more difficult one, I think, is the sense uncertainty, the question of “what now?” I’ve experienced it, both as a member and as a minister, and it isn’t fun, regardless of which side of the pulpit you are on.

There are many legitimate reasons for someone to leave a ministry position. When I began preaching at Jackson Christian Church the opportunity came about after a former minister stepped down only after a devastating illness made it impossible for him to continue. When I left a year later it was due to personal reasons which I believe would hinder the effectiveness of my ministry. More recently our congregation learned the unexpected news that both our Youth and Children’s Ministers were resigning their positions after having accepted a job out of state. All of these are dramatic occasions that, regardless of their legitimacy, create a shock wave of emotions, and everyone from pew-sitters to department heads find themselves sitting among the fallout asking themselves that difficult question: “what now?

It’s a question that is often steeped in frustration and pain, but does it always have to be? Sure, we ask because a member of our community, a friend, a fellow laborer, they are leaving a position they have held for many years. And maybe we feel that they leave behind unrealized vision and incomplete plans and programs. What now? But remember we are the Body of Christ, constantly changing and growing and moving, and the simple truth is, things happen! Whether in ministry or life, things aren’t always going to turn out the way we would like.  And even though we might want to roll on autopilot for 20 years, and even though we want everything to be cake and rainbows, the world is going to throw a few curve balls our way. For Jackson their curve ball was a tragic illness followed by a portly bald guy. For me it was stepping into the large shoes of a well-respected minister. Now? That curve ball is two ministers leaving. Things don’t always turn out how you expect or desire.

I think the message we need to hear during a time of unexpected transition is one that is both easy to preach and difficult to hear: endure. Mourn, certainly, but then move on. And understand that moving on is not disrespectful, but instead is absolutely necessary if we are to continue to develop a healthy and productive ministry. The minister whose shoes I walked in for a time wanted nothing more than for his former congregation to grow and become vibrant in the community. When I left I desired the same thing. In my letter to the congregation I made it a point to tell them that whether we preach one year or forty, or whether we evangelize a day or a thousand, we all serve in a temporary position; we’re all on interim status. As someone replaced me, the same will happen with them. As our Youth and Children’s Ministers leave, someone will step into their shoes.  And that’s OK. Because even though it hurts, and even though we cry and mourn and embrace each other as a result of the loss, it’s not the end, neither of your friendship nor of the ministry.

I am excited for the future of our outgoing ministers in that no matter what they choose to do, they’re leaving for another piece of land in God’s great field of harvest, and He will work through them for His purpose.  Likewise I’m excited for the future of our Youth and Children’s ministries, because we have another opportunity to work God’s field in a new and different way. And hard though it may be, both physically and emotionally, the program, youth, and everyone involved will not only endure, but will instead be able to confidently answer the question of “what now” by boldly proclaiming the Glory of God.

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