A View from the Pew: Making the Most of a Ministerial Transition

Pew_smAn unexpected resignation of a church staff member can feel like a punch to the gut.

When a trusted staff member resigns, it’s not unusual to feel an acute sense of loss and even betrayal. It’s hard to understand why our ministers would want to move on, and it feels like rejection. Most lay people are simply not prepared for a ministerial transition, and the ministers in that transition cannot by virtue of the inherent conflict of interest in their job search be the ones to help them through it.

So what’s a faithful church member to do when a beloved member of their staff says “Goodbye?” Here are five strategies for people in the pew to cope with the departure of their pastor or other beloved staff member:

1. Grieve. Don’t underestimate the emotional impact or downplay your feelings. It is loss, and your emotions come from the same place as the feelings that accompany the death of a loved one. Allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions, particularly if it’s a staff member you and your family are close to. As you come through the stages of grief, you will eventually come to terms with the new situation, but only if you fully experience the pain.

2. Clarify your motives. We live in a personality-driven culture, and the church is not exempt. People often chose their church based on whether or not they like the pastor and staff. If there is a change, people are tempted to look elsewhere or drop out of church altogether. It’s important to understand why you are a part of a particular congregation in the first place. Your focus should be on worshipping God, following Christ, and studying the Bible. It’s imperative that you recognize that a church in transition needs its lay leaders more than ever. Your decision to leave or stay affects other people.

3. Listen for God’s voice. The Book of Psalms is an obvious place to turn for comfort during these times, but I’ve found it just as helpful to explore passages devoted to the wilderness. Going through the loss of a pastor or staff minister can feel like you’ve entered a wilderness. Whether it’s the people of Israel on their journey out of Egypt, Elijah’s refuge during famine, or Jesus’ time of trial and temptation, God spoke powerfully to the people during those times. Likewise, if you focus on your relationship with God during a transition, you can not only grow closer to God and stronger in your faith, but you can receive wisdom and direction that will aid in your congregation’s selection of a successor.

4. Rejoice. Many times, the transition is part of God’s work in the life of the minister and the congregation. Change is inevitable. If you can sincerely thank God for the work of that staff member and celebrate the next phase of ministry both for your church and your former minister, the entire process can be positive and productive. Consciously look for reasons to be grateful and see the challenges as opportunities for growth. God works in people’s lives through such disruptions and to see a staff transition as a reason for joy will make you more open to God.

5. Provide input. It’s essential to engage in the process of selecting a new pastor or staff member. Do not withdraw. This is not the time to sit idly by and keep your convictions to yourself, particularly if you have been discerning God’s will. Go to the members of the search committee and give your feedback. Temper your expectations with the understanding that the committee will and should hear from everyone in the church. Your voice isn’t the only one, and you should not expect to get your way in every decision through the transition. Don’t split the church. Share your thoughts and ideas in a way that brings people together and be at peace if other voices carry the day.

Transitions in church leadership are volatile times in the life of a church and its members. I hope you find these thoughts helpful. I’d love to see recommendations of good resources on this topic that go beyond the nuts and bolts of selecting new ministers and addresses the entire process from a lay perspective. If you know of a good resource, please leave a comment below and share with the community.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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  1. Lance, excellent article.! In answer to your question from Facebook, yes there are good resources for congregations in interim transitions. Check out the Center for Congregational Health’s Intentional Interim Ministry resources.