After 15 years in our congregation, my senior pastor is leaving to take a new call.
As far as transitions go, this is a healthy one. No underlying conflict is forcing anyone to go. And yet, transitions are always hard. I’m grieving and so are many others in my congregation.
In the week since my senior pastor announced his departure, I’ve become acutely aware of the role that I, as a staff member, have to play in this transition. To support my congregation during this season of change, here are 7 things I’m learning to do:
- Process my own emotions. In order to help other people process their emotions, you have to process your own. Sometimes that means prioritizing yourself in order to take care of yourself and then later, others. For example, upon learning of my pastor’s departure, I immediately fled the building. I felt as though the church walls were suffocating me. I knew I had to leave even if it was only for a short time. So I went for a cold, midday walk and then went home for an hour and hung out with my daughter. When I returned to church, I felt much calmer and able to work. In the days since, I’ve continued processing my emotions with my colleagues, my husband, and close friends OUTSIDE my congregation.
- Be present and listen. Whenever parishioners learn a beloved, long-time staff member is leaving, they’ll want to talk. In the days since my pastor’s news broke, I’ve sat with a lot of people, simply listening to them. Many times, we’ve sat and cried together. Other times, I’ve listened to people’s grief and their concerns over our congregation’s future. I’ve also asked questions in order to try to better understand where people are coming from.
- Give people a safe place to share. While it’s good to meet informally with people and listen, it’s also imperative to give various groups in your congregation time to process big news together and wrestle with the question, “What does this mean for us?” Our youth group has gathered twice since our pastor’s news broke. Both times, we’ve explicitly talked about the elephant in the room. In order to pastor teens, we have to know where they’re at. We can’t do that unless we give them a space to actually share what they’re thinking and feeling.
- Give people permission to feel whatever it is they’re feeling. Recognize that not everyone in your congregation will feel the same about a person’s departure. Both times we’ve talked about my pastor’s departure with my students, I’ve explicitly said, “It’s okay to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.” Some of my teens are mourning the loss of the only pastor they’ve ever known. Some have close ties to this pastor: He baptized and confirmed them or buried their loved ones. Others are much more focused on the future and excited for what lies ahead. It’s important to validate both responses, as well as any in between.
- Reassure people. In times of transition, there is a lot of uncertainty. One of the most helpful things you can do for people is to reassure them. In my context, my congregation is part of a larger denomination. This means that we have an incredible support network behind us as we go through this season of change. I’ve often referred to its support as a way of reassuring people, of letting them know that we are not alone in this transitional time. I’ve also been using the following line a lot to reassure people, “There’s a lot we don’t know. But what we do know is our church is going to be okay. It’s not going anywhere.”
- Support the person leaving. Recognize that transitions are hard – not just for the people left behind, but for the person leaving. Show the departing person grace and compassion. Ask about their plans for the future. Directly ask, “What can I do to support you in this transition process?” Then do those things.
- Pray. During times of transition, support your congregation by holding it in prayer. Pray for the person leaving. Pray for wisdom for those making decisions about your congregation’s future. And pray for unity – for your staff, council / board of elders, as well as the congregation itself.
What else can you do to support your congregation during a season of change?
Next week, we’ll explore some things that aren’t helpful to do during seasons of change.