A Good Goodbye: How to Leave Your Church

I said goodbye to my church last month. There was no “good” reason to move on, except that we had been together for 12 years; they were in terrific shape financially, numerically and spiritually; and God had called me on to a new church in a way that was too obvious to ignore.

It was still one of the hardest things I had ever done, precisely because things were so good between us. And that lovely inertia might have made leaving really messy. It’s hard to leave people you love—or have any really strong feelings for. It requires a lot of exit velocity, and sometimes we don’t get that exit velocity from the right source. Have you ever picked a fight with your sweetheart right before getting on a plane? That.

Terminating well is enormously important to moving on, so we don’t carry baggage to the next destination in our lives. That baggage will slow us down and prevent us from living unfettered, the way God intends us to. In the context of church, terminating badly (with unresolved anger on either side), terminating messily (without setting clear boundaries), or avoiding the real work of termination entirely (by pretending it’s not happening) often plays out in devastating ways for pastor or church community further down the line.

If you are thinking about making a move soon, or your pastor has just announced they are leaving, or you are smack dab in the middle of the mess of a transition, here are some suggestions from our experience, that may help you in your own setting.

Keep mum until it’s real. Even if you feel like you’re lying to them by keeping it a secret, pastors, don’t tell your leadership until the ink is dry on your next contract or you have a clear end date in mind. Telling some folks too far ahead of time just makes them anxious secret-keepers, and creates insiders and outsiders. When it’s time, though, do tell the people who need to know most a few days ahead of everybody else, so they can have time to recover before helping the rest of the congregation absorb the news.

 

Mobilize your denominational resources. Some of our churches are allergic to denominational interfering. They have libertarian leanings and think of it as “big government.” But if you are lucky enough to have denominational resources—people to walk you through a healthy transition process, identify candidates for pastoral succession, offer wisdom and counsel should conflict erupt, and support the lay leaders so they can support the rest of the congregation —use them! Our local UCC conference has helped literally thousands of churches through tens of thousands of transitions. Why would we try to reinvent the wheel?

Pastors, let your people have their feelings. If your tenure has been good, people will have feelings about your leaving. If your tenure has been hard, people will have even more feelings. We are leaving, not dying, but people will still experience grief around our departure. Grief manifests in all kinds of strange ways—remember that there are (at least) five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and they don’t travel in a linear fashion. If someone who you thought was OK with your leaving suddenly lashes out, breathe. As one of my parishioners said to me, “I’m angry and sad because you mean so much to me. If I didn’t have strong feelings, it would mean I didn’t care.” Listen to any criticism for what it can teach you, and remember that at least some of these strong feelings are a projection of other griefs, relationships and goodbyes.

Pastors, have your own feelings. Even if you initiated this transition, it doesn’t mean you’re not sad, too. God’s will might be right, but it’s not always easy. Find people you can “dump out” to (friends, clergy colleagues, spiritual director) so you can “comfort in” to your congregation. That said, don’t feel like you need to meet every tear or grimace with a shiny smile. Your people need to see you be as emotionally authentic now as you have hopefully been able to be with them all along.

Let your Doomsday Pollyanna fly. This urging is for lay leaders as well as pastors: if the pastoral tenure has been a strong one, the church will worry that they can’t do it with you and will start to run anxious. If it has not been a strong tenure, and/or the church is struggling (which is almost all of our churches), they will run even more anxious.

Now is the time to use that anxiety: help them titrate it down to manageable levels so it doesn’t paralyze them, and put it to work. Affirm everything good and strong and true about the congregation, and begin to cast a vision for what things look like after this pastorate. And let them know the future of the church depends upon every one of them: their willingness to lean in, to give generously, to show up, to take on new leadership, to be flexible, creative and hopeful—and to ally themselves with the entire Body of Christ and not one gifted person.

Spell it out for them. Make specific leadership asks, pastors, while you are still there—very specific, “increase your giving 20% this year,” “please come to worship regularly,” “consider becoming a visioning team small group leader.” They will want to please you—put that urge to work for the health of the congregation.

And remember that even Jesus said to his people “it is to your advantage that I go away.” Sometimes, pastors, especially when we stay too long, we limit our congregation’s natural growth by enabling them to underfunction or having a vision that is too small. They may do even better when we are gone! We should pray for this to happen.

Pastors, work yourself out of a job. In your last few weeks/months, pass off institutional knowledge, passwords, dreams for the future, unfinished business, power and privilege. Realize that neither they nor your successor may do things the way you would, and that is OK. Ask lay people to preach while you are still there—your congregation expects you to project confidence in their future without you, but that kind of vision-casting and hopefulness is even more powerful coming from a fellow pew-sitter who will actually be part of that future.

If you have an associate clergy colleague, practice talking less in meetings, and express your confidence in their leadership abilities (senior ministers: we should be doing this anyhow!).

You may get senioritis in spite of your best intentions to leave strongly and well. If this happens, privilege people over projects. Be as present as you can to the relationships while you are together, while letting them know the ways you will not be available to them when you are gone.

Set clear boundaries. We’ve all known clergy who left their churches badly, halfway, or not at all. They remain friends with parishioners, take on a priestly role in weddings and funerals, and even still come to church! The upshot is: clergy who can’t move on mean congregations who can’t move on. Because of their own ego needs, they doom their successors to failure, and by association, the congregations they claim to love.

Pastors, even if it feels artificial (it is) or painful (it will be), you and your congregation deserve a clean break. For me that meant: sending a kind but detailed email to the entire congregation a few weeks before I left spelling out the boundaries. I would release them from turning to me as a pastor and priest. We would not be friends unless we were friends before they became church members. I would put them in a restricted category on social media so I could not see their feeds and therefore they wouldn’t feel strange if I didn’t offer condolences on the death of their parent or congratulations on their new baby. They were invited to unfriend me, or unfollow me, for at least a year, and preferably until they felt they were firmly in a loving, trusting relationship with their new pastor.

Do an exit interview. Naturally, most of our churches already know that an exit interview is a good idea. If the transition is amicable, it is a chance to pass on valuable information and affirm your care for one another. If the transition is fraught and/or involuntary, it can still be an opportunity to heal and learn from each other.

 

Hold visioning sessions even before the transition happens. One of the first things the transition team did after I announced my departure was to talk to a church renewal coach. They ended up hiring her to run a visioning process. Much like a capital campaign, the visioning process is very broad-based and involves recruiting and training many new leaders in the church.

I admit that at first, my natural parsimony (and probably my ego) got the best of me. “Why do they need to spend all that money for a church renewal coach when they have ME for free? And we just DID an amazing 5-year visioning process only a year ago!”

But as I watched the process unfold, I realized what a brilliant idea it was. It gave them an objective outsider’s wisdom and counsel. It gave them a goal beyond my leaving. The new visioning teams engaged both longtime members and relative newcomers in becoming stakeholders in a church beyond me. They started doing the future work, even before I left, which gave them courage, focus and momentum. Best idea I never had!

Have a really good Goodbye. Leave it all on the field. Have the kind of fun that is most fun for you, not the kind of folderol you think you ought to have. For us, it was pizza in prom attire and disco music, silly skits and gag gifts. But layfolks, I will say this: my congregation took up an enormous collection for me, which meant I get to take a paid breather from serving a parish, in order to be really ready and healthy for my next church.

They also gave each of my family members an enormous gift certificate to do something they really love. The money, of course, didn’t matter, except that money does demonstrate the value we put on people and relationships: where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. Both my spouse and my kids felt deeply honored and valued for their own sacrifices through 12 years of hard work and wonderful ministry.

The last worship service was a kitchen sink of all our favorite music of every genre; communion with our youth as celebrants, a visual representation of the new leadership God was calling forth; and most importantly, a short liturgy where pastor and parish asked each other’s forgiveness for any mistakes we had made, and in which we released each other from turning to each other and depending upon each other.

Our denominational support staff was there to assist with the liturgy, and she told us: “what we do at church is rehearse life. And today, we’re rehearsing what it means to say goodbye. There might be someone in your life you didn’t say goodbye to well, or someone you didn’t say goodbye to at all. What we are doing here is practicing how to have a Good Goodbye.”

And so it was. May God grant you, whenever you leave your own setting, a Good Goodbye!


The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette is the Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Berkeley and a Senior Consultant for The Center for Progressive Renewal.