One day, you may have the conversation. This is one of those ultimate conversations in your ministry life. It may come out of the blue. You may have some signs it is coming. You may be fully expecting it. Whether expected or not, the conversation is a bomb exploding—nothing is the same anymore.
I have decided to leave the position of senior pastor of this church. You are on your own now. I will not be making any more leadership decisions here.
That statement is akin to Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Once it has been publicized, it is next to impossible to retract. If it is publicly rescinded, the SP may stay at the church for a while, but often leaves within 18-24 months. Thus, once these decisions are made public, they are essentially irrevocable and final.
For this article, let’s assume that there is no negotiating the SP’s decision to resign. It is a done deal. Let’s leave for another article the concept of how a board can negotiate an SP off the “cliff of resignation.”
I have been in this position several times in over thirty-five years of ministry. Here are some key things that you need to consider.
Decide if You Should Stay
This is the place to start. You need to ask God what He wants you to do. This isn’t as simple as listing the pros and cons on a sheet of paper. Sometimes the cons far outweigh the pros on staying! Senior pastors rarely leave when there are calm seas, but that does happen. Often there is turmoil in the congregation and he sees that he is not the person to lead the church through it.
You need to see if God wants you to stay. That is your first marching order. In one church a few years back, we heard from God that we had freedom to chart our own course. There was not a clear call to stay and there were several offers ahead for us. Sometimes God will say, you have freedom to leave. Other times He may say to you, “It is definitely time to go. You are not being called to serve here any longer.”
A few years back when our SP decided to leave, my wife and I took a week to talk to God about what we were to do. The response was clear to both of us, “You are called to stay. If the elders don’t want your leadership any longer, then you are free to leave.” Okay. Those are pretty clear matching orders!
As soon as the SP told the elders that he was leaving, I let them know what God has said to my wife and me. Now the ball was in their court. Did they also sense that God wanted me to stay at the church? As it turned out, they gave a loud “yes” to that question.
Your first call is to listen to God. You must take sufficient time to listen to God. Don’t listen to circumstances or your own preferences and desires, but what Christ is calling you to do.
Develop a Communication Plan
This decision from the SP must be judiciously announced. Once it is leaked or made public, it will virally spread across social media. People all across the country and internationally will know of it! Before that happens, you need to be ready for their responses.
Since you are staying, your first major assignment is to work with the board on this communication plan (if you are leaving, it is better to let the board work with another staff member). If possible, have the SP inform the board two to three months in advance. You may need to work through severance issues and draft a severance document.
The board will need help in determining a communication plan. The following are elements to consider:
Review your constitution and ensure that any plans are made in alignment with it. Don’t get in the place where someone says, “but the Constitution says we should have done it this way.” Your constitution may require a formal congregational meeting to hear a SP resignation or it may require the congregation to vote on it. Know what your constitution requires you to do.
Letters to be Publicized
Communication is essential in an SP resignation. The more that you can communicate up front, the better. If gossip causes the board to later share key data points, you will lose trust with the congregation. Share everything that can be shared in a gracious and truthful fashion.
The SP letter is the SP’s own words about why he is resigning. The SP needs to express gratitude for the time served at the church, why he is leaving and show support for the church. If there is moral failure, this needs to be dealt with in a gentle fashion. If there has been turbulence in the church, the SP should state that he is not the right person to lead the church through it. If the SP has accepted a position at another church, this should be clearly stated. The letter doesn’t need to be long but needs to adequately touch on the major issues.
The board chair letter shares the board’s position on the resignation. Thanks need to be given to the SP for his hard work and tenure at the church. The letter needs to be honest, gracious and transparent:
- Was the board in agreement with the decision?
- Did the board actively vote the pastor out of office?
- Did the board oppose the SP’s decision to resign?
Be clear so that assumptions won’t be made. This doesn’t mean that you need to share impolite or uncaring information. Decide whether you will share information about a severance or if this is confidential personnel data.
A page of FAQs will need to be prepared for publication. The FAQs need to explain the reason for the departure, dispel doubts, give an acknowledgement of a future search process, define how leadership of the church will continue in the interim, etc. The FAQs answer the common questions that people will have. They help explain where the church is and immediate next steps. The FAQs are not a time to share an envisioned future.
The responses of the congregation will be varied. Many people will grieve, so deal with mutual sadness in the board letter and FAQs. Some people may be elated, others numb and others feel abandoned by their spiritual leader. The goal is to help people know the story of the resignation so that they can deal with their emotions. The church can move forward when people are working through their emotions in a healthy fashion. These letters will help people focus their hope on God working through their church in a time of transition.
Informing the Staff
The SP may want to inform a few key players of his decision in advance of the general announcement. Limit the number of these people and limit the amount of time that they know in advance.
Generally, all staff are informed a day before or the day of the general announcement. Don’t ask your entire staff to suppress this kind of information for more than 24 hours. When informing the staff, have copies of the SP letter, board chair letter and FAQs for them to take home. Ask staff to share this information with only their spouse or one confidant.
Informing the Congregation
With the prevalence of email, some SPs prefer to inform the congregation electronically. Others prefer an in-person Sunday morning announcement. One reason why some prefer to not share their resignation on Sunday morning is that it completely preempts worship. And, if you have two or more worship services, then word will spread between services. Finally, some church constitutions require a specially called meeting for a resignation to be presented.
However the congregation is informed, you need to be ready to email or have printed copies of the SP letter, board chair letter and the FAQs. These should also go on your website the minute that the announcement is made. Be proactive and post the announcement on social media. It is always best for your announcement to be the first one to tell your church’s story. By sharing the whole story, you will demonstrate honesty and transparency.
The Sunday After
The first Sunday after the announcement is a key Sunday. You need to take five minutes in the service to talk with the congregation. Often the best people to do this are the board chair and the XP—this represents both the governance and staff sides of the church. Each person should share a condensed version of portions of the letters.
This “congregational talk” is not the time to talk about plans for the future or the upcoming search process. That can wait. It is a time to deal with the grief of people who have lost their shepherd. It is a time to honor the hard work of the “former” SP. Most importantly, it is a time to communicate stability in church leadership. People need to see and hear from those who are at the helm. A pilotless ship will drift in open seas and a ship tied to the pier isn’t going anywhere.
A positive statement about continued vision and ministries is essential. Give hope in God working through the people of the church, the staff and board. Don’t glamorize or paint a rosy picture as this isn’t the time for detailing an envisioned future. It is a time for a strong statement of hope in God. Call the people to lean into God working through their church—they can work through this and will!
These steps will help you prepare for the resignation of your SP. Nothing is quite the same after the resignation. If God is calling you to stay, your role may substantially change. You may need to take on some of the responsibilities of the SP. The congregation will grieve and may feel abandoned by their spiritual leader. You and the board will need to provide organizational stability in new ways.
It is a time for careful communication. By sharing all the information that you can in a gentle and honest fashion, you will aid in the transition process. You need to shepherd the people through some deep waters. God is not surprised by the events. He has placed people in place who will rise to the challenge that the situation requires.