• How Do You Exit a Church Gracefully?


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How can you leave a leadership position in a way that benefits those you have led? It’s easier when we remember leaving is a process, not a point in time. We can be thoughtful about several steps along the way: 1) when we are thinking about leaving but aren’t sure, 2) when we are actively looking for another position, and 3) when we have announced our leaving.

First of all, when you begin to think of leaving, your attitude impacts the whole organization. This will affect people even when they don’t consciously realize it. When I began to consider leaving the church I had served as pastor for over a decade, more people got angry with me about a variety of issues than ever before, even though I hadn’t told anyone what I was thinking.

Most leaders keep their thoughts of leaving secret. They think it will compromise leadership if they tell. “Lame duck” is a favorite phrase. And while I wouldn’t recommend that you announce your thoughts via the pulpit or broadcast e-mail, you may find places to discuss it. Are there trusted leaders you could raise the question of your future with? Others may have a valuable perspective on whether you are the right leader at this time—or not. When parents keep a secret from children “for their own sake,” children often sense that something is off. In the same way, when leaders keep secrets from followers, it affects the functioning of the whole organization. More openness is generally better for a group than less.

Second, what do you do if you’ve decided to go? Sometimes it takes a year or two to find the right new position. The same principle of being as open as circumstances allow applies. Then, keep doing your job: do what you are getting paid for. Keep working on key relationships (always part of the job anyway). Use preaching and other public talks as opportunity for self-definition. At times of uncertainty like a job hunt it can be hard to focus. But what do you think and believe and what are your principles? Your perspective can be grounding for those you currently lead—and your increased clarity may help in the job search.

Third, when you have announced you are leaving, it’s important to be well-connected, to be visible. Make a list of key people you want to keep in touch with during the transition, and track your contacts with them. This could include making calls to them in between weekly or monthly meetings, or having lunch and coffee meetings. E-mail is not enough at a high-anxiety time. This strategy of connection is always important, but even more so at transitional moments. When the atmosphere is fraught, it can be tempting to hide out in the office with the door closed, but you need to be visible. Your presence will help people weather the change.

It’s not easy to be thoughtful and neutral when you are in the process of leaving, particularly from a long-term leadership role. And in fact, you won’t be able to be neutral. Ending relationships raises emotional issues for us all. We are all dependent on the roles we occupy for our sense of self. My colleague Larry Matthews, retiring after 32 years, looked around the office he had designed. He realized it wasn’t “his” but was the office of the pastor of that church—which very soon would not be him.

Even if you can’t be totally neutral, some degree of stepping back will help you as you let go of the role you have occupied, and help others let go of you and say good-bye.


Get the free mini-course, "Five Ways to Avoid Burnout in Ministry" at http://margaretmarcuson.com/.

User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Kim Shimer
    A great book addressing leadership transition is When the Spirit Moves: A Guide for Ministers in Transition by Riley Walker and Marcia Patton.
  • Margaret Marcuson
    I know Riley and Marcia but haven't read their book yet. Thanks for the reminder!
  • Brad Cowie
    Being able to discuss potential transition is a great idea ... in theory. However, I was a staff pastor in a large church (1000ish). After a staff discussion on this very topic, I risked opening up to the pastoral team that I was considering the possibility of moving on. Within 2 months, I was forced to resign by the senior pastor and board chairman. After my dismissal, a few experienced pastors told me that they never tell anyone that they are considering a move, to prevent going through what I went through.

    Nice idea, I really wish it were so ... but even people you think you can trust can surprise you. Open up at your own risk ... that's what I learned anyway
  • Margaret Marcuson
    Thanks for sharing your experience, Brad. I agree, this is not without risk. But I do think there is also a price to be paid for keeping our dissatisfaction secret.
  • Brad Cowie
    I have to add that I do believe in this value, and that I hope and pray that I will always allow anyone under my leadership the freedom to seek God's direction openly and with the support of their leadership team.

    I think this is a value that has to be built into a team. My experience is that it's not the way a lot of people think. Too many people immediately think, "If they're considering leaving, they must be unhappy, so good riddance to them," instead of thinking, "more than anything else, we want God's leading in this ... stay or go." If you haven't built this value in in advance, it's a huge risk. I applaud churches and ministries who have successfully adopted this value. Unfortunately, my former church talked up the value, but in the end would not live it out.
Margaret Marcuson

Latest posts by Margaret Marcuson
Margaret Marcuson
Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years.
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