At some point every pastor leaves his or her church. It may happen because the pastor was called to another place of service. Sometimes it happens because the pastor was terminated or forced to resign. It is not uncommon today for a person to resign from the church and leave ministry completely. For others their leaving will be because they retired or passed away. But, everyone will eventually leave the church he or she serves. The question is will you leave well?
I only served one church before I began denominational ministry, so I've only left one church. But, I had been there 20 years and did not want two decades of ministry to be wasted. I wanted to leave them feeling empowered and capable of doing ministry. When I announced my resignation I requested six weeks to help prepare them for their future. During that time I continually challenged and encouraged them. I reminded them of all they had done over the years I had been with them. I kept telling them how much confidence I had in them.
I explained to them what our new relationship would look like after my last Sunday as pastor. That was critical as my wife and I were not leaving the community. Some were not happy when I told them I could not return and do their weddings or funerals, but I explained that ethically that was not possible. Ministering to them during those times was how their new pastor would get to become their pastor.
For several people in the church I was the only pastor they ever knew. It would be inevitable that some would want to compare the new pastor to me. There are few things a new pastor hates to hear more than, "Well, Brother So-and-So did it this way." Such comparisons are not fair. During one of my final messages to the congregation I explained that their new pastor would not preach like me, lead like me, dress like me, or have the same spiritual gifts or ministry priorities I had. I told them if God wanted another me to serve the church He would have never led me to leave. I urged them to allow their new pastor to be himself or herself and to extend the same grace to that person as they had to me.
Since the church had not gone through a pastor search in two decades, and most of our membership were not part of the church since it did its last search, I explained the process our denomination uses and urged them to follow that process. We encountered a minor problem in the process because this church was located in the geographic area I serve in my new role. Normally, I would have been the person to lead them in that process, but that simply was not wise since I was the previous pastor. Our region assigned another person to lead that process in that church to avoid a difficult situation.
You may or may not be at your current place of ministry for that long, but regardless of how long you are there you can continue to serve that church well by leaving well. Your departure can lay the groundwork for how their new pastor begins his or her ministry. By helping set that person up for success when he or she arrives you will be able to continue your good ministry in that church. That doesn't mean that the person who follows you will continue all your pet programs and ministries nor does it mean that he or she will lead, preach, or serve exactly like you did. It does mean that by leaving well you are laying a solid foundation on which their pastor can build a ministry.