Leaving Well–A guide for working with people in transition

Making the decision to leave a church family is a difficult process filled with conflicting emotions, some positive and some negative. Once once a person has made the decision, the key task is to leave well.

It is easy in these situations for a person to think that the best thing to do is make a quick and clean exit in order not to hurt others. In fact, the opposite is the case. Quick exits often complicate the pain felt by everyone. It is analogous to a ‘sudden unexpected death’.

Leaving relationships, especially conflicted ones, involves very real grief for the person and for those remaining. People who take the time to prepare to leave well via the ‘front door’ rather than simply ‘disappearing out the back door’, find the process much more healthy and less debilitating for the future. They carry less pain with them. To disregard a person’s emotional needs and the needs of the community that is left leave creates feelings of abandonment, betrayal and frustration. Help the people you mentor choose the pathway of love and courage.

Even though the leaving may be hard, this pathway is life-giving. It enables the next important process in the person’s life – saying ‘hello’ to a new community. A good leaving also allows the person to visit their old community with dignity and acceptance.

Principles to recall in helping a person leave well:

Don’t let someone just walk away without considering the transition, the people and your their own self care.

The most important decision anyone makes after deciding to go is deciding how they will leave. It is crucial at this point that the person does not run away or just let it happen without thought. Help your mentee to commit to saying ‘goodbye’ well. Leaving is a significant event in his/her life and the life of the community they have related to. The choice they make to leave well communicates that they care about people even though they are be leaving them. It also allows future interactions to be healthy. Importantly, it is good for them emotionally and doesn’t build up resentment, self-justification and disillusionment. If leaving is complicated or occurs after a long ministry, many leaders find the process of walking the journey with a counsellor or mentor is well worthwhile.

If you have worked through the decision with a mentee, help them also with the process of disclosure. Once an announcement is made, others begin to withdraw, so think carefully about when this should happen. 3 months is an appropriate time.

Help design the process of sharing the decision with people especially if it is likely to come as a surprise. Having the mentee, share with the lay leadership and staff team a few days before the Sunday announcement is wise. Many have found the ‘Friday leak’ a useful practice. This way key relationships are affirmed. However each of these individuals need to be committed to confidentiality prior to Sunday.

It is important for the community to have the opportunity to be active in saying ‘goodbye’. Communities sometimes withdraw emotionally from a leader who announces his or her departure. It is as important for the community as for the leader, and his or her family, to be intentional about creating a healthy closure for themselves. Those leaving sometimes think it is fine for those left behind “they are OK, they‘ve got each other, its us who are hurting”. Whereas those left often feel the opposite, “its OK for them they are going somewhere new, we have been the ones left to pick up the pieces”. Again some churches consider engaging a church consultancy team to assist them process the transition of the pastor well. If the community is not in a place to take initiative, a leaving pastor may have to accept responsibility to arrange some aspects of the transition otherwise they may not happen.

If the leaving is healthy and planned, and a new leader is ready to start, consider a short and defined hand over period. If this is well done it can be provide a positive transition experience for all the parties involved.

Keep working, complete tasks well and tidy up loose ends.

While it is common for church members to withdraw a little from a pastor who is leaving, it is important for the pastor to be committed to leaving the church in the best possible shape for the future. This means not losing withdrawing energy, vision and direction in the last few months before completion. This is not the time for new projects but for completing ministry well. Assist the person tie up loose ends and not leave things undone. Assist them to plan completion for projects, fulfilment of commitments and the keeping of promises. Where things are unable to be completed make sure this is dealt with clearly and the expectations of everyone are clarified. Consider encouraging them to preach a farewell set of sermons aimed at preparing the church for the future.

Affirm important relationships

As the person prepares to leave, it is important for them to give time to meet with the key people in life who will be affected by their leaving. Get them to remember the good and tough times they have had together – celebrate and reminisce. This is the time to make sure the minister thanks people for what they have done for him/her personally. It may be good for them to share a meal together, to pray, and even to exchange small symbolic gifts if the relationship has been particularly important.

> The mentee may call some to say a personal goodbye.

> Others may need a letter.

> Some the mentee will want to personally visit.

This is also the time to lay down any unresolved issues that the mentee may have (don’t let them carry issues on into a new situation). Facilitate a time of letting go of any anger and disappointment they may have experienced. Help them to offer and ask for forgiveness if needed. It is better for a person to be honest and open here than to walk away with hurt which takes years to resolve. If you are conscious that the person is carrying things away with them, encourage them to see a counsellor or spiritual director to deal with these issues if this is not possible in the mentoring relationship.

If the move away is the result of conflict, then it is important that the issues are named and understood. Help the minister, to be clear about the reasons for going. It is probable that if they are moving, these cannot now be resolved easily, however the relationships may still need to be affirmed and careful goodbyes do need to be said.
As a mentor you may have to say your own goodbye to a mentee. Do this with care and be clear about how the relationship will change. Again it is important for a leaving minister to communicate his/her expectations up front about future contact.

Allow yourself time to grieve

Saying ‘goodbye’ to others involves very real grieving for the person and their family as well as for the community left behind. Allow adequate time to work this through. There are significant emotions aroused in grief and those leaving may need to be aware of these and how they will affect them and also their family. Grieving takes 8 – 18 months in times like this and where relationships have been very significant, it can take considerably longer. Again, some people find that gaining the help of counsellor, skilled in grief work, is very valuable to bring good closure to a situation.

If the mentee has been through grief before and they know their patterns of grieving, then they will be more comfortable with what is happening. If this is the first time they have said ‘goodbye’ in this way, it may be useful to read something on grief or find people to support them through the journey. Counselling is highly recommended for people who have had long membership or ministries in leadership with a church.

The four key tasks of grieving are:

a) Accepting the reality of the loss. The first reaction is denial that this is really happening or that it means this much to us.

b) Experiencing the pain of the loss: There are many emotions including: anger, relief, sadness, guilt, helplessness, loneliness, depression and hope.

c) Adjusting to a new situation where the old relationships, supports, expectations and sense of community are no longer there.

d) Slowly reinvesting emotional energy and connectedness to new people and a new community.

These tasks appear at first glance to be sequential but in reality aspects of each may be experienced together or in parallel.

Try to encourage the person not to move into new ministries or responsibilities too quickly. Allow time for transition so that they have the emotional energy to start well in a new place.

The farewell

Some sort of public farewell is usual even in difficult circumstances. This gives opportunity for a community of people to acknowledge the person’s contribution to church life, ministry and to say ‘goodbye’ publicly. This should not be artificial but it is important in that it is the public marker of the minister’s leaving. Encourage the person to enjoy this time and use it well to bring good closure.

Again if there are difficulties in leaving, help the minister to choose to be gracious in his/her involvement but not untruthful or compromising. If the leaving is over difficult issues, try not to let these obscure the years of enjoyable fellowship the person will have had. Help them make their parting shot one of love that builds people rather than a reaction of hurt that is intended to pay back. Help them not to seek justification at this point.

For the community organising the farewell, it is important that those chosen to be involved are not in primary conflict with those leaving. The farewell must have integrity and honesty if it is to do its job of providing a means to a healthy closure.
For the community it is important that those leaving are recognised for the contribution they have made to life of the community. This may be difficult if the leaving is following conflict, but it is important that it is done meaningfully and well.

Really leave

If the minister has closed well, they are free to really leave. Encourage them to go home and mark in some way to themselves or as a family the fact that they are no longer the leader or even members of this community. If they return, help them be clear that they are in a new role as a ‘visitor’ from time to time. Help them enjoy visiting but not to expect to just fit in as they did before. Their leaving among many other things will mean that the community will never be the same.

It is usual for ministers to hand over the responsibility for weddings, funerals and special events to incoming minister. There may be the need for special consideration in some situations and this should be worked out between the old and the new minister.

Leaving well is worth the time and effort it takes. It is good for the minister and good for the community left. Poor closure or an abrupt ugly departure leaves wounds that can take years to heal. Tragically, even the Christian world is painfully full of people who continue to find it hard to relate to others because they are hurting after being left or leaving without enough care.

Help your mentee, to take time to say “goodbye” and they will find it easier to say “hello”. As a wise counsellor once commented: “The whole of life is saying “goodbye” and “hello”, we may as well learn to do it well.”

Tim Dyer, John Mark Ministries (Tas) 2002, revised in 2008, 2010, 2013

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