How to leave a ministry position and finish well

A friend of mine is leaving his youth ministry to attend seminary and asked this question on the Facebook group, Youth Pastors Only: As I prepare for a transition in the next month and a half, do any of you have advice for what I can do to “leave well?” I feel that I can relate to this question due to my recent transition from my former ministry in Texas to where I am now in Minnesota.

As I prepare for a transition in the next month and a half, do any of you have advice for what I can do to “leave well?”

Here’s my response:

1. Don’t make promises you won’t/can’t/shouldn’t keep. For example, “I’ll come back and visit you guys” or “You can still call me whenever you want.” Students will cling to these statements emotionally and be hurt again in the future when they’re not fulfilled. If you’re planning to visit again next year on vacation or something, that’s fine, but don’t tell them just so they’ll feel better. Do your best to make it a clean break for the sake of the ministry and the next person who takes the position.

2. Decide which of your responsibilities MUST continue and delegate them to volunteers. If you have the time, take a week or two to overlap your involvement in these areas to ensure a smooth transition.

3. Listen to everyone. There will be so many different responses to your departure. What’s important is not that you address every concern (or relief!), but that everyone feels that you’ve heard their voice and feel that its respected and valued.

4. Once you leave, it’s hands off. Don’t contact people to see if you’re missed or entertain those who contact you to continue with some follow-up work or complaints. And when a new person takes over and students contact you about how it’s different (because it will be), always encourage them to be positive and support the new leader.

5. Never bad-talk anyone, especially if you’re leaving with tension. You don’t have to support various decisions and people, but don’t tear the ministry apart even further just so you feel like you’ve had the final say and got your revenge. Leave with grace.

Posted on March 27, 2007

  • Hey Tim,

    I hope you don’t mind if I throw my 2 cents from my experience…

    One way I prepared my last youth group for my leaving was to announce it so they had enough time to get over the shock. For a youth group to hear a youth pastor is leaving and then have a youth pastor gone in 2 weeks (2 youth gatherings) is a really hard thing on students. I know this isn’t always possible, but we it is I would encourage the leader to give them a heads up far enough ahead. Do it as soon as you and your lead pastor both agree on the date to make it public.

    The night I had to announce I was leaving I was sick to my stomach. After I did it, I had students balling their eyes out – it’s bad when dudes cry in front of other dudes! But by the next day we were able to joke about it (a little). It got better as the time went on and we could talk and remember “the good old days” together.

    I’d encourage your friend to plan on giving at LEAST one talk that focuses on the need for the group to continue on.

    In the following weeks after my announcement, a lot of my talks were all focused on my leaving and the group needing to carry on.

    In one of the messages I said straight out…

    “I want you to like the next leader as much, if not more than me. I won’t be hurt by that! I don’t want you to be mad at the next person and blame them for me leaving. I’m leaving cause I feel God’s leading me to – it’s not cause of them. It’s not cause anything’s wrong with you or this church. If you reject them and attack them – because I left – and they end up leaving, I still won’t be back. I can’t, cause I know it’s my time to leave. The way to make me happy (and God) is to keep growing together, grow closer to God and submit to the next leader.”

    I wanted this group to last and not collapse when I left, cause I considered it going on without me a sign I was a good leader. If and when I ever heard from students about the “new guy” I always was happy when things were good and I always defended him.

  • Tim

    That’s good advice, Scott. Thanks!

    I think there are both advantages and disadvantages to staying longer or shorter after the announcement has been made. When I left my previous church I gave a 6-week notice. This allowed me to have a lot of time to set up a smooth transition and to administratively set up the ministry for my departure, but looking back I think it was too long because it strung out the students emotions for too long. I was still present, but for six weeks they were reminded that I’m leaving them, like I was just a lame duck or something. Mentally and emotionally that’s pretty tough on everyone.

    The advantage to a shorter notice is just the opposite: the emotional and mental break is pretty clean, but there’s not as much time to set up a successful transition.

    It’s hard because I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect time-frame to leave. It’s probably different for each church and each situation. Six weeks felt too long for me, but two weeks would’ve been too short. Maybe for someone else in a different situation, 6 weeks would be just right. I know an associate pastor who announced his resignation to the congregation and gave a nine month notice! In my opinion, that’s utterly ridiculous unless you have no relationships and only sit in a the church office all day doing administrative duties, but again, that’s not my church nor my situation.

    It’s tough. It takes lots of wisdom and sensitivity.

  • I can still see the look of shock and the tears on their faces when I announced I was leaving. We used it as a teaching time to reinforce what we had been teaching all along, that when God calls us to follow Him we don’t have any choice but to follow. It won’t always be easy, but we don’t have a choice.

    We turned things over to volunteers, put together a transition team, and loved on students for two weeks. The last night I was there we dug out the old photos and remembered the good times.

    It was bitter sweet.

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