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Leaving Well Means Grieving Well

November 30, 2015

Sometimes being a pastor is one of the single greatest things I could ever imagine doing. It is immensely rewarding to see what happens when God makes His plan known and the congregation gets behind it. To see people fully engaged in the process of growing in their own faith and spiritual maturity while they engage their circles of influence to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commandment in Matthew 28 brings a feeling of accomplishment and being right in the center of God’s Will.

But… sometimes being a pastor is one of the single most excruciating things I could ever imagine doing. Standing by families as they lose loved ones. Watching individuals and families struggle personally, professionally, and spiritually. Seeing the division within the church body over various items that may or may not have spiritual significance… Each of these and more can leave a pastor mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained, and wondering how all of this can possibly be God’s Will.

Even so, there’s a natural ebb and flow to these things when you’re firmly entrenched in a ministry location and living life with the people you minister to and serve alongside. There are always highs and lows in ministry, but the relationships you’ve built and the teams you work with help to enjoy the good and cushion the bad. Perhaps that’s why the hardest thing a pastor has to do is follow the call of God to another ministry assignment.

When that time comes, I’m sure many of you have heard that a pastor is going to try their best to “leave well.” This means the pastor is working to put things in place, make sure teams and team leaders are well prepared for the transition, and ensure that their departure will have as minimal an impact as possible. If a pastor does this poorly, it has an opportunity to set a church body back in trying to achieve what they believe God has for them to accomplish. If a pastor does this well, the effect can be much the same as shoving your fist in a bucket of water, pulling it out, and looking at the hole that’s left behind.

The hope in every case is that a pastor desires to, and does, leave well. Regardless of the circumstances by which a pastor leaves one ministry assignment for another, people’s eternal lives are at stake. With that in mind, any other issues must be put aside for the sake of God’s kingdom moving forward in that place, which means leaving well must be the intent. However, there’s an interesting and sometimes painful side effect for pastors when they do leave well and watch their former ministry location flourish in their absence. Grief.

This type of grief comes with all the trappings of losing a loved one, and while that may seem strange when looking at it from a corporate business perspective, ministering in the church cannot be viewed as a move from one corporation to another. Rather, it must be thought of as a familial relationship, which is a much more personal connection. There are deep friendships, familiar surroundings, spiritual mentorships, and other strong ties which, while not completely severed, are stretched quite thin in the process of leaving one ministry location for another.

Even though there’s an excitement and a newness to getting involved at the new location, the lasting memories and familiarity of the old location can linger intensely for much longer than one might anticipate. It takes years to build the relational capital and trust to make hard decisions and change ministry culture, while the old location had enough stored up to perhaps make headway more quickly. When you see success and significance happening in the old ministry location without you, there’s a torn feeling inside. You’re happy for them; happy for the ministry teams, the other pastors, and the congregation. Yet, you’re also sad that you weren’t there to experience it with them. The ups and downs of ministry where you are remind you of similar events where you were. And there’s always the “firsts” once you change locations. First major ministry events, first holiday events, first team get-togethers, and even the monthly or weekly meeting times… all of it leads to feelings that are hard to deal with.

And so, to leave well means to grieve well. Ultimately, as time passes, these feelings fade and become fond memories and genuine admiration of what God is doing where you were. It also leads to that much more excitement for where you are. If God did that there, why wouldn’t he do even more here? This is the silver lining in leaving one ministry location for another. God used you in one way or another to prepare that ministry location for what’s happening now, and He’s going to do it again where you’ve been planted anew.

Jeremiah 29:11-14 speaks of God having plans for the nation of Israel. They had been grieving an extended period in exile, and here through the Prophet Jeremiah, God reveals His plan to bring them back and give them a hope and a future. BUT, only if they seek Him with all their hearts.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul speaks of present suffering for future glory. Romans 8:26-28 speaks to the way the Spirit intercedes for us when we are in the midst of grief, and that God is working everything for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Both of these passages can lend some relief in the grieving process for pastors. In our grieving process, we can sometimes feel like we are in exile, and especially so when our former ministry location is experiencing what appears to be great success while our new location may just be setting the stage for forward momentum. Even so, we know God’s plan is a grand one, and we can work through our grief by seeking Him with all our heart. Perhaps the growing pains of our new location cause us to wonder if our decision was the right one. Even in the midst of this grieving process, the Spirit intercedes for us, and we can trust that God is working His plan for not only our benefit, but the benefit of our new ministry location as well.

Pastor, are you leaving? Do your best to leave well.

Are you experiencing moments of grief after leaving well? Lean on God as you grieve, and allow Him to walk you through.

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