One of the more difficult aspects of Christian ministry leadership in the church is the challenge of moving from one role to another, or one geographical location to another. In my own experience and in some pretty extensive study that I have done recently, I have found that about 50% of the time, it doesn’t turn out very well, both for the church and for the pastor and his/her family. When it doesn’t go well, the fall-out for both is usually much greater than anyone anticipated when the decision was made, and incalcuable in terms of negative impact on the work of Christ’s kingdom. Some of this seems unavoidable because of the beligerent tendency of human nature on both sides of the issue. Sometimes pastors have no option but to resign in the face of a church’s unwillingness to deal biblically and righteously with issues that emerge. And sometimes churches have no option but to call for the resignation of the pastor because of moral failure or theological perversity, not to mention a lack of diligence in the work of the ministry (see Ezekiel 34). But I suspect that these latter reasons for pastoral resignations are not nearly as common as we would like to think. We all know of pastors and churches that have suffered long and needlessly because of the manner in which resignations are decided and processed.
More favourable transitions seem to have certain common characteristics. They tend to turn out better for both the pastor and the church when the pastor is proactive and takes initiative in the matter. If conflict has been minimal (something rather foreign to good pastoral leadership) and the ministry has been generally progressive transition is definitely easier. Timing is also an important factor. Longevity in ministry has many advantages as long as it stays fresh, but longevity in itself doesn’t necessarly ensure positive transition. Good communication with church leaders and well-conducted ministry assessments can also help to prepare the church and pastor for a good transition experience.
Because of the profound affect that a resignation can have upon the pastor and his/her family, as well as a church, the matter ought to receive a lot more prayerful, studied attention than it often does. There is a lot at stake here, not the least of which is the honour of Christ and His Church as well as the testimony of the Gospel in the church’s immediate community. For that reason alone, pastors and churches need to take decisions along this line far more seriously than they evidently often do. Saying farewell properly to one another in these circumstances is one of the most important things we can do to demonstrate the genuine nature of Christian love — something upon which Jesus placed such high importance and value (John 13:34, 35).
I believe some serious succession planning by pastors and churches could do much to alleviate the difficulties often associated with pastoral resignations. As it stands most often, pastoral resignations tend to occur rather impulsively usually with the use of euphemisms about “the Lord’s leading.” If it really is “the Lord’s leading,” both pastor and church ought to have a deep sense of the supernatural reality of that kind of experience and move forward with a sense of peace and blessing.
Some of the factors involved in good succession planning might include such matters as a predetermined plan of how this will occur when the time comes. Undoubtedly the plan would entail some type of well-developed regular evaluation procedure that includes lots of good listening and affirmation. It also ought to include a realistic assessment of possible areas of weakness. Usually pastors and church leaders would need some type of outside professional help in this matter. Above all, there ought to be a willingness on the part of pastors and chuch leaders to listen to the Lord concerning His will in any decision along this line. (In general in the church, we need more emphasis on hearing the voice of the Lord together about His will instead of assuming that only one or a few people can hear the voice of the Lord. Note Acts 13:1, 2 and 15:28 as possible examples.) The goal should always be that both pastor and church agree concerning what they perceive as the Lord’s will, rather than a resignation being forced upon one or the other.
There is much more to think and talk about when it comes to well-ordered pastoral transitions, but I am convinced it is something that pastors and church leaders need to attend to more diligently for the honour of Christ and the testimony of the Gospel as well as for the sake of healthy churches and pastoral families. These are but a few thoughts to begin what I believe could be productive dialogue on this subject.