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This resource is brought to you by Thrive as part of a published resource called Retirement from Pastoral Ministry: Guidance for a Healthy Transition.

In addition to providing support for the pastor during the final season of his or her ministry at the church the council is responsible to lead the church up to, through, and beyond the pastor’s retirement date (1).

Finishing Well

For one thing, the council can lead the congregation to finish well with the pastor. 

What does that mean? 

It’s mainly about the relationship. Pastors and congregations are in relationship with each other, and all relationships have elements of both health and unhealth. In the final season of the pastor’s ministry it will be tempting to ignore any signs of unhealth, thinking that you only have to encounter them for a limited amount of time. 

While it may be true that the minister’s retirement will end the pastor-congregation relationship, along with whatever tensions it may have had, you would be wise to think ahead to the things like the next time the church wants to celebrate a big anniversary and hopes to involve its former pastors. Will that reunion be sweet or awkward? The answer to that question rests, to some degree, on how well you address the challenges to the relationship now, while there is still time. So…

  1. What emotions are people experiencing as they anticipate the pastor’s departure? 
  2. How might you help people to acknowledge their emotions with one another?
  3. How might you  integrate the story of your pastor’s tenure into the story of your church’s life?
  4. What elements of the relationship between the pastor and the congregation have gone well and should be celebrated? 
  5. What tensions in the relationship need to be identified and addressed? 
  6. If there are tensions then who might be your allies in helping us to navigate them well? What about the classis-appointed church visitors and regional pastor? What about the denominational ministry that helps pastors and churches to flourish, the agency called Thrive

Another part of finishing well is conducting a fitting goodbye. This work usually comes to expression in two events: A farewell event of some kind and a final worship service. The pastor will want to have a key role in planning the final worship service, but planning and implementing the farewell event is usually left to a group from within the church. That group might be the 3-4 people on the planning team or a sub-group appointed by the planning team. 

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Get planning started early. The retirement date will arrive sooner than you think.
  2. While the event is primarily about the pastor it is also about God– his ongoing role in the congregation’s life; his work through, within, and in spite of the pastor; and his loving plans for the congregation’s future.
  3. Involve the pastor in the work of planning the event as much as he or she wants to be involved. 
  4. Consider inviting people who represent past seasons of your pastor’s ministry, people from former congregations and ministries, pastors and denominational leaders who may have worked with your pastor in the past, and so on. These people might be invited to attend or participate.
  5. Consider inviting the input of other congregations that have recently said goodbye to their pastors. What did they do that worked well? What didn’t work so well?
  6. Give the pastor the opportunity to share his or her concluding thoughts with the congregation.
  7. It would be important for the council to speak into the event as the official supervisory body of the pastor and as the leadership body of the congregation.
  8. Give congregation members an opportunity to offer their love and support in ways that make use of congregation members’ talents, and bless the pastor. This could be a book or webpage of memories that is assembled during the final months of the pastor’s tenure, a list of people who share memories verbally at the farewell event, a collection of memorable scripture texts or sermon quotations from the pastor’s ministry, and so on.
  9. Consider inviting the congregation to participate in a gift to the pastor that will help him or her to experience the congregation’s affection and to remember the time spent with the congregation.

Searching for your next pastor

In addition to helping the church and the pastor to finish well together, the council is also responsible for thinking ahead, to life without the current pastor. After the pastor’s departure (even prior to it) there will be many who pressure leaders to get the search process going as soon as possible. However, there could be value in holding off a search process until the congregation has had sufficient opportunity to transition well out of its experience with the current pastor. 

A transitional season is especially valuable if the pastor has been part of the church’s life for a long time (longer ten ten years) or if there has been significant conflict between the pastor and the congregation. A time between pastors helps to ensure that any grief is processed in healthy ways, and that the eventual search process is not defined by the character and memory of the former pastor. This sometimes happens when a church that was in love with its former pastor wants Pastor 2.0 or  when a church that didn’t have a good relationship with its former pastor wants the Un-Pastor. Either way, rather than having the church’s mission and core identity define the search, it is still the former pastor who shapes the values that drive the process. The CRCNA has created a transitional ministry for such churches, and more information can be found here

Of course, the council may decide that there is good reason to move ahead, into a search process, sooner rather than later. In such a case, it might decide to hire an interim or pulpit supply pastor to provide regular preaching and pastoral care for the congregation while the search is underway. In any case, denominational resources for churches involved in a search process can be found here.

Should the outgoing pastor have a voice in the search for the church’s next pastor? A small voice perhaps (2). Take care not to assign the pastor, if he or she is still with you, to be an active part in the search process though. Allow for some limited consultation with the former pastor. The former pastor would be wise not to influence the proceedings or insist on supplying names for the search team to consider. After all, he is no longer going to be part of the church’s future.

Following the departure of your pastor you should ask classis to appoint a counselor for your church. This is a formal role in the church order of the CRC (see article 42c), and is someone who will assist you in matters of governance while the church is without a pastor, and of calling the next pastor. You may consider asking classis to appoint the counselor before your pastor leaves so that the counselor can play a helpful part in the farewell procedures. In any case, the pastor and council should put a package of information together for the benefit of the pastor who will, in due time, be your pastor’s successor. Some of this information will also go into the church profile that is created during the search process, but some of it will be more private, featuring key insights into the life and health of the congregation. 

For assistance with any of these matters please feel free to connect with our denomination’s ministry to churches, Thrive. You can access them at here.

NOTE: This article comes out of a study of ministry transitions, done by members of the Thrive staff of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The studied transitions include the transition from later career into retirement. The guidance here is part of a larger retirement resource that updates a 2006 resource called "Closing Well — Continuing Strong." The full updated resource, now titled “Retirement from Pastoral Ministry: Guidance for a Healthy Transition,” can be found here on the Thrive website.

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