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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.

So your pastor is planning to move on in life and away from full time work at your church. Now what? 

This resource is meant to help not only the pastor but also the council as the pastor plans to leave full time ministry behind. You, as the leadership of the church, have at least two major things to think about: Supporting your pastor and leading your church (1).

Supporting Your Pastor

Earlier in this resource we encouraged pastors to be in conversation with councils as they form their plans for retirement. And now we want to encourage councils to be available as willing conversation partners for the pastor as decisions are made about how to finish well and move on.  

Here are a few things to bear in mind:

  1. Council has a role in the formal retirement process: When a pastor plans to retire he or she is expected to seek approval from the council for retirement (2). Pastors usually make these requests of their councils about a year ahead of their planned retirement dates. The council’s role is to consider and, if appropriate, approve the request (3). It must then forward the pastor’s request to the classis (see Church Order, article 18a) so that the classis can, at its next meeting, approve the request as well. Classis approval is needed because, among other things, it alerts the denomination’s pension office to begin distributing CRCNA retirement benefits at the specified retirement date. 
  2. Council can bless a pastor by helping to ensure a smooth transition for the pastor: It would be wise, when the pastor announces his or her retirement date, to establish a small planning team (4) of 3-4 insightful and caring people who will support the pastor, host the conversations related to the pastor’s upcoming retirement, and coordinate arrangements that will be set in place– things such as council responsibilities related to the retirement (see point #1, above), communications with the classis, farewell events, and so on. The team might begin its work by visiting with the pastor and the pastor’s spouse in order to understand their hopes and needs. It should continue its work in close communication with the pastor.

Here are some questions for the team and the pastor to consider together (5):

  1. How does the minister feel about ministry at the church? What is there to celebrate? To lament? 
  2. What evaluative steps might be helpful and wise to undertake, so as to gain clarity on what to celebrate, what to lament, what to work on together, and what to think about when planning future ministry?
  3. What elements of the pastor’s job description require adjustment now that there is a defined conclusion to the pastor’s ministry at the church? What adjustments will bless the pastor and the congregation?
  4. What ministry items require completion while the pastor is still in place? 
  5. What ministry items require the pastor’s advice and counsel but not active involvement? 
  6. What ministry items will need a new “home” after the pastor leaves? How will they be provided for as the pastor is preparing to leave full time ministry at the church?
  7. What conversations with congregation members should be arranged in order to help people say goodbye to one another, give thanks to God together, and mend any broken relationships? 
  8. Which of these conversations are best thought of as large group, small group, or individual conversations?

In addition to the formation of a planning team the council should consider conducting an “exit interview” with the pastor and the pastor’s spouse– to provide feedback to the pastor, to gain from the couple’s experiences in ministry, and to provide them with a way to speak into the life of the church from their unique vantage point.

  1. Council has a responsibility to provide pastoral care for the pastor: The elders and other concerned members should be aware of the reality that these months of transition may be spiritually draining for the pastor and his or her family. You will want to surround them with sympathetic care– perhaps assigning a male and female elder to meet with the pastor and the pastor’s spouse several times prior to and after the retirement date. Both the pastor and the pastor’s spouse have to make a large number of decisions and arrangements (where to live, housing, family adjustments, pension, finances, health insurance) that are mostly personal. Offer support and encouragement, and wisdom when requested.
  2. Councils should be alert to issues that might arise if the pastor decides to remain with the congregation after retirement: As noted in another blog in this series, Synod 2009 issued important guidance related to pastors who decide to remain with the congregation that they last served, recognizing that the pastor’s decision to remain may lead to ambiguity in the minds of both the pastor and the congregation as to the former pastor’s ongoing role in the congregation. After all, the pastor no longer has an official ministry role but still has the training and experience of a pastor. 

Maybe a way to think of this is to understand that the ways that a pastor relates to people professionally should fade away and the ways that a pastor relates to people personally and socially should take over. Of course, the pace, character, and thoroughness of that “fade” can vary from pastor to pastor and congregation to congregation. There is great wisdom in the guidance from Synod 2009, especially in the template agreement between the former pastor and the congregation. 

In any case, it is wise for the pastor to make plans for an extended time of absence from the congregation immediately upon retirement– as much as a year or more. Call it a clean break. Call it a time for everyone to get oriented to the new normal. Such a time of absence will make it easier for people, including the pastor, to experience the departure and to live into the reality of the new.

It may seem as if these guidelines are not of deep importance, but in addition to having some practical value they have great symbolic value. The denomination has long assigned significance to the matter of ministers’ retirement because it has long seen pastoral ministry itself as vital to the life of the church. After all, the work of pastoral ministry is the work of helping a local body of believers to experience the grace and truth of God and helping that community to offer its response of love and obedience to Him. In a real sense, the pastor is a shepherd to the congregation. By spending the time and energy needed to process the pastor’s retirement well you are affirming a long-held commitment to the importance of pastoral ministry. 

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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