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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.

As noted in a previous blog, congregational ministry is a public ministry. As a result, the minister’s decision to retire affects more people than just the minister and the minister’s family. There are also the men, women, and children of the congregation to think about.

Possible Perspectives on Your Departure

Most of your people will see your upcoming departure as a great loss, and will need to mourn that loss. Some of them will have developed an unhealthy dependence on you as their pastor, and will have to figure out how to make their way through life without you as their mentor, guide, counselor, and teacher. And let’s be honest here: You may have helped them to develop that unhealthy dependence by overfunctioning in your role as minister! Of course, sometimes people come to depend on the pastor in unhealthy ways out of their own personal struggles and challenges as well. 

In any case, you will have the opportunity to help people name their loss, integrate that loss into their lives, and begin to develop an openness for what is next as you preach, teach, and counsel people. Take advantage of the opportunity to help them name their own feelings, to point them to Christ, in whom every promise is “Yes” (I Corinthians 1:20), and to trust and be trustworthy for one another. Then leave to the Holy Spirit the work of transforming them. 

Let’s also acknowledge that some of your people will rejoice at the news of your upcoming departure. They will see it as a great opportunity for the congregation to strike out in a new direction or to find a new pastor more to their liking. Some of them will even have developed an unhealthy antipathy towards you, and will have to figure out how to be gracious in their relationship with you in this final season. Some of their antipathy towards you will be something that you will have helped them develop because of things that you have done or said during your time with them– knowingly and unknowingly. Of course, some of it will have developed simply because you happen to be available as a target for their frustrations, you represent something difficult for them, or you have something they wish they had– prominence, a platform, and so on. 

You will have the opportunity to help these people too. God will summon you to be gracious to them and model for them what a good “goodbye” looks like. Take advantage of the opportunity to act like Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8), and leave to the Holy Spirit the work of transforming them too.

A number of people will want to move quickly to start the congregation’s next chapter. Someone will have to slow them down, but that someone shouldn’t be you. Leave that work to the church’s other leaders.

Many of your congregation’s members will have thoughts about your leaving just as they had thoughts about you while you were staying. Many of them will want to share those thoughts with you once they hear of your retirement date (perhaps before!). Give them plenty of freedom to offer their thoughts. Be wise about what you hear. You’ll want to sift through their input to glean what is valuable and separate that from what isn’t so valuable. If the people offering you insight are the type of people to whom you would go to for advice under normal circumstances then their input will probably be worth listening to.

You yourself will have feelings about particular people within your congregation. To whatever degree it would bless people to hear you share your feelings feel free to do so. Tell people how much they have meant to you. Reflect with them on the stories of the past work that you have done together. Give thanks to those who have come alongside you in various ways. You may want to develop a list of people with whom to connect before you officially leave your post as their pastor.


Question: What if you are staying with your congregation after your retirement?

Some ministers who retire decide not to move to another congregation or location. It makes sense for many– they have developed significant relationships with people in the congregation, their connections to the broader community are deep and meaningful, and/or they may have children who have settled in the congregation. However, there are important issues to be aware of, issues related primarily to if and how they will be involved in the congregation after their retirements. Sometimes pastors have significant blind spots related to these important issues, and don’t see how they or their former roles continue to impact other people. It makes sense to engage peers and colleagues in this matter. Let them help you make a wise decision that will bless you and the congregation.

Of course, many former pastors have made the transition into retirement and have remained within their congregations in healthy ways. They have vacated their offices not just physically but also emotionally. They can let go of the responsibilities of the pastorate and have found ways to make up for the loss of the fulfillment that pursuing those responsibilities once brought. They are clear with church members that they are no longer available as their pastor. They often leave for a significant period of time after retirement and before returning as members, so that the congregation has the opportunity to envision itself without them, to find the next pastor, and to establish trust with their next pastor. 

Other pastors struggle mightily with this, finding themselves to have occupied the role so thoroughly that they are not sure who they are once the role officially comes to an end. One pastor continued to make hospital calls to congregation members even after retirement, sometimes beating the new pastor to those visits and making it more difficult for people to turn to their new pastor in times of need. Another pastor rose up at the end of a speaker’s presentation to the congregation and thanked the speaker on behalf of the congregation, as if he was still speaking for the congregation, making it difficult for the congregation to see the new pastor in that role. Another pastor insisted on being given a part-time position on the church’s staff, forcing lay leaders to accept the plan and driving staff members into an awkward season of wanting to be excited about the new pastor but uncertain about expressing that excitement in the presence of their beloved former pastor. 

These dynamics come to special expression in many ethnic communities, where pastors are sometimes seen less as ministry professionals and more as community leaders. Their roles may be less clearly defined and, at the same time, more strongly woven into the fabric of the community. It can be very challenging for congregations in such settings to understand why someone would want to leave that leadership role, how anyone could, and why it might be good for a congregation to transition, from time to time, to new leadership. Retirement as a concept is quite foreign in such contexts, and retirement in the church community will likely be a challenging reality. 

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 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 to make plans for an extended time of absence from the congregation immediately upon retirement– a year or more. Call it a clean break. Call it a time for everyone to get their new bearings. Call it the new normal. Such a time of absence will make it easier for people, including the pastor, to anticipate the departure and to live into the reality of the departure. 

Question: How about a “Thank You Tour”?

One of the pastors with whom we spoke during the creation of this resource indicated that he and his wife made plans to visit all of his former congregations during the season immediately following his retirement. He had served six or seven congregations, and wanted to go on what he called a “Thank You Tour”. Thankfully, he took the time to wonder with others as to the wisdom of his plans. 

There are upsides: Such a trip provides the opportunity to reconnect with people from the past in meaningful ways, in ways that point to the work of God in, through, and in spite of one another; to bring reconciliation to broken relationships; to find joy in one another and in the stories of the past.

And there are challenges: Such a trip could actually become an exercise in self-promotion, a belated quest for approval, or a search for proof that your ministry mattered. It will take some discernment for you to tease out the motivations that are really driving the plans for a tour, and to gauge whether those motivations arise from your life’s vocation or from some other place. Again, let others speak into this issue to help you to see your blindspots as well as the opportunities that such a trip may present.


Reflection Questions:

  1. How am I processing the responses of people to my plans for retirement? What about those who are expressing grief related to my departure? What about those who are expressing pleasure? How am I pointing them all to Christ? 
  2. What are the specific reasons to remain as a member of the congregation I used to serve?
  3. What are the reasons to find a new church home?
  4. What, again, is my life’s vocation, my calling from God? Is it best lived in the context of this congregation or in another setting, with a fresh start?
  5. What does this conversation look like when viewed through the lens of a member of the congregation? Of the staff? Of the lay leadership? What would they say are the benefits and the challenges of a decision to remain with the congregation? Have I asked them about this or am I resorting to my perspective of what I would like their perspective to be? 
  6. How open am I to discussing my blind spots? 
  7. How do I want to relate to the people of my former congregation and to the congregations in which I served in the past?
  8. How do I want to relate to my pastor, whether I find my spiritual home in my former congregation or in a different one?

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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