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This resource is brought to you by Thrive and is part of a series designed for ministers who are making plans for their retirements.

Let’s talk about your final months in full time, active ministry.

As noted in the blog about creating a timeline (1) the window of time between twelve to six months before retirement is a key time for putting plans into motion. It’s the season in which you’ll implement a lot of the decisions that you’ve made about your retirement. It’s the season for making plans with your classis about your emeritation, contacting the denomination’s pension office, deciding on farewell arrangements, and so on. It’s also the beginning of “last things”-- the last congregational meeting, last profession of faith class, last bulletin announcement revisions, and so on. It’s an important time for you and your congregation! 

Helping Your Church Prepare for What Is Next

We’ve already talked about equipping your congregation’s leadership (2) and engaging your congregation's membership (3). But what about encouraging a good relationship between the congregation and its next pastor? Can you help your people to develop healthy and realistic expectations of their next ministry leader by sharing how you experienced their expectations of you? Can you clarify for them what expectations energized you and what expectations exhausted you? Can you help them let go of you by being clear about when you will be finished with full time ministry, and that you hope they can release you from the role and all of the expectations that come with that role? 

Of course, your council (and even your congregation) may actually have given the matter of your successor a bit more attention than you have. Deep down, this may make you feel a bit sad. However, the reality is that someone will succeed you, and the council should take steps to set that process, the search process, in motion at some point. 

Many churches are less in a hurry to fill vacancies today than they were a generation ago, which is for the better. Congregations sometimes sense that it would be important to make do without a regular pastor for some time or hire a Specialized Transitional Minister who will help them transition from you to whatever is next. A “gap” between pastors can help a congregation to develop its own sense of identity and mission, can draw leaders more deeply into the work of supporting ministry, and can inspire other members to step into leadership roles.

Hopefully you know this already, but you should not seek to become part of the succession process. It isn’t that you should be totally indifferent toward it, but you should let others steer this project. If those in charge of the calling process ask you for information or advice, be modest in your answers. Avoid giving the impression that you are a leading stakeholder in the process. 

Your council may also use this time in your church’s life to do some ministry planning and goal setting as a preparatory part of the calling process. Again, they may consult you, and you may have some good advice to offer. Be a modest player in that work too. It would be unwise to try and influence it or exert control over it. 

You may have accumulated several files that have facilitated your work in your current pastorate. Much of their content may relate to your personal ministry activities. However, as you go through your files, you may come across information that may be useful to your successor (such as minutes of past board and committee meetings, names of various officials in church life, etc.). You or your church may also have had helpful contacts with community leaders, or perhaps you had assumed duties in the broader community. Your successor may find it very helpful to inherit your records. 

Two Final Events

Two final events loom prominently in the final weeks of your career at your church: The farewell church service and the congregational farewell event. Undoubtedly you will play a key role in arranging the farewell church service, while the farewell event will likely be left to the council to plan.

Plan the farewell worship service carefully, pastorally, as a final act of love for your people. You would be wise to arrange with the council to appoint a worship planning committee to assist you or you could make use of a worship committee that is already in place. You and the committee members will brainstorm as to which elements should be in the order of worship. You may consider alerting the classis leadership to the occasion and ask them to delegate someone who will speak some fitting farewell words on behalf of classis. Do not postpone writing your sermon for that special service. Expect that it will be an emotional experience for you. Musical contributions and liturgical elements also need to be planned carefully and well ahead of time. 

Saying “Thank you”

Finally, this is the season for thanksgiving. It is an opportunity for a special focus on gratitude to God, of course, but it is also the time to think about the people who have contributed to your career, your ministry, your life, and your family. How can you express your gratitude to them? How can you ensure that, among their final memories of you, they will have a memory of you naming and giving thanks for the specific ways in which they helped you, made you better, partnered with you in serving others? 

Of course, gratitude should be expressed sincerely– whether in private or in public. Remain true to yourself, your Lord, and your people. Take the time to do this well, for the sake of your congregation, your ministry, and your soul.

Finishing Well

Finishing well requires some effort, but the reward is worth it. You’ll be able to leave your post at the church having blessed your people, honored God, and given expression again to your vocation. 

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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