Every pastor has defining moments in his/her ministry. Pastor John Larson is no different. In this fifth installment in his series on succession, he describes the adjustments that were needed in order to create a positive environment during a stressful time.

Over the course of my 36 years in ministry I’ve been privileged to be a part of defining moments in our church. We’ve experienced great joy together during times of spiritual transformation, building and staff expansions as well as experiencing sadness during the more painful moments such as finding our way through a difficult financial situation or an unexpected death in the church family. Every pastor has these defining moments etched into his/her mind.

I knew that announcing my retirement to my staff would be another defining moment. I prayed the transition would be as positive and as easy as possible, but I also was realistic knowing there were bound to be some bumps in the road that would need to be addressed. When I first announced to my staff that I was going to transition out of my role at Hope Church, I gave them a 12-month timeframe. The purpose was to give everyone the opportunity to make the mental adjustments needed so they could start thinking about the future when I would no longer be there. The day I announced my intentions to the staff was an emotional day for everyone. There were emotions of sadness, loss, regret and grief. All of these emotions are understandable, but if left unabated, grief can become the enemy of the mission we needed to carry out. I did not want that to be a defining moment.

As we were gathered, I stood before a whiteboard and jotted down what I thought would be a few important bits of information. The first thing I wrote was the departure date. As I turned around and started to explain what went into my decision to retire I could see tears well up in a few eyes and some blank stares. After we got through that moment, I jotted down other things like “unity” and “model to the congregation.” I was trying to convey that as a staff we needed to be united as we moved ahead and model how to move through the next months for the congregation.

The last thing I wrote was the phrase, “Mission is more important than transition.” It became the stabilizing influence for all of us as we moved ahead through the many phases of the transition. As a church we had spent the past seven years examining, reworking, implementing and redefining our mission of making disciples for Christ. We were all excited about our direction. We had wrestled with it, published it, aligned our ministry to it, and celebrated it. We knew that if this mission changed or was neglected, we would no longer be Hope Church. Everyone knew that implementation of the mission was going to be impacted by my departure. But, it did not need to be waylaid by my departure.

Looking back there were several items that helped make this season of defining moments easier for everyone:

  • I committed to being open and honest about my emotions and how I was doing throughout the process. Through this commitment, I modeled to the staff that it was okay to show emotion, to talk about my transition, and not deny that these feelings were occurring. Some staff members were quick to emotionally move on and others were going to grieve for the long haul. Both ways were okay. We even put the “How are you doing?” question on the staff meeting agenda every week in the early stages to provide intentional space to talk about feelings. This happened with less frequency as time went on.
  • We planned celebration events. As my departure time drew near we had more lunches and conversations together. We had spontaneous parties in the office, and coordinated outings together, including one to a Minnesota Twins baseball game. These activities allowed us to celebrate each other and the work we were accomplishing together.
  • We had a motto. We consistently recited the motto “Mission is more important than transition.” This final commitment seemed to raise each of us up to a higher level of expectation of what God was doing; what He was calling us to focus on personally, and what He was calling us to motivate the congregation toward. In hindsight, it is easier to see that God was faithful to use these defining moments to move the congregation deeper into the mission we had worked so hard to establish. Maybe in spite of my departure, or maybe because of it.

The transition went smoothly, and the mission is clearer and has deeper roots than even I expected. THAT is a joyous defining moment.