Throughout this 9-part series of blogs I’ve written about retiring as the senior pastor at Hope Church, I’ve focused on concrete ideas of how to guide the congregation, staff and board members through the transition process. I’ve described the choices and decisions that are part of the process, and the thoughts behind the choices we made in the hope of creating a transition that was as God-honoring and smooth as possible. What I haven’t focused on is probably the hardest part —how to say goodbye to the staff, congregation and friends whom you have loved for so many years.
I wish I could say it was easy, but maybe the fact that it wasn’t proves that I impacted their lives just as much as they impacted mine. For that I am thankful.
When you’ve been a pastor at a church for as long as I had been (37 years), it’s hard to imagine someone else taking care of “my flock”. Emotionally releasing them to another shepherd was difficult, but it did become easier when I realized the vetting process that is now available to churches through consultants like Nancy Moore from NL Moore & Associates, who made sure to find a candidate who would not only possess the theological background, education and experience needed to lead the congregation well, but “fit” the congregation and care about them as a group as well as individuals. I could release them when I was confident the new pastor would take care of them spiritually and emotionally.
In our church setting, the Elders help me guide the staff and congregation in fulfilling our mission. The Elders were my peers who got in the trenches with me when difficult choices needed to be made. I viewed them as my team and we grew together through the lens of “iron sharpens iron.” This was a mature group of believers whom I prayed, argued and led with for years. I didn’t want my “place” filled by someone else. I wasn’t worried that my leaving would affect their faith. I just knew I was going to miss our weekly contact and I didn’t want the relationships to end.
So what helped my grieving process? Action. The adjustment was made easier when I developed a plan to stay in touch (often) with those I had the deepest friendships. We continue to meet and challenge each other to keep growing in our faith.
The most difficult group to emotionally “let go” was the church staff. These were the individuals I interacted with and saw everyday. We did ministry together, and we loved it. It felt like we were a well-oiled machine. So how did I deal with saying goodbye? I acknowledged the pain of it. I talked with my staff about how much I would miss them, how important they were to me, and how painful this was for me. In turn, they were free to acknowledge the loss they felt.
In the last three to six months of my tenure at Hope Church, my staff and I spent more social and personal time together. Some of you may think, “How does spending more time with people help to ease the pain of leaving?” It leaves you in a place of completeness. We didn’t leave words unsaid. We appreciated each other as well as we could. On my last day, we all went to the entrance of the church, and I walked away. There were waves, tears and final goodbyes. But there was also a feeling of contentment in knowing we said goodbye in a healthy way and with much love.
Recently I returned to see them for the first time after six months. All the old memories returned. The love was still deep. It was like old times again. I still miss them, but I am so grateful for their impact on my life.
I’m not going to lie. The emotional part of the goodbye process is hard. But surprisingly, I also found it to be rewarding. Taking the time to go through the emotions, and acknowledge and focus on the people who are important in my life brought me joy through the sadness. I wouldn’t change a thing.