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A Christian Goodbye
When pastors have to go, careful and prayerful Christians can benefit everyone.

Our pastor is leaving. He announced his impending departure last week after church, and we're all sad about it. I hope we can say goodbye to him in a Christian way.

How could we not, you might ask?

A friend of mine recently left the pastorate of a large Presbyterian church after more than a decade of ministry there. The farewells were warm and tearful on both sides, but some of the leaders were bitter that he had "abandoned" them. This bitterness surfaced soon afterward in some public aspersions on his work. This rupture, which has lasted months, may well be settled only in the courts.

Another friend left a Mennonite church—again, after more than a decade of fruitful leadership—to serve as a denominational officer. Out of loyalty to the flock he had served for so long, he gave them six months' notice to help smooth the transition. Some of the leaders, however, thought it was in the church's interest to replace him quickly. So they gave him three months' further employment instead, leaving him without wages for an entire quarter of a year until the next job started.

The average North American pastorate lasts less than five years. Our pastors don't stay forever, and most don't stay long. So let's take that for granted and plan to make the goodbyes as Christian as the hellos.

Whatever the specifics, our pastors should be treated at least as well as they would be treated in the secular work place—and, one hopes, preferably much better.

A "good goodbye" should include at least the following elements:

Celebration. Let's take time to thank God for the good things our pastor has done among us, and to honour those who have served as His instruments. This is the fun part, and it's important.

Blessing. Let us also bless each other: the pastor blessing the congregation as he or she goes on to new adventures under other leadership, and the congregation blessing the pastor who follows the call of God elsewhere. Such a ritual can help us guard against the egotism of thinking that the centre of the kingdom of God is me or us.

Reconciliation. Let's attend to bruised or broken relationships—and there are some in every church—with the hope of finding healing. Unresolved difficulties can fester long after a pastor has departed.

Information. Pastors should have an "exit interview," and so should congregations. Perhaps a bishop, denominational executive, pastor of a nearby church, or other skilled third party can conduct these difficult but helpful sessions of edification. The pastor can set out observations and suggestions for improving the ongoing life of the church. Members of the church can offer the gift of the pastor's strengths and weaknesses for going on in ministry.

Provision. The church should not be left suddenly, with little hope of securing adequate pastoral care in the transition between one pastor and another. Pastors must continue to shepherd their flocks, especially in regard to their own departure.

Individual pastors, however, are even more vulnerable than congregations in transition, so churches must be sure to care for them as well.

In particular, let's remember that our spiritual leaders are not spirits. They normally have debts to pay, children to raise, and spouses to support. They live in the real world in which most things cost money.

We must refuse especially to cast our pastors upon providence as if we ourselves are not instruments of providence on their behalf. "If a brother is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to him, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply his bodily needs, what is the good of that?" (James 2:15-16)

Let's part with our pastors on the most shalom-ful terms possible. Let's make sure our goodbyes are truly Christian.

John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology and culture at Regent College, Vancouver.

Faith Today, March/April 2002,




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