When Your Pastor Leaves

Jemar Tisby

If you remain part of a church for long enough you’ll probably witness a pastoral transition. The pastor who was there when you arrived will not be the pastor who remains there forever. Of course, some pastors stay at the same church for decades, but most of us will send one man off and go searching for another. What’s a church member to do when the pastor leaves?

The pastor of my church just gave his last sermon as our Senior Minister. In our case, he wasn’t just a pastor, he was the “organizing” pastor. He came in just after an amicable church split and coordinated the launch of a new church. Starting with about eighty people the church in the past ten years the church has grown to over 650 members. Thankfully, he is leaving on the best of terms. No moral failure. No intractable conflict with members or elders. He’s just taking a different pastorate at a different church. But the fact remains he’s leaving, and those of us who remain have to process the situation.

Let Your Emotions Run Their Course

If you like your pastor and he leaves, there will be a predictable degree of sorrow that comes with the transition. This person has perhaps baptized your children, spoken at the funeral of a loved one, bought you lunch, or counseled you through marital difficulties. You have come to hear his preaching as spiritual comfort food—familiar and satisfying. He is more than a leader “up there”, he is your friend, mentor, and brother or father in the faith.

Admittedly, I’m still going through this process. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to provide comfort to me and the rest of the congregation and to the pastor on that final Sunday. But the impact will be felt more acutely next Sunday when we have our first guest preacher. Each Sunday after that we’ll see different faces until we find the man whom God has called to shepherd us next. I don’t expect the next few months will be easy, but I am committed to feeling what I feel as part of the grieving process. Sorrow, confusion, fear, and even some anger are all part of the emotional palette when a pastor leaves.

Trust Your Elders

Whether you’re a Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Methodist the church polity can differ, but you still have leaders. In my denomination, we have elders who are elected by the congregation to govern and maintain the biblical fidelity of the church. But the office of elder is a spiritual one. These men exhibit the qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 3. They are not perfect men, but they are faithful husbands, attentive fathers, sober in their behavior, and spiritually mature. Further, we believe that God has divinely superintended their appointment and guides his Church through them. Therefore, we as church members, have to trust their leadership during a pastoral transition.

Our reflex is to criticize those who have the most responsibility for finding the next leader and to offer solutions from the comfort of our own anonymity. The congregation must be persistently and meaningfully involved in searching for the next pastor, but this search has to be facilitated by leaders in the church. Everyone from member, to deacon, to elder wants the the right man to be the next pastor. It would help immensely if the people of the church supported their leaders along the way.

Christ is the Head of the Church

Ultimately, though, we don’t put our trust in people but in God. “And [God the Father] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). Christ is the head of the church, not a particular pastor. Although we have thousands of under-shepherds, we have just one chief Shepherd (1 Pt. 5:4). That Christ sits enthroned at the right hand of God and is governing the church puts a pastoral transition into perspective.

The Church is bigger than any one man. She will persist no matter how beloved your pastor and no matter how perfect he seemed for your congregation. The Church has weathered greater transitions before. When Christ Himself ascended he did not leave us without a witness, but said, “‘These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’” (Jn. 14:25-26). Christ’s bride has the Holy Spirit to guide her into all truth. The Ephesians wept when Paul departed from them and said he would never see them again (Acts 20: 36-38). And no matter how long a pastor stays in a single congregation, he must, like all humankind, pass from this life to the next. So, in a sense, our pastors will always leave us. Or we will leave them. The one constant in the Church is Christ.

Parting Words

I’ve always known that Jesus leads his church, but it wasn’t a comfort to me until our pastor left. In his official letter to the congregation our pastor wrote these words.

“Something I have consistently preached…is that Jesus is the King and Head of His Church. That remains true and will always be true. Our Lord has you and I believe your future can and will be as bright as our past. Before entering the Promised Land God told Israel and Joshua repeatedly to be strong and courageous. God is with you and that will never change. He will keep you through this time of transition.”

We believe in faith that Christ continues to build his church even after our cherished pastor departs . We thank God for his faithful service, we wish him well and pray for fruitfulness in his new ministry. We trust that the best days are yet to come for our congregation, and we rejoice at the opportunity to depend even more upon the great Shepherd and Overseer of Souls. Take heart, and trust in God.

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