Pastor Transitions: He’s Leaving! Now What?

April 9, 2017 Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Brockton, MA Photo by George Martell
Share this article:

The First in a Three-Part Series on Navigating Changes in Pastoral Leadership


You just heard the announcement. Anticipated or unexpected, it has come. Your pastor is leaving. Boss. Supervisor. Friend. He’s going. You are flooded with feelings and questions — above all, What does this mean for me? Welcome or not, you have entered the relentless, intractable process of change. Now what?

This is the question addressed in the Navigating Pastoral Transitions series, one of the first to look at the somewhat predictable but always challenging transition of pastors. One guidebook in the series is addressed to pastors, another for parish leaders. A third focuses on the reality of parish staff as they navigate the transition to a new pastor. What makes their experience unique? Well, for one, their continued employment often hinges on what happens during these transitions, and secondly, parishioners depend on staff to have information and maintain stability in the parish.

We know there are three predictable stages in transitions: endings, middle times, and new beginnings. Counterintuitive as this sounds, this is how we move through transition. First comes the good-bye to what has been. This is followed by a period of suspended time as we wait for life to return to normal. And finally, we experience new beginnings as life takes on a new flow and flavor. This article will address the stage of endings, and subsequent articles will look at the second and third stages.

Once you have learned of the planned transition your task is twofold. First, you will take on some of the responsibility for moving the parish through the transition.

■ Ensure clear, timely, and appropriate communication with parishioners and parish leaders to avoid misinformation. The success of an incoming pastor will be greatly influenced by what the community is told by the departing pastor — and his staff — about why he is leaving and how the new person is described.

■ Consult your pastor about his wishes for saying good-bye to the parish, and then work with parish leaders to plan these events and rituals. You can find a number of suggestions in Navigating Pastoral Transitions: A Parish Leaders’ Guide.

■ Be prepared for parishioners wanting to talk to you. Change, whether welcome or not, brings with it the emotions of grief: numbness, sadness, anger, and bargaining — and not in any particular order! Keep these stages in mind as you accompany your community, but maintain appropriate boundaries about when and where you are willing to have these conversations.

Your second task is to pay attention to your own movement through each stage. There is a tendency for parish staff to feel somewhat helpless in the midst of this change. I remember one pastoral associate saying with real cynicism, “There’s nothing we can do. We’re powerless.” Rather than give in to these feelings, know that what you do have control over is your personal response and actions.

■ Decide how you want to say good-bye to your pastor. Solid closure will be very important. Take care of any unfinished business. Are there conversations that need to be completed? Apologies to be given or received? Unspoken compliments or grievances?

■ Discuss what you both want in your future relationship, knowing it will be different.

Be intentional about how you go through this time of endings. Allow the process to move at its own pace, but also be willing to let your pastor go. We all can be uncomfortable with good-byes, but remember we are a resurrection people, living in the promise of the Paschal Mystery, the promise of new life and God’s accompaniment on our journey. Up next issue: the period of transition.

MARTI R. JEWELL, DMin, is an associate professor in the Neuhoff School of Ministry at the University of Dallas and was recently named the university’s 2017 Haggar Scholar. She is Director Emerita of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, a national research initiative studying excellence in parish leadership, and author of Navigating Pastoral Transitions: A Parish Leaders’ Guide.


This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, January, 2018

Share this article: