How to End Ministry Well Together

It’s been almost eight weeks since I shared my growing conviction to complete my pastoral ministry with my congregation this November–almost eight weeks since sharing first with my church council, then with the congregation, and later posting my letter of intention on this website.

Since then, responses have varied from surprise to tears to congratulations. “But I thought you would be here for another ten to fifteen years,”  said one. “I thought you would speak at my funeral,” said another apparently healthy member whose funeral is nowhere in sight as far as I can tell. “I’m sad for us, but glad that you’ll focus on your writing,” said another. “I want to keep reading!”

Several have also mentioned my letter, especially my prayer that “we will end well together.” I’m all too aware of too many painful endings for personnel in churches and other Christian institutions, and I’d like to redress the balance by having a positive ending with my congregation. We need more healthy examples, and I’d like us to be one.

But what does it mean to end well together? I’m just beginning to live into this, and learning as I go, but this is what I’m discovering so far.

Ending well means taking time to reflect together

My personal journals include many pages of thoughts, prayers, and wrestling with ministry, and I’ve blogged some of my experience in the form of best practices in When You Feel Like Running, Then Run to Jesus. I know that kind of personal reflection will continue to be important to me during this time of transition and beyond. But I’m discovering that ending well will also mean taking time to reflect as a body.

The chair of our Education Committee has already asked if I would take some adult education sessions in fall to reflect on what I’ve learned from my twenty-five years of ministry with the congregation. A deacon has suggested I do the same thing with our Connection Group leaders, focused on what I’ve learned about small group ministry. In worship, our theme for fall will be “God With Us,” which is a key piece of our identity as a church, an emphasis that will help ground us as we move forward, and will give opportunity for us to reflect corporately in the context of worship and preaching.

Ending Well Means Being Fully Engaged

I’ve said repeatedly to our council, deacons, and others, that I don’t want to be a “lame duck” pastor. A lame duck describes one who is weak and ineffectual, like a lame duck politician who can’t or won’t do much because his or her term is ending and a successor already elected and waiting to take over.

But far from acting like a lame duck, it seems to me that every sermon and every encounter now carries more weight rather than less. I’m determined not to leave until I’ve actually left, not to check out mentally or emotionally or spiritually, but to give myself to leading, preaching, pastoral care, and the other work of ministry as fully as I always have.

Ending Well Means Acknowledging Boundaries

“But you are a lame duck,” said another pastor who has changed churches multiple times throughout his years of ministry. As he rightly pointed out, I won’t be in my congregation to follow through on some of the decisions that are being made now. Some of the things I might envision for December and the new year and following may morph into something else entirely with new leadership.

So while I intend to remain fully engaged in preaching until I complete my ministry with the church, there are some decisions around future visioning and leadership that I’m deliberately leaving to our church council and others. Our Personnel Committee has already recommended there be a search committee for a transitional pastor. Our Council has already begun to follow through by informing the congregation and informing themselves of resources from our denomination and beyond. While I’ve been part of the discussion to some degree, they’ve also had many discussions without me, and I know it belongs to the church, not me, to call their next pastor as God leads them.

Ending well means taking time to celebrate

“I’m so sad,” said one member with tears in her eyes.

“Oh, you and your family, we’ve been through so much together,” I said as I hugged her back.

But then she seemed to brighten up. “So when’s the party? We need to celebrate!”

I don’t know yet how we’ll celebrate, but I know that will be important too. Parties help us give thanks to God, express our joy, and have some fun together. Our Vietnamese Church has already asked me to join them for a Thanksgiving party in October with the theme of commitment–in part to celebrate my commitment to the church over these years, and to highlight and encourage our commitment as followers of Jesus.

Ending Well Means Preparing for Transition

I’m still exploring what this means, but I know already that preparing for transition deserves a separate article, so I’ll post that in the next month or two. In the meantime, I’d love to learn from you! What has been your experience of ending ministry well? If you’ve had a bad experience, what did that teach you? If you have an observation, reflection, or resource that can help me and others and the church at large, please feel free to leave a comment or connect with me.

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Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Four Gifts, Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on spiritual growth and Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

3 thoughts on “How to End Ministry Well Together

  1. April, I’m a little late to the news, but I congratulate you on listening to Spirit and allowing it to blow you in a new direction. Our church congregation is tossing and turning due to a change in staff. Unfortunately, an announcement that our organist and choir director was handled poorly by our senior pastor (many define it as lying), and my husband and I are listening for Spirit to tell us what our next steps will be.

    I’m glad you’re continuing to pursue your writing. I’m hopeful that someday soon I’ll be publishing my memoir. However, it appears there may be another fusion surgery in my future due to my 2011 fusion not growing sufficient new bone. Depression has taken hold of me and some days thinking about a book is beyond my focus, and I feel daunted by new and increasing pains.

    But this shouldn’t be about me–it’s about a newly changed you! You are going to find so much in your new relationship to the Divine. His/Her guidance will always be yours, whether you stand in the midst of a congregation, sell books to the masses, or write for Christian magazines. I will always try to stop by here when I can and catch up on you. I’ve often wished we were close enough to sit across from each other and talk and pray and bless one another!

    Let the Spirit blow, blow and blow some more!

    • Thank you for stopping by, Sherrey–I’m glad to hear how things are going for you, but sorry that you may be facing surgery and how that is weighing on you, and sorry to hear about your church. Even staff changes that are handled well can be disorienting, and when they are more complicated or difficult, there can be quite an upheaval. I pray for the Spirit to move in your congregation, to bring healing and wholeness, and for you and your husband as you also listen to the Spirit. I am encouraged by your last line – “Let the Spirit blow, blow and blow some more!”

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