Insights on Pastoral Transitions

200702_EJO_TransitionsHow to prepare to leave a church well…

Leaving is not a time to cover unfinished business, and let ‘em have it, thinking, “I won’t be around to clean up any mess.” Focus on the Lord’s presence and presents; let Him offer you and the flock the gifts we all need in order to end well, and then move on with grace and integrity. Here are a few ideas for wrapping up the pulpit ministry: preach the cross, our common denominator; reflect on Paul’s closing plea to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17; consider a passage from 1st or 2nd Timothy (1Tim. 4:6-10; 2Tim. 3:10-17), or one of my favorites, 1Thes. 2:1-8. Since we can’t preach it all, at least we can meditate on passages that will fill our minds and hearts with much needed soul-salve.

Are there any people, leaders especially, who need a personal visit—in a neutral location, for coffee (tea, latte…)? The purpose is not so much to set someone straight as it is to listen carefully and, “as much as depends upon you, to live at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18). “Have I offended you? What can I learn from our time of service? What do you suggest we do differently next time? What was done well? How can I pray for you and this flock? Would you please pray for my family in these areas?” Unfortunately, at least in my experience, not all are interested in talking. Some prefer a phone conversation, short, sweet, and sufficient. Others will do lunch and even invite one or two others, and all will treasure the time well spent. When asked your opinion about the transition, be prepared to share truth with love and grace; don’t try to think on your feet but anticipate concerns and how you’d respond. You might have an opportunity to bring up matters of your own that you could never share before, but don’t force the moment. Rather, pray for God’s opportunity and leave it alone if no doors open.

How to prepare to enter a new church…

Regular, consistent devotions during an interim period was critical for my spiritual health and well being as I waited for the final word on a move. Consider the purposes of different biblical books: pastoral epistles (1&2 Tim., Titus) and 2 Corinthians; the healing heartbeat of Psalms; renewed hope for the church by meditating in Ephesians; a perspective on suffering from 1 Peter or even Job.

Pray for leadership and the flock: the one you’re leaving and the one you hope to move toward.

Guard your family’s needs, especially your wife’s, and don’t overlook the needs of your children. They will face new friends, new schools, new church dynamics.

Take time to breathe between ministries. A few weeks of R&R to spend time with wife and children is helpful, if not critical. Our budget rarely allowed much more than this, although I had been advised to take a month off. Don’t be afraid to ask the new board for a time, at least a week, to settle into the surroundings of home, community and church before stepping into the pulpit.

How to enter a church well…

The initial weeks of ministry are primarily relational; so, allow sermon prep to review the familiar rather than to dig new trenches. You’ll need people time and should expect interruptions. Sometime soon after arrival, consider a series on the doctrines of the church, laying the foundation for commonality within the flock—assuming you have reviewed and agree with the tenants of church documents. This is not the time to fill in the holes or address weaknesses in a doctrinal statement. It is appropriate, however, to reveal the practicality of doctrine and remind the flock of the wonder and joy of living out what we believe. The purpose is not to dig deep furrows or to lay new foundations, but rather to share what we have in common within this body so the people may respond with, “Yes! That’s what we believe and unites us in our common Savior.” A number will sit back and scratch a chin: “Oh, that’s what I thought, but I had never put it together before, and it affirms my faith.” Perhaps it challenges their faith, with grace and gentleness. Our role is not to impress but to shepherd by feeding and leading and heeding the sheep.

Rework the church’s directory and include families who attend, who may not necessarily be members. Include children and missionaries. Then make this into a handy, small font, easy-to-grap list by placing it in your Bible, car visor and wallet. Divide up the list of families into five or six segments and pray for them throughout the week. You’ll learn names as you lift them up before the throne of grace. Have someone handy to point out family connections: brother to brother, grandparent, cousin. How convenient it is to ask a well-informed saint, “Who’s the lady with the red scarf? Is she related to the young man she’s talking with?”

David R. Kelly is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Wellston, Ohio. Dave and his wife Kathy moved to Southern Ohio at the end of June, 2012, from Southern Maryland, having served as senior pastor at Calvary Bible Church in Lusby. He also served 25 years in two different churches in rural Maine before heading south. The Kellys grew up in Pennsylvania and have four grown daughters. Dave earned a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary in May, 1979, in New Testament studies.

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