Life is full of transitions, but perhaps no transition is more difficult to manage than when a pastor considers transitioning to a new place of service. Transitions are best handled through conversation – talking it through with others. But a pastor who is considering (or preparing for) a call to another church has very few people with whom to process the transition.
Being a pastor can be rather lonely, but the loneliness is never so profound as when a transition looms. Even a pastor who values transparency must be guarded with the knowledge that he is considering a move, lest his current congregation catch wind of the transition and create a mess – for the pastor and the congregation.
What’s a pastor to do? My encouragement for pastors is to find two or three safe people with whom to process the decision and to recognize three relationships to engage with caution.
First, while the pastor’s spouse is certainly a partner in the process, leaning solely on your spouse can put far too much pressure on that relationship. The spouse is also a very key stakeholder in the decision, which creates limitations. My advice is to talk with your spouse, but don’t rely solely on those conversations.
Second, if you serve a church with denominational ties, you may have access to personnel who can help you process the transition. Such conversations have pros and cons. You will want to consider the level of trust, the balance of power and authority in the denominational relationship, the reputation for confidentiality, and how neutral the denominational personnel can be. My advice is to proceed with caution.
Third, even if you think you can trust someone in your congregation to hold this information in confidence, drop it and step away from that idea! You put any member of the congregation in a terribly awkward no-win situation when you invite them into the process. My counsel is to avoid talking with members of the church until you want the information to go public.
It’s important to find someone with whom to process the transition. Talking with a confidential colleague, a counselor or coach, or a trusted member of your alma mater (if you’re a Western graduate, Larry McCracken is the go-to guy) can be of great help. And never ignore or underestimate the power of prayer and journaling.
I was talking with my pastor about this topic. (To be clear, our conversation was not about any transition for him!). Following the conversation he shared with me a list of very helpful questions for processing the call to another church. These are questions that can guide your prayer time, be used as a journaling guide, or serve as a framework with trusted conversation partners. Thanks for Bob Thompson for sharing the list.
The Central Purpose of My Life
- How do I currently understand my calling in life?
- How has my understanding of my calling changed across the years?
- What is my mental picture of a ministry setting that would ideally fulfill my sense of calling?
- Have/do I mistakenly hear other voices as the call of God?
- How has my past experience placed limits around what God may want me to accomplish?
- How have my dreams of ministry success brought disillusionment, discouragement, and crises of faith?
- To what degree am I genuinely open to God’s direction in this matter regardless of the outcome?
- What are my espoused theories and theories-in-practice about how God guides?
- What factors will influence my decision and how would I rank them?
- With whom am I confidentially sharing secrets about my possible move and why?
- Who are the people exercising the greatest influence on my decision and why?
My Spiritual and Personal Well-being
- How are my self-worth, calling, and ministry effectiveness connected?
- What changes am I seeing in the quality and quantity of my devotional times?
- Do I face similar problems in every ministry setting where I work?
- What tensions am I feeling between confidentiality/secrecy and openness/ honesty?
- Where am I tempted to deceive or offer less than full disclosure to others about my past failures and my ongoing weaknesses? How much of this is appropriate?
- Where am I tempted to be less than honest with myself about my gifts, abilities, personality strengths, and spiritual health?
My Family Relationships
- How does my spouse feel about the possibility of a move?
- What weight in this decision will be given to my spouse’s sense of God’s leading and what weight to mine?
- What tensions emerge in my marriage and family during times of stress and transition?
- How will my boundaries between ministry and family need to be evaluated and articulated during transition and in a new ministry setting?
My Current Ministry Setting
- Why did I believe God called me to this setting? Do I still believe he called me here at that time? What has changed to prompt a possible calling away?
- What frustrations are causing me either to seek a change or be more comfortable with the possibility? Are these frustrations likely to be short-term or long-term, and to what extent should that matter?
- As I begin to ponder a change of ministry setting, how are my attitudes changing toward problems and criticisms here?
- How is my distraction leading to inertia in my current setting?
- To whom do I owe what information when?
- If I leave my current ministry, over what relationships will I grieve most intensely and how am I starting now to do so?
- Under what circumstances would I agree to return for specific ministry (wedding, funeral, special service) in this congregation if I leave?
- How can I continue to fulfill the duties of my current employment (earn my paycheck with integrity) as I plan and prepare for my next position?
- What baggage will I take with me in terms of suspicions about church leaders?
The Possibility of a Move
- What are my motives in considering the possibility of a new ministry setting?
- Am I moving to something or away from something? What?
- When did I first open myself to the possibility of a move and why?
- How does searching right now for a new call feel like betrayal?
- What alternatives to a new call have I genuinely explored (sabbatical, continuing education, intentional ministry planning)?
A Potential Ministry Setting
- Does the new opportunity help to put the pieces of my life-puzzle together?
- Does the new church or ministry setting exhibit repetitive problems no matter who the leader is?
- Have I honestly faced the potential pitfalls as well as the possibilities of this change?
- What are the deal-breakers and deal-makers for me in terms of salary and benefits?
- What in this new setting do I like, what do I plan to change, and what am I willing to tolerate indefinitely if it does not change?
Who in this new ministry setting will expect to exert strong influence over me because of his/her role in the search process?