Related podcast episode: "Get Your Spirit in Shape: Changing Pastors? It's Going to be Okay" with Rev. Bob Kaylor is available at umc.org/podcasts
One Sunday during worship, you notice a visitor who looks vaguely familiar. Suddenly the pastor invites her forward to address the congregation. Now you remember. She is your District Superintendent. Oh no! Why is she here?
A numbness overcomes you as you hear the words. Your pastor is leaving. In several weeks, he will move to a new church. The DS then promises to return soon to introduce you to your new pastor.
United Methodist churches repeat this scene whenever elders are appointed to new churches.
Whether you dread losing your beloved pastor or welcome a change in leadership, it feels like everything in your church is about to change. While that is not completely true, your congregation will be going through a significant time of pastoral transition.
The Rev. Robert Kaylor, pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado and author of Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transitions for the Local Church, points out that there are three phases of transition: the ending or leaving, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. Each member can participate in every stage.
The ending: Saying goodbye
"A lot of times we start running toward the new beginning without doing the leaving well, and saying goodbye well," Kaylor notices.
Saying goodbye to your current pastor may be emotionally challenging, but it is a significant first step in the transition process.
Pray. The first thing you can do is to pray for your current pastor, the new pastor, and your congregation. Surrender your anxiety and trust God to work through the process.
Lend a hand. Soon after the District Superintendent announces that your pastor is leaving, look for ways to be helpful. Your pastor and his/her family will need boxes for the move and might like help packing, taking apart bed frames, or loading the U-Haul. Ask where you might be helpful.
Give an appropriate gift. It may be as simple as a gift card that will help with moving and travel expenses or a picture of a time you shared together.
Attend the farewell. Take time to celebrate this season of pastoral leadership as it ends. Eat, laugh, cry, celebrate, and tell stories with your congregation. Don't miss out on this important time.
Say a personal goodbye. "For me, as a pastor," Kaylor shares, "one of the things I really have appreciated was when people took the time to sit down and write a note, expressing their appreciation for that time in ministry together." He continues, "I keep those with me as I move to the new place… There's no greater gift than that."
"As a parishioner," Kaylor teaches, "I want to bless the pastor on his or her way out." When we say goodbye well, "it not only helps the pastor, it helps me emotionally and spiritually make that transition; to say this has ended and now I'm looking forward to a new pastoral leader."
The neutral zone
After saying goodbye well, your congregation may have a week or two "between pastors." This is a good time for the church to catch its breath, and for everyone to continue helping with the transition.
Help get ready. As you await the arrival of your new pastor, your church may hold a painting party at the parsonage. Jump in. Participating in the preparations is an investment in the successful ministry of your new pastor.
Learn about the incoming pastor. Your church will probably post a profile of your new pastor and his/her family on your church website. Be sure to read it. In addition to the fun stuff, look for "the pastor's heart," Kaylor advises. "What is the pastor really passionate about? What are the things I might have questions about in terms of the pastor's story?"
"It's not just looking at the resume. It is finding what it is that makes this person tick. How has God uniquely gifted them? Looking for those points of connection," Kaylor explains.
A new beginning: Saying hello
After participating in the ending phase and neutral zone, you are now ready to welcome your new pastoral leader.
Go to church that first Sunday. Invest in the continued success of your congregation by supporting your new pastor from the very start.
Give a good gift. Welcome your pastor not only to your congregation but also to your town. A gift card to your favorite business, restaurant, or local home improvement store will be welcome, and helps the pastor and family get to know your community.
Give space. Pastors and their families have a lot to do when they first arrive—unpacking boxes, getting the kids signed up for school, finding a new doctor, and so much more. This might not be the best time to drop by the office or parsonage unannounced.
Take initiative. Attend a meet-and-greet, join the pastor's Bible study, or invite her/him to coffee. "Make the effort to get to know the pastor," Kaylor recommends, "because he or she is not going to have time to invest in every single parishioner—particularly in a large church—in the way that they would like to. So take the initiative to go be with the pastor… That's really, really critical."
Resist quick judgements. Stressed, tired, nervous, uncertain, worried—your new pastor is feeling all of this and more. Look "beyond first impressions because sometimes that first impression can be difficult," Kaylor cautions. "Extending grace…is absolutely critical, and saying we're going to give this time and we're going to really invest in getting to know this pastor and so learn how we can be in ministry together."
Expect the best. Things are changing. This is a new season in ministry. "Ask yourself as a congregation member," Kaylor suggests, "What gifts do I have that I can invest in the success of this new season of ministry?"
That is always the goal. We strive for the success of our ministry together as pastor and congregation, so that, as our ritual for welcoming new members concludes, "in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ."
Editor's note: This story was originally published June 24, 2015.