I’ll never forget the first church I pastored. It was a small church located in the south side of Louisville, and it was full of wonderful brothers and sisters who showed more love to me than I deserved. While I only served there for a couple of years as I finished my seminary education, it was a wonderful experience. The Lord did a great work, and He deserves the glory for it all!
However, I was still very young and inexperienced as a minister. When my wife and I became confident that God was leading us to a new ministry assignment, I couldn’t have handled my resignation more poorly than I did. I spoke to no one about it – including the church’s two deacons – before making the announcement. I announced at the end of a Wednesday night prayer meeting instead of Sunday morning. I then followed up by mailing a copy of my resignation to every member of the church. To top it off, I offered to continue to serve as pastor for six weeks after the announcement.
I cringe as I share these details with you ten years later. It was not my best moment as a minister of the gospel.
Needless to say, not everyone received this news positively. The abruptness and manner of my resignation were difficult for many to process. Due to my inexperience, I was surprised when several members responded with some strong emotions. Ten years later, I now realize that they had every right to be upset.
Perhaps you’re a pastor, and you’ve experienced a time when God called you and your family to a new ministry assignment. Maybe you handled your resignation with much greater care and wisdom than I did. Still, some members of the church responded in ways that surprised you.
Maybe you’re a church member who has sat in stunned silence while your pastor announced his resignation. You immediately experienced different emotions as you began to process this news and what it meant for you, your family, and your church family.
The reality is that emotions run high when a pastor resigns. I’m going to cover five of the most common responses experienced by church members below. All but one are primarily defined as an emotion. If you’re a pastor who resigns or a church member who experiences the loss of a pastor, identifying these common responses will help. If you’re a pastor, you’ll anticipate some emotional reactions from your flock. If you’re a church member, you’ll recognize that what you are feeling is a typical experience.
Response #1: Sad
When a pastor resigns, many church members will begin to experience profound sadness. They have developed strong relationships with their pastor and his family. They have watched his kids grow up. They have significantly benefited from his biblical preaching and wisdom. He was there to speak words of comfort and hope during a difficult season in their lives.
Now he’s leaving, and his departure will leave a tremendous void in their lives.
As church members begin to process this reality, many enter a grieving process. Tears will be shed. Memories will be shared. And goodbyes will be spoken. A pastor’s resignation will usher in a profoundly emotional season of sadness for many church members for what will be lost.
Response #2: Mad
In their initial shock, some church members may respond to the news of their pastor’s resignation with intense anger. They may feel abandoned or betrayed by their pastor. They may ask questions such as, “How can he do this to me?” or “How can he leave us?” or “Doesn’t he love us?” In the heat of the moment, some church members may say things to their pastor that they will undoubtedly regret later.
When a church member responds to the news of their pastor’s resignation in anger, they do so in an attempt to process their disappointment, albeit in unhealthy ways. If you are a pastor who has been wounded after a church member has said something in a moment of anger, please understand it for what it is. It’s an emotional response in a moment of frustration. It doesn’t nullify their love for you and your family.
I have found that after the initial shock wears off, these church members usually transition from anger to sadness. Some may later apologize to the pastor for their temporary outburst.
Response #3: Glad
Pastors understand that they can’t please everyone in their church. Church members understand that sometimes they will disagree with their pastor’s decisions. Sometimes, both the pastor and the church recognizes that the pastor is not the best fit for the church. Depending on the circumstances, it may be best for the church or the pastor and his family if he moves on to another ministry setting.
That’s why a pastor’s resignation may cause some church members to experience gladness. They may view the change as a positive development for their church. While others are filled with fear and sadness, these church members are filled with hope for the future.
Please note that sometimes gladness may be appropriate when a change in leadership is truly the best outcome for the church. At other times, church members may have sinful motives to force a pastor to resign. When that happens, they should replace their joy with mourning. They should repent for their divisive tactics and sinful personal agendas.
Response #4: Fearful
When a pastor resigns, church members face an uncertain future. Who will preach during the interim? Who should serve on the Pastor Search Committee? Will the church agree on what we need to be looking for in a new pastor? How long before we find him? Will I like him and his family? Will he be a good preacher? Will he be similar to our former pastor?
So many questions. So few answers. With all the uncertainty surrounding this season of transition, many church members may become overwhelmed with fear of the unknown.
The way to overcome this fear is to trust in the Lord. Although pastors will come and go, the head of the church is still Jesus Christ. And He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. While we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. When church members remember this biblical truth, they don’t have to succumb to fear when their pastor resigns.
Response #5: Indifferent
Some established church members adopt the mentality, “Pastors come, and pastors go. I was a member of this church before the pastor arrived, and I’ll be a member here after he leaves.” This attitude allows them to avoid some of the other emotional responses. They don’t experience sadness or anger. They may not experience gladness. They will not be overcome by fear. They understand that no earthly ministry will last forever.
Still, this attitude lends itself to the notion that a pastor is a hired hand and not a genuine member of their local church. Some church members may suggest that the pastor should stick to preaching and allow another group – which likely includes them – to determine the church’s direction.
But that’s another blog post for another day. For today’s discussion, it’s simply worth noting that some church members will appear unaffected by the pastor’s announcement that he will be leaving the church.
After the Initial Response
Not all church members will respond the same way when a pastor resigns. Some will be sad. Some will be mad. Some will be glad. Some will be fearful. And some will be indifferent.
Regardless of the initial response, every church member will eventually need to deal with their emotions and then move on. For more information about how to move on, check out my book The Church During the Search: Honoring Christ While You Wait for Your Next Pastor. In it, I cover six commitments every church member needs to make during the season of transition after a pastor resigns. I pray it will be helpful!