After 15 years in our congregation, my senior pastor is leaving to take a new call.
As far as transitions go, this is a healthy one. No underlying conflict is forcing anyone to go. And yet, transitions are always hard. I’m grieving and so are many others in my congregation.
In the week since my senior pastor announced his departure, I’ve become acutely aware of the role that I, as a staff member, have to play in this transition. To support my congregation during this season of change, here are 7 things I’m learning to do:
1. Process my own emotions. In order to help other people process their emotions, you have to process your own. Sometimes that means prioritizing yourself in order to take care of yourself and then later, others. For example, upon learning of my pastor’s departure, I immediately fled the building. I felt as though the church walls were suffocating me. I knew I had to leave even if it was only for a short time. So I went for a cold, midday walk and then went home for an hour and hung out with my daughter. When I returned to church, I felt much calmer and able to work. In the days since, I’ve continued processing my emotions with my colleagues, my husband, and close friends OUTSIDE my congregation.
2. Be present and listen. Whenever parishioners learn a beloved, long-time staff member is leaving, they’ll want to talk. In the days since my pastor’s news broke, I’ve sat with a lot of people, simply listening to them. Many times, we’ve sat and cried together. Other times, I’ve listened to people’s grief and their concerns over our congregation’s future. I’ve also asked questions in order to try to better understand where people are coming from.
3. Give people a safe place to share. While it’s good to meet informally with people and listen, it’s also imperative to give various groups in your congregation time to process big news together and wrestle with the question, “What does this mean for us?” Our youth group has gathered twice since our pastor’s news broke. Both times, we’ve explicitly talked about the elephant in the room. In order to pastor teens, we have to know where they’re at. We can’t do that unless we give them a space to actually share what they’re thinking and feeling.