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Unless you stay at the same church your entire life, you will leave one ministry or church and go to another, perhaps several times. In fact, the average pastor in the U.S. stays at one place about four years. I’ve served at six different churches in my 35 years in ministry and have always sought to leave well. At my current church I hope I’ll have another 10 years of fruitful service. I’ve learned, however, that leaving is more of an art and is often difficult. Here are 7 insights I’ve learned that have helped me make a graceful exit.

1. Deal with your baggage. 

Leave with a clear conscience that relationships have been made right, as much as is possible.

Acts 24:16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Rom. 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone

2. Don’t leave angry.

Process your pain. If you struggle with anger after you leave, get coaching or counseling to avoid bitterness.

Heb. 12:15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

3. Leave on top.

That is, leave your ministry as healthy and as strong as possible.

Col. 3:23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men….

4. Speak well of the former leaders, both lay and paid.

Don’t leave a trail of gossip. Don’t undermine the leaders or anyone else who may have hurt you. Don’t burn bridges. Leave in such a way that your and Christ’s reputation remain intact.

Prov. 22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

5. Let go of ownership.

You are no longer in charge. You may be tempted to still influence it from afar. Guard against that.

6. Pray that God would bless the ministry even more with the new leader who replaces you.

1 Kings 1:37 “May the Lord be with Solomon as he has been with you, and may God make Solomon’s reign even greater than yours!”

7. Grieve well. 

Change brings loss. You will lose familiarity, relationships, and influence even as you gain those in your new ministry. Don’t be surprised if you grieve. The Apostle Paul grieved when he left the church at Ephesus for the last time.

Acts 20: 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: `It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” 36 When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Years ago I heard a talk by Ellen Goodman about leaving well. This quote captures the spirit of a leader who makes a graceful exit.

There is a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over-and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on, rather than out.

What insights would you add to this list?

Dr. Charles Stone is Lead Pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, and the founder of StoneWell Ministries, a pastor coaching and church consulting ministry. He is the author of four books including, "People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership" (IVP 2014), and his most recent book, “Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry” (Abingdon, May 2015).

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