EDITOR'S NOTE: After three-plus years in his current pastorate, author Chris Surber is headed to Haiti to train pastors. (He leaves the U.S. January 15.) Please join with the SermonCentral staff in praying for him safe travels and fruitful ministry.
I’m looking forward to one of those 20-year pastorates, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve never moved on from a church on bad terms. I’m blessed that way. I’ve shepherded churches through conflict and change, but thankfully I’ve tended to be the change-agent and never the center of conflict. I’ve been fortunate to always “leave ‘em wanting more.”
It’s always hard to leave. It’s probably harder to leave a pastorate when it is on good terms—God has just moved you on, and you have love for the people you’re leaving. They are like aunts and uncles and surrogate grandparents to your kids. What do you say on your last Sunday?
My family and I are headed to Haiti to train Haitian pastors. I’m preparing that last sermon in a church filled with people I love. As a pastor, how do you say goodbye well? Here are five thoughts.
1. Remind them Christ builds His Church, not you. When a shepherd moves on to another flock, there is the temptation for the sheep to scatter. Impress upon them that Christ alone is the Head of His Church. There is always a temptation to place too high an emphasis on the pastor’s leadership as to the success of a local church. Leadership matters, but Christ alone is our shepherd (Matthew 16:18).
2. Remind them God has a purpose for the local church. While you may be leaving, the specific mission of that local fellowship continues. Pulling together and increasing unity through transition is the way to grow through change.
3. Remind them they will be in your prayers and ask them for theirs. As I departed my first pastorate in a little church in perpetually frozen northern Michigan, we all held hands and sang congregational benediction about the Lord watching over us all as we departed. We are all a part of a body that transcends geographical boundaries (I Corinthians 12:12-31).
4. Avoid the temptation to interject personal attacks or defenses over disappointments or hurts caused by people in the congregation. God will fight those battles on your behalf. Even in healthy pastorates, there are always unwarranted and unjustified attacks on a pastor’s motives, character and even family. Slamming a door on your way out can only negate the good that God did through you by souring it at the end (Exodus 14:14).
5. Close out a season of faithful ministry the way that Paul closed out his Epistles: with a loving and grace-filled benediction. Make that last sermon as their pastor the punctuation mark on the end of a lengthy sentence spoken one sermon, one Bible study and one counseling session at a time (II Corinthians 13:11-14).
There are probably no more important sermons any pastor preaches than his first and his last. We let them know where we are headed and then we remind them of where we’ve been. What are your thoughts and insights on this or related topics? What if you are leaving on less than amiable terms? Does that change anything? How do we leave well in a sermon?