Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Post Author: Laura Stephens-Reed

  • The Amicable Break-Up: The two dating partners agree that one or both of them have outgrown the relationship, and they leave the door open to friendship.
  • The Claw-My-Eyes-Out Break-Up: You are miserable in the relationship and decide to bail.
  • The Ambush Break-Up: You are unceremoniously dumped, or your dating partner makes life unbearable to force you to throw in the towel.

For young clergywomen these personal kinds of break-ups may have eerie parallels in the professional world. We are, after all, still discovering our pastoral gifts and searching for the environments that will allow our ministries to flourish. It is likely that we will have to break up with a congregation at some point early in our careers.

While we all hope for amicable splits with the churches we serve with faith and verve, we don’t always have a choice about the type of break-up. We do always have the option to make a graceful exit. (Even if you’re told to take your purse and go immediately, you can go for the cool, collected perp-walk rather than the ranting, yanking-things-off-the-wall dash for the door.) To leave a call well, it might be helpful to consider the following:

  • How do I know it’s time to leave? It can be difficult to discern whether that knotty feeling in your stomach is the Spirit doing backflips or a greasy dinner wreaking havoc. But if you are experiencing persistent signs of physical, emotional, or spiritual unhealth or a yearning from
    the toes up to do something outside your current job description, it could be time to start considering your options.
  • When do I announce my resignation? The answer to this question hinges on several factors.
  • What is the reason for your departure? Are you leaving to marry your fiancé, whose job is tethered to another state? Your congregation may want to celebrate with you. If you’re out the door to another job down the road, you might wait until closer to time.
  • What is your position and/or the state of your congregation? If you’re a solo/senior pastor, your position is responsible for a major upcoming program, or you’re an associate in a church doing a senior pastor search, your congregation could use a little more notice to prepare for the transition.
  • How soon after will someone follow you? Staff vacancies make congregations antsy. Clergy under appointment or in a denomination that makes good use of interim ministers will often be replaced immediately, which sometimes eases some of a church’s anxiety. (The appointment system also gives you less control over when to share your news.) Otherwise, key players in your church may need time to start organizing a search before your feet hit the pavement.
  • How do I stay present with my current church when I am mentally already gone? This challenge is an opportunity to model closure, healthy transitions, and humility. Concentrate on people rather than nuts and bolts. Train your focus and the congregation’s on resurrection: “God is doing a new thing in my life and in the life of this church. Isn’t that exciting?
  • How much should I do to prepare for my successor? There are different schools of thought on how many notes you should leave for the minister who follows you. But basically, it’s good etiquette to leave the office clean and organized, type up anything that is absolutely essential, and fill in a trusted person or committee about the status of projects you’ve started. Your successor can then decide what to do with that information.
  • How much, if any, contact should I have with my former congregants after I leave? Ministry is tricky business. It feels like a betrayal of people you’ve cared for to cut off all communication. On the other hand, the minister who comes after you doesn’t need you hanging around the fringes while she/he gets established. Roles and expectations get all jumbled up that way. And some denominations have strict rules about contact with former parishioners. If you’re afraid of coming off as harsh, explain before you leave why you will be keeping your distance.

    When in doubt after your departure, call your successor and ask whether she/he is comfortable with your limited involvement in very special situations. Better yet, wait for the new minister’s invitation. You have built relationships with the people in your care – that is what ministry is about, after all – but consider making this your mantra: “I did a good job. The next person will too.”

While I am not an expert in leaving relationships gracefully, I have experienced all three kinds of break-ups in both my dating and professional lives. (The two worlds of break-ups can indeed be uncomfortably similar sometimes!) And I fervently believe that the way in which we depart our calls can be as much a ministry as the time we spent fully-engaged with the people we serve. Do we deepen the wounds opened by change or conflict, or do we show our people how to seek out healing, wholeness, and new life in the church and beyond by the way we exit?

Jesus was gifted at knowing when and how to move on: from Nazareth toward Jerusalem, from mountain to valley, from the garden to the cross, from post-resurrection cameos to the right hand of the Creator. Many of us do not have such sharpened instinct, since as pastors we too are still being conformed to the likeness of Christ. May we do our mortal best to incarnate the grace of God just as much in our leaving as in our living among the parishioners in our charge.

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed, an alum of Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, is a supply preacher, program developer, and chaplain in Huntsville, Alabama. She is discerning whether her professional experiences with break-ups were preparation for interim ministry as a career.

Image by: geralt
Used with permission
5 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    This is a wonderful metaphor, Laura. Leaving a call does feel like a break-up. Great advice. I especially appreciate your encouragement to leave gracefully and pave the way for your successor in a Christian manner.

  2. Susie
    Susie says:

    This is really great Laura – I especially appreciate what you said at the end, about “the way we depart our calls can be as much a ministry as the time we spent fully-engaged with the people we serve.” This is so true, and a good reminder.

  3. Leah V-S
    Leah V-S says:

    Laura, I love the analogy! I have experienced break ups as a lay woman and an ordained woman and this way of looking at things is really helpful. Beginnings and endings are so important- what you have added are great tips for best practise! thank you for articulating this in such a fresh way.

  4. Heather
    Heather says:

    Leaving my last parish (three weeks ago!) was a little of both, because I had a two-pointer. One was amicable; the other I was ready to leave probably two years ago!
    The Alban Institute has some great resources to help with some of the questions you talk about; “Running Through the Thistles” and “Saying Goodbye” were helpful to me.


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