Post Author: Rev. Ashley Updegraff
I have just accepted a new call! It’s very exciting but also very sad. You see, I’m leaving my current call after almost eight years. I love the people, and we have done some amazing things together. I want to leave well—for me and for them—but I am not really sure how to do that. I need to start telling people and planning for my transition. But I feel really stuck. Help!
Leaving and Confused
Dear Leaving and Confused,
First of all—congratulations! What an exciting time for you. I wish you all the best in your new endeavor!
Second of all—buckle up. The next few weeks are going to be hard. Leaving a call is a lot of work, and wading through all of your own emotions, along with those of your congregants, is wearying. That said, here are some “best practices” gleaned from my own experience.
- Communicate. The first thing you will need to do is communicate your departure. You want people to hear from you before they hear from a google search or from their neighbor’s aunt’s cousin who happens to be a member of your new congregation. My advice for communicating is this: think about the small handful of people that you would like to tell face-to-face (or voice-to-voice), and do that first. These people could be coworkers, volunteers you work with closely, your council or board, those people who acted as references, etc. Spend a day or two making these visits or phone calls. Then craft a congregation-wide letter and get it sent out quickly. Again, the hope is that everyone hears about your departure in your own words—not from Susan who heard from Tom who heard from you.
Pro Tip: There are probably many reasons for your leaving, and your congregation does not need to know all of them. If it’s complicated, or you don’t know how to say what you want to say, “thank you” goes a long way. Focus on your gratitude. You’ve got this.
- Feel. Now that you have communicated the news of your departure, brace yourself for the onslaught of feelings this news brings up for people. First and foremost? Tend to your own feelings. Be honest about what you are feeling, and don’t be afraid of showing emotion. It is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign that you are human and that you care! Also, remember that it is okay to communicate both excitement and sadness. Brené Brown assures us that uncertainty in our emotions doesn’t read as confusion or apathy—it reads as self-awareness.1 Next, line up some people that you can be 100% honest with—friends, your spouse, a parent, etc. You’ll need a few people to whom you can say whatever you need to say. Because…your congregation will have all kinds of big feelings, and they may or may not be easy for you to hold. Some people are going to be very excited for you—so excited that you wonder, “Are you glad I’m leaving?” Some people are going to be very, very sad—so sad that their grief comes out sideways, as confusion or anger or silence. These people might not ever get around to congratulating you, and yes, that will sting. Talk about this to your aforementioned “safe people.” Some people are going to be solving the problem of your departure before you even pack up your belongings—this is their anxiety speaking, wondering how your personal decision will impact the organization as a whole. The hardest part about leaving a congregation is that it is mostly happening to you. But it is also happening to everyone else. You need to wade through your own emotions as well as create space for people to wade through theirs.
Pro Tip: Keep Kleenex everywhere. Just everywhere. You never know when tears will flow!
- Plan. Get your pen and paper—it’s time to make lists! So many lists. You need to think through who will take over your responsibilities, and meet with those folks to be sure you are all on the same page. Will you leave materials for them or will they need to come up with their own? Will schedules stay the same or will things need to change because you won’t be there? You’ll need to let people know if programs are being paused or canceled due to your departure. There are files to save, papers to sort through, HR stuff to attend to, and so much more.
Pro Tip: Treat yourself to a cute notebook to keep track of all of this stuff. Get one that’s big enough to hold all the things you are already thinking about for your new call, because of course there are lists to make for that, too!
- Ritualize. Endings are hard. There is so much meaning tied up in even the littlest of things, because there are so many people, events, and places that have been important to you in this congregation. That’s why I think it’s really important to mark the event of your leaving with a ritual of some kind. Rituals are “the symbolic behaviors we perform before, during, and after a meaningful event.”2 These rituals benefit you and your people. They help mark a really big moment as a really big moment. An online mental health resource states, “Rituals are sacred & powerful because they exceed what is being done presently.”3 For example, your last Council meeting isn’t just your last Tuesday night commitment on the third Tuesday of the month. It’s the last time you will be gathering with this group that has been working together for the sake of the mission of your congregation. Rituals help us give voice to and create space for the deeper significance of everyday things, and that’s really important as you leave.
Pro Tip: When I left my last call, I created a ritual to mark all of my lasts. Instead of just experiencing a final council meeting, a final coffee shop hang, a final retreat, and walking out the door, I marked the space and the moment to acknowledge what was happening beyond what was actually happening. I took a rock with me, said a prayer, and left the rock on the table, in the sanctuary, or on the windowsill. Taking my cue from biblical elders, I created a rustic altar out of a simple stone, a place to offer up my gratitude for the important work that had been done in those places with those people. Figure out something that makes sense for you!
- Celebrate! It sounds like you are leaving under good circumstances, which means it is important to celebrate! Celebration can take a lot of forms. People might want to have you over for breakfast or coffee or lunch. Accept as many of these invitations as your schedule and emotional bandwidth will allow, even if you’ve never spent much time with them before. It’s important to them. Consider to whom you’d like to give a little gift out of gratitude for the work you’ve done together or as something to remember your ministry. When working with children and youth, I think it is especially important to give them a little something as a reminder of the years you’ve been an impactful adult in their lives–something that will remind them of your connection. Hopefully, there will be a party or a moment in worship to celebrate you corporately. Standing in front of a group of people who are clapping for you might make you uncomfortable, but I would encourage you to embrace it. People want to celebrate you, and while that might not be your favorite thing, it is a great opportunity to hear and know that you have made a difference and mattered in the lives of your parishioners.
Pro Tip: Keep your expectations reasonable. People aren’t always the best at celebrating others, especially when it impacts them in not-so-awesome ways. Either be explicit with what you want from a celebration, or be gracious for whatever happens!
I am sure there are things I’m forgetting, but this should be a good framework for leaving your congregation. Blessings to you during this transition! Feel all the feelings. Spend time celebrating all the good work God has been up to in you and your congregation. And good luck in all that God has in store ahead.
Reverend Ashley Updegraff is an ordained pastor in the ELCA, and currently serves a congregation in the Minneapolis area. She knows that life is messy (take her for a cup of coffee and ask her how!), but she also knows that God shows up in the mess. Reminding herself and others of that is her full-time job. She also mothers her big blended family, loves adventures with her husband, Aaron, and reads whenever she can. She writes at flailingintodancing.wordpress.com.
Image by: Ashley Updegraff
Used with permission