Sometimes we choose it. Sometimes it seems that others choose it for us. Regardless of how the leaving begins, it is seldom easy and often filled with tricky conversations, heartache and loss. It’s like the bittersweet ending to a book.

It was the week before we’d planned on announcing to our congregation that God was moving us to a different assignment, that we’d be leaving to pastor a different church. I was sitting with my prayer team in our prayer time before services early on Sunday morning. We were begging the Lord to move that morning, to bring hearts to repentance and heal the pain that we were seeing in the lives of those coming through our doors.

Now, if you ever pray with me, you’ll see right away that I’m a prayer cryer. Just can’t help it. But what happened that morning wasn’t the little trickle that I can easily catch with my sleeve or the back of my hand. It was full-on sobbing, the gushing ugly cry that when it starts, there’s no stopping it. And it was on me before I knew it.

None of my prayer team understood what was happening – and it wasn’t the time to tell them. So, all I could do was quietly (or not so quietly) excuse myself and head into my husband’s office until I could regain some composure.

Leaving a church is hard. It’s hard because we’ve poured our hearts into loving these people that God has called us to shepherd. We’ve hurt with them. We’ve celebrated with them. We’ve stepped out in faith and seen God do what only He can. Together, we’ve been overwhelmed with thankfulness and we’ve shouldered the weight of disappointment. And whether they realize it or not, there will always be a piece of ourselves that we leave behind, with them. 

Sometimes we’d like to just disappear… to vanish. Clean. Simple.

But soooo not healthy. How we leave will determine the health with which we, our “old” congregation and our “new” congregation will be able to move forward. It takes more courage to leave well than it does to vanish, but it’s well worth it.

After church that day, I determined that I was going to do this “leaving thing” the best I was able. That I would trust the Lord to make me what this Body needed, in the moment. That I’d be courageous in my grieving and in my celebrating. 

It wasn’t until recently that a dear friend of mine that grew up as a missionary kid introduced me to a model of thinking that I saw the “why” of what God had led me to do in this leaving process. It’s called the RAFT, because if we want to navigate the rough waters from here to there, we need to build some structures… a good raft.

Reconcile – Do what you can to leave with peace in your relationships with others. This protects you from taking the seeds of bitterness with you.

Affirm – Take the time to leave words of gratitude. Call out the good in people and organizations. This is harder when we are “pushed” out and it wasn’t our decision, but it’s still possible and fruitful.

Farewell – Say intentional goodbyes to people, places, pets and possessions. This will help you grieve healthily and be more able to reopen your heart and move on.

Think Destination – Look ahead to where God is calling you. Anticipate both positive and negative aspects of your new assignment. Do what you can to prepare. This includes taking a rest in between the assignments, but more on that in a later article.

Here are some practical tips from our Alongside Coaches:

  1. Be strategic about how the news gets out. Honor those in leadership, your closer friends and your kids’ friends by setting up a time to talk to them before the big announcement goes out. This helps keep feelings from being hurt.
  2. Involve your kids in the process of seeking God’s direction, if they are old enough to keep it to themselves. When they seek God’s face and direction with you now, as a family, they will know how to seek His face when they are out on their own. Coach them about not talking to other people about where God is leading until you are ready, as a family, to announce it. If they need to talk, that’s what your family is for. When they are invited into the process of seeking God’s leading, they will likely be more bought into the idea of change.
  3. Plan farewell celebrations for each age group in the family whenever possible. Recognize that if the church does a send off, it may not meet your kids’ needs. If your church doesn’t do a send off, plan your own celebration in your home of what God has done during your time there. Intentionally lift Jesus up and tell stories of His goodness, so that He gets the glory.
  4. Celebrate the people God has allowed you to walk alongside. This is by far my top win – I will do this again, exactly the same. I made a list of the people that had invested in me (mentors and friends) and those I’d invested in. I set up coffee dates on my front porch where I took a few minutes to talk to them, individually, about their strengths, what I’d seen God do in their lives, how they’d grown and what I was excited about as I thought about their future. I wrote down key words on a card that they could keep – because we often need reminded of how God is moving in our lives when we are too close to see it on our own. Then, I prayed a blessing over them. This provided healthy closure for relationships that would end when day-to-day contact didn’t happen.  Sometimes we don’t know which ones will last and which will not, so I did it for everyone I was close to.

Ok, if you’ve gotten this far, you are probably wondering what my BIGGEST MISTAKES were. Here ya go…

  1. I did not voice my expectations in my closest relationships. I assumed they knew that I wanted them to journey (if only in regular conversations) to this next place with me. I assumed they knew that I wanted them to visit my new home, my new church, and see the place where God was using me. When they didn’t initiate with me after I left or want to visit my new stomping grounds, I felt disappointed. But it was purely because I had left those expectations unspoken. If I’d been intentional about talking them through, my friends and I could’ve talked about whether they were realistic or unrealistic, healthy or unhealthy.
  2. I had unrealistic expectations. I expected my “old” people to be excited about my future and my “new” people to grieve what I’d lost with me. It might happen in some cases, but I think that was too much to expect. When our congregation is feeling abandoned, it’s a big ask to expect them to be excited about where I’m headed. When our new congregation has been waiting for a new pastor and he finally comes, it’s a big ask to expect them to understand what I’ve lost. But this is why God put me and my husband together. I think this is the place He created this need to be met, but that means that we need to create intentional processing time where we revisit these issues and talk them through.

I have more tips and mistakes I’ve made in the process of entering a new church. So stay tuned…

If any of this has resonated with you, perhaps you are in the midst of a transition, just gone through one or are anticipating one coming up, we are offering something especially for you. Because when we leave well, we heal and are able to enter new ministry contexts with a healthy heart and give of ourselves the way Jesus has called us to.

In August, there will be a new Cohort Series called “Transitioning Well – Entering, Leaving and Thriving In Between” where we’ll dig into more of the tricky issues that surround transitioning as a pastor’s wife. It will be open to any ministry wives but spaces will be limited. Registration for Fall cohorts will open June 1, so watch your email for the announcement.

Lord, You are the One who walks with us through all of the leaving, the entering, the grieving and the celebrating. You are the One who makes us whole again when we feel like a piece of us was damaged or is missing. Lord, bind up the brokenhearted right now. The ones who are hurting and need Your healing as they grieve. Lord, walk with those that are entering a new phase of their journeys. Help them to celebrate the new opportunities to see You work through them. Help them see your hand and trust in Your presence to guide them and give them Your peace.

In Your precious Name, Amen.