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When It’s Time To Leave

By Richard L. Dresselhaus

I was shocked by my own rudeness. The preacher and I both made a mad dash to the door — he to greet his parishioners and I to preserve my anonymity.

But this was not just any Sunday morning. Elnora and I had left town to find a church where we could safely endure the morning. This morning my successor was candidating to fill the pulpit I had occupied for 33 years. My emotions were doing cartwheels.

First Assembly in San Diego was filled with worshipers eager to meet the board-selected nominee. Today held the climaxing moment of 7 months of diligent prayer and resume analysis. The ultimate choice would soon be made. Emotions were high. People were excited. But none of it included us.

It mattered little that I had initiated the process, was confident in God’s will for both the church and us, and knew we were about to conclude an unbelievably smooth and positive transition. Hearts can break even though minds understand. So it was with us.

For 33 years I had known the moment would come. Nothing is forever but forever itself. There is a time to come and a time to go. Good leadership plans for both.

My prayer for years had been: Lord, when it is time for me to leave, let it be in joy and victory. God had answered my prayer. Elnora and I could not have believed for anything more wonderful. The final service. The farewell. The expressions of appreciation. We were grateful beyond words.

But none of this could hide the great sense of loss that gripped our hearts as we walked through this time of transition. There is no virtue in denial. Emotions hurt, too. How can a pastor invest 33 years of his life in a church and walk away as if nothing has happened? How can a pastor dedicate children, marry those same children, and then dedicate their children without depositing a piece of his heart? How can a pastor witness sinners coming to Christ, growing in grace, and then launching out into God’s work without laying down a large part of his life as well? A pastor cannot; and we had not tried.

I wish every pastor who leaves an assignment of ministry could experience the satisfaction and joy of a healthy and positive departure. Perhaps the thoughts expressed here might in some way help pastors prepare well for the inevitable: leaving.

Goal-setting And Transition

In the early 1980s, Elnora and I decided to plan the rest of our ministry lives (obviously subject to intervention). It was a simple process, but it carried great dividends.

At the top of the long side of an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, we wrote the years from 1980 to 2000 (coincidentally, the final date marked my 65th birthday). On the side we listed goals: retirement, travel, education, and housing. Incidentally, this was when I decided to begin work on a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. The close proximity of the year 2000 obliterated every excuse. It also helps explain why our retirement funds in MBA have some degree of respectability.

For many years I anticipated that my leaving San Diego First Assembly would coincide with the final year of the planning sheet. By God’s grace and people’s favor, we chose to extend the date by 3 years. But the preparations had been set in place years before.

Pastors are God’s servants. He is the Master Tender of the vineyard. He shuffles servants at His choosing. Yet, it is appropriate for workers to be good stewards, which includes goal-setting and wise planning. God can alter plans, but I doubt He looks with favor on a lack of planning.

Good leadership must not only know when it is time to come, but it must also recognize when it is time to leave. A positive transition, however, requires a good plan. No pastor should be shocked by the thought of departure. Departure should be viewed as a significant part of God’s total plan for that assignment. Coming is to be joyful and victorious. Leaving should be the same. Sadly, such is not always true. Reason? Sometimes because coming and going are not viewed as two sides of the same coin.

After I announced to the board that Elnora and I would be leaving, one of the board members said: “Pastor, my wife just said that you have never preached so good.”

I thanked him for the compliment and then added the question: “Should I wait until I’m not preaching so good?”

The point is clear. Transitions are never if, only when. That is why wise pastors work it into their long-range goals and plans.

Strategy And Transition

But how? That is the question. For me, it was prayerful and intentional. Since leaving was in my long-range goals, it was logical to develop a strategy by which the transition might occur.

Transitions involve an incredible number of considerations. When should a pastor inform the board of his intentions? When should the staff be informed? When does the full membership deserve to know? How much time should the transition take? What is a pastor’s part in the process? Who should lead the search for a new pastor? How should the search be conducted?

Let me share our story. Here is the time line for the transition we just concluded:

  1. In May, I informed the board of our intention to leave (if you are married, this must be a joint decision). Elnora and I had for many months anticipated being out of the country for 2 weeks just at this time. The board agreed to hold this information until our return. (See Transition Letter for Board Members.)
  2. In early June, I read a letter of resignation to the entire congregation. (See Transition Letter for Membership.) A 7-month period of transition provided everyone opportunity to accept the inevitability of this change and adjust to it in positive ways. Prior to informing the congregation, I privately spoke with each member of the pastoral staff.
  3. I shared with the board several guidelines I felt would assist them in the selection process. (See Memo to the Vice-chairman of the Church Board.) Perhaps the best suggestion I offered the board was to invite our district superintendent, Ray Rachels, to partner with them in the process. This they wisely did.
  4. For the following 6 months, Elnora and I continued to pastor as we had for 33 years. We maintained the same degree of passion, burden, and energy in ministry. It was a positive, productive, and happy 6 months. I pastored while the board conducted a search for my successor. They were free to do their work, and I was free to do mine.
  5. Elnora and I had our final Sunday at San Diego First Assembly the early part of November. The following Sunday, my successor had his first Sunday as the new pastor. The church was not without a pastor for a single Sunday.

Transition And Beyond

While writing this, I am looking across a valley in the Austrian Alps. Elnora and I are enjoying a trip abroad as part of our transitional plan. The snow is falling. The trees are white. A little Austrian village is scattered across the valley. We are looking ahead to the good things God has for us in the future.

Life comes in seasons. God has ordained that each season be equal in its challenge, opportunity, and joy. When Jesus declared from the cross “It is finished,” He had reference to His part, not ours.

Our part in the work of the Kingdom is never finished. It is always coming. It is dynamic, not static. Emerging. In process. And you and I are a wonderful part of the program. Like links in a chain, we have our place. One begins. Another finishes. One initiates. Another consummates. One plants. Another waters. But God gives the increase.

This is why I am excited about the future. Retirement? No. New opportunities? Yes. That is exactly how we are viewing the future.

In my final Sunday sermon I spoke on transition using the story of Elijah and Elisha. I noted from that story: (1) The inevitability of change; (2) The possibilities of change; and (3) The consequences of change.

As part of the final point, I mentioned that Elijah had a way of continuing to show up. Remember the transfiguration story? How about the two witnesses in the Apocalypse? Hopefully pastors will agree that Elijah had a way of continuing to show up.

My parting words were these: “Count on it. Elnora and I will keep showing up — hopefully in your prayers, in your love, and in productive ways of ministry and service.”

By God’s grace it will be so.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

RICHARD L. DRESSELHAUS, D.Min., is an executive presbyter and former senior pastor, First Assembly of God, San Diego, California.

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