The scene is too typical. The pastor nervously stands up at the end of a Sunday morning service. He reads his resignation letter to the congregation. Two weeks later, he is gone completely. Left in the wake is a grieving congregation, facing an uncertain future, having no shepherd, and feeling confused about what to do next.
The questions are legion. Also left in the wake is a pastor who is, hopefully, moving on to a new ministry setting but who nonetheless has many lingering memories, emotions, feelings, and unfinished chapters.
Due to the brevity of time, both parties have many difficult issues to handle covering a variety of topics. There are unresolved issues, unspoken words of appreciation, unrealized victories, unresolved conflicts, and aborted opportunities to show love one to another.
Ministering During the Transition Period
Pastoral changes must certainly come. Changes are inevitable. Unfortunately, in a pulpit ministry the pastor often puts the least amount of thought, prayer, and planning into what is one of the biggest and most difficult transitions, both for the congregation and for the pastor. This should not be the case.
If the pastor has been willing to invest quality ministry into the congregation during innumerable major and minor events of his tenure, should he not then be especially willing to put that same degree of effort into the last major event by which he will be remembered? I believe so.
And where better to do that than in the pulpit ministry? For years, it was the pulpit from which the congregation has been conditioned to hear a word from God through their pastor. Now, as the final Sunday approaches, they want to hear a word from God. The preacher must faithfully speak to the issues.
The announcement of a pastoral resignation sets a number of dynamics in motion, all of which take time. The longer a pastor has been in office, the longer should be the transition period. If possible, a pastor who is resigning should plan for at least a one-month period between the public announcement of his resignation and his actual departure from office. (Of course, the exception to this would be the case of a moral failure.) Two or three months for the transition period does not seem unreasonable. In the case of a pastor who has been in office for decades, several months may be appropriate, especially if the pastor is retiring from ministry.
Immediately following the public announcement of the pastor’s resignation, there will be some significant shock within the congregation. For this reason, it is better to wait a bit before addressing the upcoming leadership transition in a detailed manner through the preaching ministry. Too much of what is immediately spoken is never productively processed due to the shocked state of the congregation. People will be much more prepared to receive the material when the issue is addressed later.
If there is sufficient lead time between the announcement of the pastor’s resignation and his last Sunday, the resigning pastor will want to use the final days in the pulpit to minister to a congregation in transition. Some of the more significant themes to emphasize are the church, church leadership, God’s sovereign control, obedience to God, transition, vision for the future, and reflections on the congregation’s shared ministry. Sermons that address these themes while also heavily laced with strong affirmation to the congregation will be very meaningful.
Some Suggested Sermon Models
In 1991, shortly after I announced my resignation from the Assembly of God of Henrietta in Rochester, New York, I preached a sermon with the theme, “Your Leader’s Departure.” The text was Isaiah 6:1, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”
I made it clear that I was in no way comparing myself to a King Uzziah. The thesis of the sermon was that during a period of leadership transition, the highest priority of the congregation should be that they see the Lord as Isaiah did. The main points of the sermon were:
1. Your leader’s leaving demonstrates the paradox of the parting and the peace. The parting of a pastor and a people induces sadness, and that is normal (Acts 20:36-38). Simultaneously there is also the peace of knowing that God is in control and is equally leading the pastor and the people (Acts 21:10-14, Isaiah 26:3, Proverbs 3:5-6).
2. Your leader’s leaving is a reminder of God’s sovereignty and human submission. God’s sovereignty tells us that He is in charge of his church (Job 1:21, Isaiah 45:9-10). Human submission is appropriate (Acts 26:19, 16:9-10).
3. Your leader’s leaving is a reminder that the work of God is much larger than any man of God. The work of God will continue in a local church in spite of the absence of any single man of God (Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Joshua 1:1-6).
4. Your leader’s leaving is a reminder that leaders are links in a chain. While each link in a chain is important, the real importance of any individual link are the two pieces of chain that are joined together (I Corinthians 3:1-10).
5. Your leader’s leaving necessitates your staying. Sometimes there is a temptation to leave a church because a particular pastor has left. God’s will would be to stay and see the work continue (John 4:35, 9:4).
6. Your leader’s leaving increases the danger of division. Every member of the congregation must take extra care and prayer to maintain unity and harmony during this crucial transition period. Satan desires to destroy the flock; God desires to edify it, and so must you (Acts 20:28-31, Matthew 26:31, 7:15-23, Hebrews 13:17).
7. Your leader’s leaving means that a new leader is coming. You can trust God that your new pastor will be the right leader at the right time. God’s timing is never wrong (Jeremiah 1:5, Esther 4:14, Galatians 4:4, Romans 5:6).
8. Your leader’s leaving is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Times of transition need to be viewed as golden moments for growth. God is just as concerned with how you are going to handle the situation as He is with the situation itself (Romans 8:28, Isaiah 48:10).
I found that this particular sermon was extremely edifying, encouraging, and helpful to the congregation. Numerous congregants came to me over the next several weeks and reported that the sermon was a tremendous help in adjusting to the leadership transition. I was shocked to be told by many that in their years of previous church experience, they had never heard a resigning pastor take the time to address these issues in a sermon. One man even reported to me that he carried a cassette tape of the message in his car and listened to it whenever he started feeling glum about my departure. He said that it never failed to lift him up and refocus his spirit on God’s perspective.
The period of leadership transition would be an excellent time to preach a sermon on a congregation’s responsibility to their future pastor. A good possible text is I Timothy 5:17, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” Other options are I Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Ephesians 4:11-16. While tact and wisdom appropriate to your circumstances are called for, should not you, as the resigning pastor, do what you can to breed good beginnings for your successor?
Human nature being what it is, some congregants cannot see a future for their church without their current pastor. Therefore, another sermon I used during a transition period was entitled, “A Bright Future.” The thesis of this sermon was that the church had a bright future ahead of it because of certain basic scriptural principles to which it adheres and not because of the current pastor. The text was Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The main points of the sermon were:
1. I believe that the future is bright because I still believe in the power of prayer (Luke 3:21, Acts 16:25-26, II Chronicles 7:14, Ephesians 6:12, James 5:16).
2. I believe that the future is bright because I still believe in the power of the preached Word (Matthew 3:1, 4:23, 12:41, Acts 8:40, Luke 4:43, I Corinthians 9:16, II Timothy 4:2, II Peter 1:20-21, II Timothy 3:16-17, Hebrews 4:12.)
3. I believe that the future is bright because I still believe in the power of Pentecost (John 16:8, Acts 2:40-43, 5:12-16, 3:1-8, 4:4, 9:31, 16:5, Ephesians 5:18, Galatians 5:25, Romans 15:16, 8:5.)
4. I believe that the future is bright because I still believe in the power of the possession of a vision (Proverbs 29:18, Hosea 4:6, Genesis 46:2, Acts 9:10, Joel 2:28, Zechariah 4:6, Luke 1:37, Habakkuk 2:2-4).
5. I believe that the future is bright because I still believe in the power of the promises of God (Matthew 16:18, II Corinthians 1:20, Psalms 85:8, 119:103, 145:13, Acts 1:4, 2:33, Hebrews 10:23, 10:36, Numbers 23:19.)
As always is the case in pulpit ministry, your walk must match your talk. Just as John the Baptist was willing to declare, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30), so too, the resigning pastor must simultaneously be divesting himself of the reins of leadership. In my actions, casual conversations, board meetings, committee meetings, and counseling ministry, I made it clear that the issues related to pastoral prerogative were now being shifted into the hands of my successor, whether known or unknown at this time. I encouraged people to look in that direction and respond to his leadership.
This approach by the resigning pastor, coupled with the described pulpit ministry, will enormously facilitate a positive and edifying attitude in the congregation. Remember, your job as the resigning pastor is to prepare the people for their new pastor. Do it with dignity, joy, and blessing.
The apostle Paul took the time to say farewell when his circumstances permitted. So if you are not being lowered through a window in a basket, perhaps you should too. The sermon that I preached on my final Sunday morning at the Assembly of God of Henrietta was entitled, “Your Pastor’s Farewell”. The text was II Corinthians 13:11-14, “Finally, brothers, goodbye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” I also used Philippians 1:3, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” The main points of the sermon were:
1. A word of exhortation (II Cor. 13:11).
A. The requirements (II Cor. 13:11a).
1. Walk in excellence (“Aim for perfection”). (Phil. 3:12-14).
2. Walk in alertness (“listen to my appeal”).(I John 4:6; James 1:19; John 10:3; Jer. 22:21).
3. Walk in unity (“be of one mind”) (Eph. 4:29-32; Rom. 16:17-18).
4. Walk in peace (“live in peace”). (Matt. 5:23-24; Rom. 12:18).
B. The results (“and the God of love and peace will be with you”). (Phil. 4:8-9).
2. A word of fellowship (II Cor. 13:12-13; I John 3:11-16, 4:7-12).
B. The fellowship of the universal Church (II Cor. 13:13; John 10:16; Eph. 4:25).
3. A word of blessing (II Cor. 13:14).
A. The grace of the Lord (Eph. 2:8-9, II Cor. 12:9).
B. The love of the Father (John 3:16, Rom. 5:4-8).
C. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17, 14:26).
4. A word of thanks (Philippians 1:3).
A. To God (II Cor. 2:14, 9:15).
B. To others (Eph. 1:16).
This was a very personal and warm sermon. During point number 4-B, I actually took the time to single out each individual in the congregation and speak a few words of appreciation and love. This was truly a very meaningful time for me, as the resigning pastor, and for the people as the congregation receiving my blessing. It is a very warm, emotional, and personal sermon. This is appropriate for the important themes of transition and closure.
Numerous variations can be played upon these same themes. The essential point is that the resigning pastor must create many opportunities for enabling the congregation to confront and process their varied emotions and thoughts. For the pastor who has been faithful to declare the whole counsel of God’s Word in the pulpit, what better place could there be for him now to assist in guiding a grieving congregation through an important transition? Indeed, he can do no less.

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