There were two important moments in holy history when Moses, the minister, left the congregation. The first moment found Moses gone to Mount Sinai to receive the Law. With the disappearance of their leader, the people went crazy and chaos ensued.
The last moment was the occasion of his departure, as the congregation readied for their entry into the promised land. This time Moses had set things in motion for the transition. Joshua, the new minister, took charge, and even with their beloved former pastor gone, the people marched across the Jordan River to their destiny.
In a few months I will be leaving you, and you will find yourselves in that strange in-between time called “the interim.” Even when time is allowed for the separation process, the departure of a minister usually brings sadness, anger, disorganization, and grief to a congregation. But it can also be a time of growth and newness of life in the church. The role of the departing leader can make a big difference.
When the Leader Leaves: Crazy Time
Moses, their minister, had been gone for what seemed an eternity, and the people grew restless. Their anxiety grew to confusion so they turned to Aaron, the appointed interim pastor, and convinced him to build a golden calf for worship. “As for Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). With the leader gone, the people went berserk. That can happen when a minister leaves.
This was not the first time, nor was it the last when the congregation tried to undermine Moses’ authority. With their backs to Egypt, but facing the onrushing border police of the Pharoah, they cried against their leader and blamed him for their predicament. “What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt?”
Leader bashing is always a popular sport. Later on, confronted with the terror of the desert, and the lack of food and water, they even wanted to choose a new leader who would take them back to Egypt (Numbers 14:4).
Some claim that we are experiencing a major crisis in the Middle East because there was a leadership vacuum there. Some political experts suggest that ever since the fall of the Shah of Iran, and the death of Khomeini there has been no dominant figure in the Middle East. With the power of the region up for grabs, Saddam Hussein seized the moment. People, poor and without power, look for a leader to save them.
In Moses’ time, the leadership vacuum led to chaos, and the congregation persuaded their interim leader, Aaron, to join them in the idolatrous behavior. The people wanted a god they could control; Aaron craved the approval of the people; and none of them remembered Moses’ words about total obedience to Yahweh.
During an interim, old problems can resurface, power struggles may flare up, and members attached to former ministers may drift away. Henrietta S. Huffman has written the following words about a pastor’s departure,
The sheep gather round the Shepherd
For protection and guidance
When the wolf stalks the high hills
But when the Shepherd is gone away
The sheep are confused and distraught
When the wolf comes near the bush
The sheep run around in frantic haste
Not knowing how to hide themselves
And the wolf can take his choice.1
Jesus Himself said, “Smite the shepherd, and the sheep are scattered.” There is no substitute for the shepherd leader. All the hype about ministers as enablers and facilitators has been overworked. What congregations need are leaders, men and women whom Calvin called “wise leaders,” and nowhere is the vacuum felt more than when ministers leave.
The Role of the Departing Leader
Rabbi Edwin Friedman in his classic book, From Generation to Generation, says this about the separation of minister and congregation,
Where the terminal period in our relationship can be treated as an opportunity for emotional growth rather than a painful period to be shortened or avoided the long range benefits for both the congregation and ourselves are numerous and fundamental…2
He further states that departing ministers need to avoid two dangers in their relationship to the congregation. We need to avoid meddling with the process of their successor; on the other hand, we need to avoid passive withdrawal. He calls for a “connection within separateness.”3 A good separation cleans the slate for both pastor and congregation, allowing them to enter new situations without unhealthy baggage from previous relationships.
I have seen far too many clergy who cannot turn loose of their congregations, especially when they remain in the same town as the “beloved former pastor.” I know of one minister who retired and still hangs around the church wearing a beeper, symbolic of his perception that he is still the minister on call. Other ministers remaining in the community claim they can be quiet members of their former congregations, without realizing that their mere presence is a problem. Some departing ministers even intrude into the process of choosing their successor, a kind of ministerial Russian roulette.
Experience has shown me that passive withdrawal is not an answer, either. After announcing my retirement, I tried to bend over backwards not to get involved. I listened to the advice of my colleagues and was determined to stay out of the process, sever the bonds, and make a gracious exit. Yet I discovered two powerful facts: stoic behavior which does not express any grief during the departure process is a denial of feelings. How a minister and congregation separate influences the lasting effects of all the previous years of ministry.
So I became more proactive and assertive. I have been involved in helping the congregation understand the process of finding my successor without trying to influence that process in any way. I tried to become a non-anxious presence in your midst, and you have responded with a new burst of enthusiasm and energy. Some crooked places became straight, and some rough places smooth. New leadership emerged, and new significant actions were taken for the future of the church. I learned that my role has shifted from being a “lame duck preacher” to a “leader in transition.”
When the Leader Leaves: Preparing for the Transition
The last time Moses left the congregation he was determined to make a smoother transition. One-third of his life had been poured out in trying to forge a nation out of this army of ex-slaves.
Joseph Sittler described his leadership this way: “Moses was a strong man. He steadfastly pointed with all the force of his massive personal power to the will of God for his people. He kept their ears open to God, he kept their faces turned toward their destiny, and he kicked their reluctant feet along the road to their heavenly possession.”4
He realized he would never enter the promised land (as if any departing minister ever really sees his or her dreams fulfilled). So he asked God to choose a new leader, and then got out of the way.
Moses said to the Lord, “Let the Lord God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17)
And the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him ….” God chose the next leader, and the departing pastor invested him with some of his authority, and the work went on.
Notice the role of the departing pastor in this time of transition. Although his ministry had lasted forty years, Moses gave way to Joshua and the new leadership took hold. Later, when Moses died, we are told by the Deuteronomist that “The people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended” (Deuteronomy 34:8).
There must be a time for grieving the loss of a minister, and ministers must be absent from a congregation so that the loss can be experienced. The myth of the former beloved pastor can be stronger than the new minister living in the present. When the time of mourning has been worked through, it must end, and there must be no enshrining the ghost! I have made an agreement with my official board about my relationship to this church when I leave, which clearly states my new role as your friend.5
In a few weeks an interim pastor will be with you. Like John the Baptist they will prepare a way in the wilderness for the coming leader (although I in no way suggest that the one who comes is the Messiah!). Thus, both your departing pastor and the interim pastor work to “make the crooked places straight, and the rough places smooth.”
The days are all too few before I step down as your minister, and you face the unknown. I am sure that ancient congregation felt apprehensive and sad when Moses left them. He had been their leader for so long, and stood by them in all their trials and struggles. How could they go on without him? Could Joshua fill his shoes? I am sure that Moses must have experienced feelings he could not express. So with us.
Like God’s ancient people you stand on the banks of the Jordan — between our past, and your future. Let the words of Moses to that ancient congregation be the Word of God to us,
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them; for the Lord your God will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6)
And the people remembered.
Notes
1. Henrietta S. Huffman, “On a Pastor’s Departure,” Monday Morning (January 28, 1990), 19.
2. Edwin Friedman, From Generation to Generation/family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guildford Press, 1985), p. 252.
3. Ibid.
4. Joseph A. Sittler, Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 52-53.
5. See The Letter of Agreement by Rod Feinecke in Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth for Congregation and Pastor, Edward A. White, editor (Alban Institute, 1990).

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