5 Questions To Address During A Pastoral Transition


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The first line of the book NEXT: Pastoral Succesion That Works is, "Every pastor is an interim pastor."

Whether a season of ministry lasts three years or three decades, every church will be faced with the inevitable challenge of replacing its pastor at some point. Some transitions will be positive, and it will be appropriate to surround them with praise and celebration. However, a transition often occurs because a pastor is involved in something that requires them to step away from ministry.

Churches often ask what is the “standard severance package” or the “standard way” they should handle their pastoral transition. Our answer is always the same: there is no standard answer. Every transition will have different aspects that will influence the what the severance package and departing situation looks like.

Here are five issues your church leadership and board should think through when faced with a pastoral transition.

1. Has a successor been identified?

In an ideal transition where a pastor is retiring after a long, successful tenure, there would already be a succession plan in place. This would be either an individual identified as the next pastor or an intentional interim being brought in for a season while the board looks for who's next.

In this situation, a generous outgoing gift would typically be a 1-year severance equal to the pastor's salary. We'd also encourage the church to have a large going away celebration where the church community would be able to give additional money to a fund as "gifts" to the pastor.

2. Is this a sudden leave initiated by the pastor?

Some pastoral transitions end up being much more sudden than a planned retirement or transition. Perhaps the pastor hasn’t done anything to deserve a ministry “yellow card” but is taking a new call at another church instead of retiring. In this situation, the pastor might not have identified a successor or put together a succession plan, which means the church and board are left to figure things out.

If the overall departure is still positive (and several months notice has been given), we recommend a three to six month severance payout as well as a celebration that allows the church body to gift additional finances as they see fit.

3. Has the pastor planned for retirement?

Some pastors will spend many years making below what is reasonable in order to keep the church afloat. As the church grows, their compensation levels do not grow at a proportionate rate. This usually hits the pastors over fifty years old the hardest in terms of the money they have set aside for “after ministry.” They sacrifice for their community for years and haven’t set aside the appropriate funds for retirement.

If your exiting pastor hasn’t been able to plan for retirement appropriately, you may consider making a catch-up contribution to the pastor’s retirement fund to make up for years of being paid below the reasonal compensation rates. Churches may even consider setting up a “Rabi Trust” upon hiring a new pastor to ensure that both the church board and the pastor are incentivized to take care of each other as the church continues to grow and evolve. 

4. Is the pastor leaving because of a moral issue?

Sometimes a pastor is removed from a church because of something that is morally or ethically out of bounds for ministry. In this unfortunate situation, there are many lives impacted, the most dramatically being the pastor's spouse and children.

In many of these cases, the family of the pastor is not to be blamed; however, they feel the repercussions as much or more than the pastor. In this situation, the best churches rally around the families of these pastors, providing spiritual, emotional, and financial support. This could even be providing funds for professional counseling services. 

5. How does the church lead with grace?

On the topic of grace, we always urge churches to air more on the side of generosity (assuming they can afford to). Going above and beyond with an exiting pastor will always shine a positive light on the church and be an example of the grace we've received from God. Eventually this will pay big dividends into the upcoming succession process. The success of the new pastor will rise and fall on the outgoing person, so the church should do everything it can to ensure a pastor ends well.

How has your church handled a pastoral transition process?