Your Senior Pastor Resigned. What Now?
Imagine this scene. One day your Senior Pastor comes into your office with a glum face. You may have seen signs of this impending conversation or it may come out of the blue:
I have decided to leave the position of Senior Pastor of this church.
You are on your own now.
I will not be making any more leadership decisions here.
In three short sentences, nothing is the same anymore. As you process the words, here are some key things to consider.
Decide if You Should Stay
Ask God what He wants you to do. This isn’t as simple as listing the pros and cons. Senior Pastors rarely leave their post during calm seas and often there are significant congregational storms.
Do you have the freedom to leave? A few years back our Senior Pastor left, so my wife and I took a week to talk to God. The response was clear: You are called to stay. If the elders don’t want your leadership, only then you can leave. If you find yourself at this crossroads, ask God what you should do and trust his guidance if you receive a clear word.
Develop a Communication Plan
The Senior Pastor’s decision must be judiciously announced. If it’s leaked or when officially made public, it will spread across social media. Before that happens, you need to be ready. Work with the board on a clear communication plan and be sure to display a united front for your staff and congregation.
Review your constitution and align with it. Don’t get in the place where someone says after the fact: Our Constitution says we should have done it this way. Your constitution may require a formal meeting to hear the resignation or for the congregation to vote on it. Remember that your constitution was created to provide clarity during challenging times, so rely on what your church has put in place.
Draft letters to be publicized. Clear communication is essential. The more you can communicate upfront, the better. If gossip causes the board to later share key data points, you will lose trust with the congregation. Share everything that can be shared in a gracious and truthful fashion. Despite any difficulties the truth may bring at first, your congregation will appreciate your honesty and feel valued if they’re trusted with the details.
Release a Senior Pastor Letter that shares their thoughts about the resignation. This letter typically expresses gratitude for their time at the church, reasons for leaving, and their continued support for the church. If there has been turbulence in the church, the Senior Pastor should state that he or she is not the right person to lead the church through it. If the Senior Pastor has accepted a position at another church, this should be clearly stated. The letter doesn’t need to be long but it should adequately touch on the major questions that your congregation will have.
Draft a Board Letter to the congregation that expresses united gratitude to the Senior Pastor for their service at the church. The letter needs to be honest, gracious, and transparent:
Was the board in agreement with the decision?
Did the board actively vote the pastor out of office?
Did the board oppose the Senior Pastor’s decision to resign?
Be clear so that assumptions won’t be made. If there is a moral failure, this needs to be dealt with in a gentle fashion. Don’t share impolite or uncaring information publically. Decide whether you will share information about a severance and any future plans you may have for hiring a new pastor. The information you choose to share is less important than ensuring alignment amongst leadership. Make sure everyone is clear on the facts that will be publicized.
Publicize an FAQ Page that gives further information on the reason for the departure, dispels doubts, gives an acknowledgment of a future search process, defines how church leadership will continue in the interim, etc. The FAQs answer the common questions and explain the next steps to provide security and direction for your congregation.
Inform the Staff
The Senior Pastor may inform a few key players in advance of a general announcement. To the best of your ability, limit the number of people who know in advance and the amount of time they have the information. Often, the entire staff is informed a day before or the day of the church announcement. Don’t ask your entire staff to suppress this kind of information for more than 24 hours.
When informing the staff, have copies for them to take home of the Senior Pastor Letter, Board Letter, and FAQs. Ask staff to share this information with only their spouse or one confidant until the resignation is public knowledge.
Remember the shock and range of emotions that your staff will experience when you share the news. Make sure prayer is an integral part of informing your staff to keep the focus on God and his plan, rather than fear, anger, or blame. Offer time for questions and prayer once the news has sunk in.
Inform the Congregation
Some Senior Pastors prefer to inform the congregation electronically. Others prefer an in-person Sunday morning announcement. If you have more than one service, be aware that word will likely spread between services. While there’s not a right or wrong way to communicate the news, it is most important for your congregation to feel connected and cared for. Let them know that the transition will be a process and you’ll remain in communication throughout the changes.
Expect the response from the congregation to be varied. Many will grieve, some will be elated, numb, or worried, and many will feel abandoned by their spiritual leader. In your communication, help people understand the story of the resignation so that they can deal with their emotions. The church can move forward when people are working through their emotions in a healthy fashion.
Once the congregation is informed, be ready to email or have printed copies of the Senior Pastor Letter, Board Letter, and the FAQs. You may want to place them on your website the minute the announcement is made. Be proactive and post an announcement on social media. It is always best for the church to be the first one to share the story. By sharing as much as possible, you demonstrate honesty and transparency.
The Sunday After
The Sunday after the announcement is key. Take five minutes in the service to talk with the congregation. Often the best people to do this are the board chair and the Executive Pastor, representing the governance and staff sides of the church.
This congregational talk is not to share plans for the future or the upcoming search process. Rather, it is meant to deal with the grief of people who have lost their shepherd. Honor the hard work of the now former Senior Pastor and demonstrate stability in church leadership by sharing hope in God’s plan for the Church’s next season. People need to hear from those who are at the helm.
These steps will help process and communicate a Senior Pastor’s resignation in a thorough and thoughtful way. This is a time for gracious and careful communication. By sharing the truth in a gentle and honest fashion, you can aid in the transition process. Shepherd the people through these deep waters. God is not surprised by the events. He has placed you as a leader to rise to the challenge!
About David Fletcher
Dr. David Fletcher is often called The Dean of Executive Pastors. Fletch was a pastor for 35 years in churches from 1,000-8,000 members, single and multisite, churches with mergers, camps, schools, apartments and cafés.
He founded XPastor in 2003 and its 1,300 free articles from over 350 authors have become a principal resource for leaders in a complex church world.
With two graduate degrees from Dallas Seminary and executive education at the Kellogg School of Management and the Harvard Business School, he brings an objective perspective, broad knowledge and vast experience.
Fletch is a friend and church doctor. He brings biblical principles and best practices to your church’s unique culture and setting. He teaches Doctor of Ministry students at Dallas Seminary and ETS India, and has written many books and scores of articles for national publications.
Learn more about how David and XPastor can serve you.