What To Do When You Lose Your Pastor
By: Sarah Robins April 27, 2015
Because I get to help churches find their new pastors or key staff, I sometimes hear stories of trying situations. Sometimes these difficult situations are due to a moral failure, a misalignment of goals, or a mismanagement of money. Other times, it is the need to replace a church staff member that was well loved but has moved on to a new opportunity.
But, in some cases, we step into a space that’s filled with grief over a loss from the death of a team member. As you can imagine, this is extremely heavy and sensitive territory, but one we’ve walked through with churches multiple times over the years.
Grief is messy, intrusive, and unpredictable. There are no “best practices” and no magic 12 step program in a situation like these. Church staffs and congregations will mourn in many different ways.
That being said, we’ve walked alongside many churches in this situation over the years, and here are a few things they’ve done to heal well.
1. Grieve, then celebrate.
Grieving will seem like a natural byproduct of this loss, but there has to be time given to allow it to happen. There’s no fixing this type of situation or sweeping it aside. Give your congregation, your staff, and the family time to grieve.
Then, you must celebrate. Your church not only must celebrate your pastor’s life and contribution, you must celebrate the fact that this world is not our home.
I recently had a conversation with a woman whose husband had just passed away. I apologized for bringing him up in our exchange for fear of upsetting her, and she responded: “Oh please don’t apologize! I miss him every day, but I always love hearing others talk about him. He was so wonderful, and I want his life to be remembered and celebrated.”
After the mourning period, celebrate both your pastor’s legacy and that there is a time when every tear will be wiped away from our eyes.
2. Give space for questions.
When tragedy happens, questions follow. Questions like, “Why would this happen? How could God allow this to be? What could we have done to help or stop it? “
There must be space for these questions and time allowed to ask them. We’ve seen plenty of times where this wasn’t permitted, and the fallout from the congregation was huge. Trust in the leadership is lost, and comfort is sought elsewhere.
Make it clear to your congregation that they can come to the church leadership and each other with these questions. Possibly even create specific times or office hours dedicated to this. Hold times of prayer where you can ask these questions of God and seek his peace.
3. Love on your staff.
Carve out intentional and specific ways to love on the church staff. A church team often functions more like a family, so it’s felt much heavier than losing a co-worker.
Here are a few ideas on how to provide comfort and support to your church staff during this time:
- Offer chances for counseling and small group discussions.
- Allow for some extra PTO.
- Organize a private memorial for the staff only to share and pray with one another.
- Just recognizing the hurt and grieving of the staff will allow the room needed for healing.
4. Prepare for change.
No matter how long you wait, the idea of looking for a successor after the loss of a pastor will initially feel insensitive to many connected with the church. Preparing and setting expectations for the congregation, staff, and families will create a much smoother transition.
It needs to be an intentional and possibly very slow campaign set out by the church leadership. This can involve many components such as:
- Town hall meetings where everyone has a chance to express their thoughts and views.
- Meetings with your lay leaders in order to engage them with the process.
- Beginning to focus your language to the congregation on the future.
- Clear communication throughout the entire process between the search committee, church team, and congregation.
We at Vanderbloemen are humbled and honored to walk alongside of churches during both joyous and difficult seasons, to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” If we can assist you during your time of pastoral succession or church transition, let us know.
What other ways can churches heal well following a loss?
If this was helpful for you, you might also enjoy 3 Ways To Lead Your Church Staff Through A Crisis.