When the Pastor leaves:  Congregational Grief in Pastoral Transition

Well, there goes another pastor!

As the members of First Church woke Sunday morning, they were excited about another Sunday morning worship. This small, rural, aging congregation has had its ups and downs, mostly downs because of their size, but they were content because they had a pastor they enjoyed listening to and visiting the sick and shut-ins.

This morning was not to be like the typical morning because as soon as the service started, one of the church leaders had an announcement; the Pastor was moving to another congregation, and we will need to meet to discuss who our next Pastor would be.

At this moment, the congregation only hears the Pastor is leaving. The news brings tears to many as they are shocked because they had no idea this might happen. Some in the congregation are not surprised and might be looking forward to a new pastor. Most, unfortunately, have become so numb to pastoral change that they are indifferent and feel little. To these, it is just the process of pastors coming and going in the church’s history.

I had personally experienced the joys of a smooth transition and the challenges of when things did not go well.  I have been put in positions where I felt unprepared and lacked the tools to help a congregation smoothly transition, which led to conflict.  Because of these experiences, I have dedicated myself to learning more about congregational grief in pastoral transitions and tools to help lead a congregation through what can be a difficult time.

Pastors do come and go, but it’s worse than you think!

Clergy transition has always been part of the church, but the pace of change is increasing. Numerous research organizations such as Barna, Pastor to Pastor, Focus on the Family, Ministries Today, Charisma Magazine, TNT Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Global Pastors Network all receive similar results when studying the well-being of clergy in America.

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Eighty-five percent of pastors said their greatest problem is they are sick and tired of dealing with problem people, such as disgruntled elders, deacons, worship leaders, worship teams, board members, and associate pastors. Ninety percent said the hardest thing about ministry is dealing with uncooperative people.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could but have no other way of making a living. [1]

Why is understanding Pastoral transition important?

Regardless of each person’s reaction to the news of their Pastor leaving, all will experience some form of grief, whether they are aware of or acknowledge such grief. Even though all organizations experience people coming and going, there is a different dynamic in pastoral change, and that is what the Pastor represents; stability. Craig Nessan describes it best when referring to the challenges of small, rural congregations:

Over the course of several decades, local communities, specifically those in small town and rural communities, have experienced a world of losses: population decline, consolidation of school districts, loss of job opportunities, small farms consolidated into corporate enterprise, young people moving away, aging, and the list could be expanded. The reasons for grief are real and deep. It is urgent to name this grief for what it is. [2]

With so many challenges facing rural congregations, the hope for some stability comes in the Pastor who represents the unchanging God churches believe and worship. When this Pastor moves, this stability is shattered, and congregations grieve because they are experiencing the loss of a friend or family member.

Why the congregation needs to grieve?

Whenever we lose something, we grieve because grief is loss. Whether it be material, health, friendships, or death, we need to grieve. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work is considered the manual for understanding grief, which is research based upon dying people and their grief. Her work is relevant to understanding congregational grief, but more needs to be understood about the dynamics of grief when the Pastor leaves. In his book, The Elephant in the Boardroom, Carolyn Weese and Russel Crabtree describe the difficulties in “low-Performing Churches.”[3]

One of the challenges posed by dysfunctional systems is that, given enough time, they normalize the abnormal behavior that eventually leads to a crisis. It is the familiar frog-in-the-kettle story played out on the corporate level, in which small changes accommodated over time lead to life-threatening crisis. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like a crisis. People who are living in dysfunctional religious organizations may not feel that something is wrong. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. When people who have lived in dysfunction for a long time experience health, health feels odd to them. It may even make them angry. Even when health is introduced and experienced, people may slip back to what is less healthy because it is familiar.[4]

Churches that are large and small can be dysfunctional. Still, because of the percentage of smaller churches, “around 70%, smaller than 125 in worship”[5], the chances for dysfunction are higher in small congregations. The smaller church typically lacks the resources of a larger church, therefore, experiences higher pastoral change. However, any church that experiences frequent pastor change that fails to grieve will fall into the pattern Weese and Crabtree describe of dysfunction. When a church experiences a pattern of dysfunction, this likely will lead to conflict with incoming pastors and, therefore, more change.

To stop the pattern of dysfunction, the incoming Pastor and church leaders must work on helping the church grieve their loss. This can be so difficult for people and churches because when you experience loss, one may try to avoid a future loss to avoid the pain. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler quote C.S. Lewis in their book On Grief and Grieving, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”[6]  If a church is unwilling to welcome a new pastor and family because they do not want to experience the pain of loss, the dysfunctional pattern of pastors coming and going will continue. If a church is willing to love and experience loss and grief with a new pastor, there is potential for healing, fruitfulness, and a loving relationship between church and Pastor.






[1] Richard Murphy A, “Life-Line for Pastors” (Maranatha Life, 2002), 1, http://maranathalife.com/lifeline/stats.htm.

[2] Craig Nessan L, “Book Preview-Embracing God’s Future without Forgetting the Past:  A Conversation about Loss, Grief, and Nostalgia in Congregational Life.,” Currents in Theology and Mission 48, no. 2 (April 2021): 60.

[3] Carolyn Weese and Crabtree, Russel J, The Elephant in the Boardroom:  Speaking the Unspoken about Pastoral Transitions (San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 177.

[4] Weese and Crabtree, Russel J, 177.

[5] Randyl Brown, “The Small Church Pastor,” Statistics (blog), n.d., https://thesmallchurchpastor.wordpress.com/statistics/.

[6] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving:  Finding Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (Scribner, 2005), 203.

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