How to Prepare for Pastoral Transitions

by Daniel Bray May 8, 2018

Goodbyes are inevitable.

When a pastor leaves a church, it can be heartbreaking but also harmful to the community. These transitions can cause hurt, disunity, and doubt that hinders the growth and message of the church. Looking at Paul’s departure from Ephesus, we can see that it doesn’t have to be this way.

If Paul were to be called a pastor of any church, it would be the church at Ephesus. He spent years with these people, more time than in any other city. He was deeply invested in these peoples’ lives, and his departure from them was painful. But he effectively used his time in Ephesus so the church was positioned for continued growth. This made it easier for Paul to obey God when transition time came.

During his goodbye message to the Ephesian leaders in Acts 20, Paul shows at least four ways that we can avoid chaos during ministry transitions:

He held nothing back.

Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders of the church. When they came to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and during the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. You know that I did not avoid proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching you publicly and from house to house. (Acts 20:17–20 CSB)

From his first day until his last, Paul worked tirelessly among these people. Because of the itinerant nature of his work, Paul could have easily become pessimistic towards new places. But he did not close himself off to ministry opportunities in Ephesus. He quickly and intentionally entered into peoples’ lives and homes with his message of repentance and faith. He was consistent through the tears and bold in spite of the consequences his ministry produced.

If we hold back our words or our presence from our people, then we are hindering the penetrating power of the gospel. It is hard, messy work being so personally involved, but we must spend time laying a foundation for our people.  We must model the gospel faithfully with words and actions, and we must teach believers how to study the Word, because these things will guide them long after we are gone.

He never lost perspective.

But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)

Even though he had grown very close to the Ephesian church, Paul does not choose to remain among the friendly and familiar. And how could he? He was “compelled by the Spirit” (30:22) to move on to Jerusalem. To stay would be to disobey.

When you give your life to God’s gospel ministry, your address may change, but your purpose never will. There will be churches that are painfully hard to leave, and sometimes that choice will be made for you. While we should enter any pastorate with an indefinite commitment, we also know that no place can be called our forever home in this life. God may move us at anytime, but if we have our eyes fixed on him anyway, we will be found faithful in any of the situations which he gives us.

He trained watchmen.

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood…Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears. (Acts 20:28, 31)

Paul was not blind to the fact that his departure was going to be dangerous for those that he was leaving behind. Gaps in leadership provide an opportunity for the Enemy to bring disunity and misdirection into the church. Since Paul held nothing back in his discipleship, he had capable leaders ready to protect the flock and continue the work. He reminded these leaders of their appointed responsibility to guard themselves and the people against the dangers inside and outside the church.

Unfortunately, many pastors have too much love for their position. They are unwilling to share their pulpit and their platform. This selfishness has no place in the biblical model of discipleship which calls on pastors to essentially work themselves out of a job. We must whole-heartedly disciple leaders capable of teaching and guiding our church community. The threats facing our churches are too great to face alone. We must train fellow watchmen to care for our communities. These leaders will be able to not only weather a transition in the pulpit, but they will also be equipped to move into their own ministry opportunities as God leads them.

He entrusted the church to God.

And now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

Paul knows the church’s growth, any results from his words or his care, were not because of him. God is the only one who can change hearts, build his church, and bring his people home.

Pastors, we have no ownership of our people. We bear a responsibility to the church, but God purchased it by his own blood. We must trust that he will care for believers and that he will complete the work that he started.

Transitions in ministry are never going to be easy. When Paul left the Ephesians “there were many tears shed by everyone” (30:37). Knowing that goodbyes are inevitable, we have a responsibility to minister even more diligently today.