On Telling People You Are Leaving

Recently, I’ve been posting some tips to help pastors find the right job in a local church. This post is a continuation of the series. In it, I encourage pastors to think about who, when, and in what order to tell people you are taking a new job.

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Know who, when, and in what order to tell people you are taking a new job.

Few things have the potential to harm relationships like finding out important information from the wrong person and at the wrong time. For example, if your girlfriend decided to breakup with you, but she told a bunch of other people first, you’re not going to forget this.

Likewise, in the church, it’s important to think through the details related to announcing your transition. When done well, more often than not, transitions can and should be celebrated—not simply endured, or worse, become harmful to the church.

Therefore, when you know you’ll be taking a new job (or that you very likely might be taking a new job), you’ll also want to know whom to tell, how soon to tell them, and in what order to tell them. This means you’ll have to understand your current ministry context and what is appropriate in that context. Are you about to graduate from Bible college? If so, who you tell and in what order you tell them, will look very different than if you are the lead pastor of a mega-church about to leave for another pastorate.

When I was completing seminary, figuring out who to tell and when to tell them wasn’t difficult. The church I attended was a good church, but it didn’t have a full-time position open, nor would it in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it was easy for me to talk openly about job opportunities. In fact, it made for an encouraging season; I could share prayer requests and job updates publicly.

If your context doesn’t allow for such openness (and most won’t), I would encourage you to consider telling others in terms of concentrically expanding circles. The first circle, the inner circle, might consist of key leadership figures. Perhaps this is your senior pastor and the elder board. The next circle may include ministry friends and those in whom you have invested or worked closely with in ministry. Finally, in the last circle, there are those generally in your congregation and those outside your church.

If you tell people in this order, I believe God will be honored.

The only caveat I’ll add to this concentric, expanding circle principle is that there might be a few people—though they won’t be many—who you tell before you tell the senior leadership, perhaps your closest friends and a mentor or two. These might even be, in fact will often be, people outside your church system. These people are the ones who will coach you all along the transition, perhaps even before you’ve identified a new calling.

And when it does come time to make the announcement public, if you have time, go out of your way to tell as many people as you can in person, especially those with whom you were close. The last thing you want is someone in whom you’ve invested (and they in you) to find out you’re leaving when they open the weekly church bulletin.

When I left my last church, there were some constraints on the timing of how we were going to announce it to the whole church body. There always are. As I worked with the church leadership about when to make the announcement public, it turned out that I had merely 48 hours to tell friends and ministry partners before it was publicly announced at our weekend services.

But that was okay; I was so thankful I even had that. And I used it well. I made a list of everyone that I thought might be hurt by hearing the announcement cold, and then I called or met with as many as possible. It made for a busy two days, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Again, I can’t prescribe exactly how this should look in your context. But what I’m stressing is that love and respect for individuals, for the Church (with a capital “C”), and for God’s reputation must be your motivation for how and when you inform people. If you have the goal of only protecting your own interests, you’re in sin (Philippians 2:4-5). But if you seek to love others and honor God, as I said above, more often than not, your transition will be a season of encouragement for yourself, your family, and the churches involved.