Seven Consequences for the Church Staff When a Pastor Leaves

About once a month, I am contacted by a person serving on a church staff voicing a similar concern. The pastor has retired, resigned, or been fired. A new pastor will be coming at some point in the future. Life has changed for the staff member with one announcement by the pastor. As an executive pastor recently asked me, “Where do I go from here?”

The question is legitimate. Many church members do not fully grasp how disruptive a pastor’s departure is to the remaining staff. The staff are left behind, even if it’s not in an eschatological sense. Look at some of the possible consequences for church staff.

  1. The staff member and his or her family’s life is disrupted. This consequence is almost universal. It is not just the staff member. The family is uncertain where the next job, town, school, or income will be.
  2. The staff member may be terminated. It is not that common anymore, but some churches “clean house” so the next pastor can choose the staff. Some ask for a written letter of resignation that can be accepted or rejected by the next pastor.
  3. Those closest to the pastor are most vulnerable. It can be rewarding for a staff member to have a close working relationship with the pastor . . . until the pastor leaves. The closest staff members have their ministry identity tied closely to the exiting pastor. And that can be a threat if the next pastor is uncertain where loyalties lie.
  4. The on-boarding of the new pastor is fraught with tension for the staff members. They, in many aspects, have to prove themselves worthy to the new pastor. “I felt like I was having to prove my value for over six months,” a student pastor told us.
  5. The staff have to adjust to a new culture even if they are allowed to stay. Of course, this adjustment applies to the entire congregation, but the staff members live in that culture every day of the week. The adjustment can be uncomfortable and tense.
  6. The staff members may have to live in two worlds for a season. They may stay at the church, but they have to keep their eyes and ears open for new jobs and ministry opportunities. And they remain in both worlds until they leave or have a high level of security with the new pastor.
  7. Some staff members may have to change their job responsibilities significantly. Even if they do get to stay, it is not unusual for the new pastor to change ministry responsibilities. Some of the changes can be dramatic, so much so that the staff member may have a totally different job.

I don’t expect to change the reality of these challenges with this article. It is my prayer, however, that this post will provide a greater awareness of the issues with the congregation. And it is my prayer that church members will have greater compassion and concern for the church staff members as a result of their heightened awareness.

After all, church staff are people too.

Posted on May 13, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • 1. Lay leaders mean so well but can do such wrong during the process, many times. The resignation of a lead pastor tests the spirituality and smarts of those people too.

    2. Often, a lead pastor leaves following a genuine call of the Lord elsewhere and he takes 20 years of vocational Christian ministry experience with him–but the remaining associate staff members have between them 80 or 100 years of vocational Christian ministry experience. Lay leaders often treat them all, though, as if they are fresh out of Bible college–or freshmen in Bible college–in the interim time.

    3. Full-time associate staff members already have full-time ministries requiring 50 hours per week to complete, but they are given parts of the lead pastor’s job to do in the meantime (e.g., preaching and its preparation; counseling and its preparation; pastoral care visits/contacts to make weekly in hospitals and homes; more committee meetings). This often is rapidly forgotten as soon as the next lead pastor arrives.

    4. All of the above could be worth it to associate pastors left behind if new senior pastors actually led their new congregations to biblical growth starting some short while after arriving–but, at least in the SBC, with 70 percent of all congregations currently plateaued or declining, it does not appear that those new lead pastors (who themselves insist they are responsible for it) have been able to do that. And so, are the difficulties often experienced by associate staff members really worth it? It does not seem so…

    If you are a senior pastor or lay leader reading this blog posting, please take these things to heart (they are from my experience) and aim to do better/well, with God’s help.

  • So much of the time the staff have a “hallelujah” party when the pastor resigns because they cause it.

    I had my fill of music leaders who, when they did not get their way, went whining to old women in the choir who, in turn, went to their husbands who were, in some cases, deacons.

    You know what happened in the next deacons’ meeting.

    I got so tired of that kind of stuff I gave up “big church” and became a bivocational pastor. Fortunately, I had a teaching degree and was able to get a job in a state university teaching as an Instructor and had a small country church.

    With all this whining about what staff members “suffer” there needs to be some thoughts about those who muscle the pastor around by whining to their “turf” when they don’t get their way.

  • B. M. Judge Bailey Sr. says on

    I feel for the pain that you have experienced. I don’t know all the details but to resign from a church doesn’t mean leaving the church. It means the leader, for whatever reason does not see you as a good fit for that ministry assignment. Some pastors are given a strong spirit of discernment and can sense where loyalties, attitudes towards them, resentment about their selection or other team building landmines can reside in ministry.

    When the President is installed in Office, often times staff changes are made immediately, whereas new policies and procedures have to take a long way around. Those who leave the staff with the change of administration shouldn’t take it personally, (families to feed, financial responsibilities) they understand that with a new leader comes a personal responsibility to put him at ease about one’s loyalty to ensure that a New Vision if achieved with 100% support.

    I took time to read your post and in my humble opinion the pastor was not wrong, nor was the church pulpit committee. Everyone has an opinion. Which in fairness, if it is right to talk to you and include your opinion (not on the committee) then it would be right to hear everyone’s opinion and biases (not on the committee). Those selected on the committee should have been chosen because the memberships respect for their prayer life and history of making good spiritual desisions.

    Questions to ponder:
    1. If you had lunch with him and felt you couldn’t work with him, your family still would need to eat. On the secular job, we work with many in leadership that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Yet, we work with loyalty to the job yet we respect our leadership. HR doesn’t ask us if we can set up a lunch for approval or see if we can work with him. If they determine he is a good fit, he is hired and we make the adjustment. You approving him is unnecessary.
    2. If he decided to keep you on staff, trust that you would be loyal to move the vision forward, then you decide that you can’t work with him, leave him high and dry for a new ministry position somewhere else, how long would it take the pastor and church to recover? Yet you have the right to change your job assignment whenever you choose. Most times, the pastor and the church have to simply deal with those decisions.

    My background: 4th generation pastor, 12 years Associate ministers, 10 years as a bi-vocational pastor. I see the things from an open experience. No judgments just some additional thought to ponder.

  • I came in as a new senior pastor in a conflicted church with a school staff and church ministry staff. We had several intentional interim pastors come through but the last one created intense distrust among all the staff members when he told some they’d be staying and then they were fired, and like-wise the opposite.

    By the time I arrived, I had a very tall order to fill that would satisfy the skeptical nature everyone had of the pastorate and laity. Compounding this issue was an opening in a teaching position that my wife accepted without consulting me. It is her passion to teach in a Christian school, and this was the first position offered to her since our youngest child had begun schooling.

    The previous pastor had departed under a cloud of “not handling staff conflicts” and had “retired” only to take a new position elsewhere.

    My only purpose in relating this piece of my story is that encouragement from Thom, and others allowed me to take a long-term perspective of my ministry here. The congregation voted to close the school, so I had to convey that to the ministry staff, in advance of the meeting, since I didn’t want them to go into shock there.

    Thankfully our principal was able to find a position before the end, and many of our teachers as well. My spouse was devastated. She was angry with the church, and with me (yes, I can hear you saying, “never hire your spouse for your ministry staff”).

    Our church died as its former self during my second year, and in some ways, the pastor I was died too.

    During year three it happened to be our anniversary. How do you celebrate the collapse of an organization? By celebrating what ministry was done, and by inviting everyone who had been a part, even if they were still hurting from loss. Some didn’t come, but some did including a senior pastor who had been forced out of the church twenty years before I came!

    My staff has remained the same except for one additional full-time worker. Each person required “intensive care”, to be assured that even though I could not predict the future, God had work for them to do here. Having survived all of this together, I’m now at year five with newer members on board, and a sense of revitalization. We have a long way to go but…

    Through it all our character was tested, and though we proved to be imperfect, we grew to love each other by offering grace when necessary and correction as well.
    The loss of members, former staff, and trust still hurts, but like any loss, we’ve learned to live with it, and even use it to point to the faithfulness of God through great disappointment and pain.

    This year my spouse started teaching again at a different school. Four years after I laid her off. She also has begun signing at the church for deaf children. What an incredible gift she is now willing to give.

    Five years of pain and difficulty, but rays of hope, and bonds of trust have been built through the losses of friendships, and the creation of new ones. Thank you all for the encouragement to stick with it, because another pastoral change may have finished this congregation.

    Blessings upon all of you staff members who have to bear with the new senior pastor who, forgets: your name, what you do, what you’ve told him, where things are, why you’re still upset, and many more things I’ve forgotten about. Thank you for your willingness to try to trust the new guy, even when he accidentally throws you under the bus at a congregational meeting, or fails to mention your ministry at all in his reports. And finally, thank you for the love shown to me and to my family by the remaining staff as we began to experience ups and downs together. It means so much to me. You didn’t know if you wanted to stay, or if the congregation or new pastor would allow you to stay, but now that you have, and we’ve served, loved, cried over, and blessed one another, we’ve become family, and I can’t imagine serving without you.

    I pray this for other church staff in earnest.

  • Billy, as a pastor I have heard your story from too many staff members. I also have had churches tell me they made this mistake. We need to learn to take time and pray about decisions considering all the consequences and that we are dealing with God’s called servants.

    I know of one particular incident where a pastor released staff very early in his tenure. He then resigned himself in a couple of years.

  • robert wright says on

    Change is never easy. We live in two worlds–God’s world and man’s world. In todays mixed up crazy secular world, we need the Word of the Lord and the church more than ever. During this time of change, it is important that a local church pull together not divide.

  • This is no different than a new boss in the private sector or government. You need to be your own person in any job with your own network and CV/resume always available.

    • Mark,
      You choice of words illustrates the change in our view of pastors. We have moved from ministers and ministry to positions and jobs.

      • The statement “we have moved from ministers and ministry to positions and jobs” sounds like another way of saying that we’re growing in godlessness.

        But what Mark says is totally real, and is actually the wisest thing to do. No organization is exempt from change. There are many things that may cause staff changes – growth in attendance, decrease in attendance, changes in technology often challenge the abilities of current staff members, etc. Whenever a person holds too strongly to his/her job, that person is setting him/herself for false expectations.

        Regardless of what field you work, whenever there is a significant change in your workplace, you’re probably have to go through changes yourself. And the people who can prove their ability to adapt are the ones who will gain the most trust and influence within their organization.

      • It seems to me that God’s will and vision for a church should not be so fickle as to be re-engineered around the new pastor’s personality every two years, especially when it seems so foreign to the lay leaders most invested in the church. How is it God’s will that a staffer gets fired so the pastor’s son can have a job? Why did God bless a ministry project for six months but then call for its abandonment at the precise moment a new pastor doesn’t want to pay for it? It’s strange how “who moved my cheese” has become “God’s new will for this church” and no one bats an eye. If you’re keeping a fresh resume on your laptop just in case, you’re at a secular business, not God’s plan for your life.

      • I think a fresh resume that is available means you are looking out for yourself (and family if you have one) given what some churches have been known to do to staff. People still have to eat.

  • Having served as a Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor, I fear many senior pastors have moved from being a shepherd to a CEO. Too many churches support this model allowing total free reign of a new pastor. The danger is that we are moving to a view of a hireling and away from the under shepherd.
    We should be reminded that the same call God placed on the call of the new pastor, He placed on the lives of the staff pastors. I admire the new pastor who seeks to learn about his staff, explore their gifts and calling before making decisions.
    A fellow pastor recently remarked that too many pastors have a head coach concept and equate their position to the football field more than fields that are white unto harvest.

  • Chaplain Mike says on

    This is a great article. I am hoping that as pastors we really take these to heart. Perhaps a follow-on one could include best practices for a pastor on-boarding to a new church. I made it a practice to not change anything or anyone for about 6 months so I could properly assess the church, the staff, the congregation, and the environment in which ministry was taking place. We really need to (like CPR) look, listen, and feel to determine where things are at. Unlike CPR, the assessment needs to last much more than 10-15 seconds. We truly need to slow down and let God do the work. We equate action with accomplishment which we all know is not necessarily true.

    We all start new jobs with our good intentions or visions, but we really can’t determine if they will work until we truly know the atmosphere we’re ministering in and the resources that we have available to carry out that vision. I have seen pastors come in with some great ideas, but ones that would fit another church. It is better to watch and listen for quite a while instead of coming up with multiple new visions in the first 3 years of occupying the pulpit as each preceding vision fails for one reason or another.

    There are always “fires to put out” and these issues at times, require some immediate and sometimes serious attention. I have seen two pastors hesitate to remove cancers from the body, only to have them plague him and the congregation for years. It is painful but necessary. Sometimes, those issues will self-resolve as some staff or congregants may move out on their own, but we cannot afford to wait too long for that to happen.

    Change is never easy. It is my hope and prayer that pastors are not the cause of grief during a turnover.

  • Jeremy Straus says on

    Although I never experienced it myself, I know that when I arrived at my current church, the immediate impact of the previous pastor leaving was that the staff had to pick up a lot of slack during the interim. There seem to always be tasks that the previous pastor always did that the church board doesn’t want to take the time to teach to the interim (or may not have hired the interim with enough time to do them), and so the staff who already know the church take on those additional tasks.

    Therefore, by the time the new pastor arrives, the staff may already be exhausted.

  • Glenn Harrell says on

    Seminary never leaked out these 7 you mention, nor the 10 more I could add.

    I liken Staff Ministers (non-Sr. Pastor) to the Red Shirts on Star Trek. When they beamed down to the planet (responded to call) most never returned to the mother ship.

    Right or wrong–good or bad–New pastor inherits all the keys as it were–including your office door and ministry.

    Right or wrong–good or bad–The character and Christian maturity of all concerned will be called to task when a pastor leaves and when a new one arrives.

    Ironically, those with the deepest maturity and Christ-integrity seem to be hidden in the backdrop while the ankle-deep, agenda-driven-squeaky-wheels forge ahead, setting the stage for the certain eventual next new pastor.

  • Elizabeth says on

    Thank you for taking time to articulate this awareness, Dr. Rainer. I have lived all of these consequences with difficulty. Seeking to live in the tension with grace but also honesty is immensely challenging. As the staff member, you are grieving and dealing with changes the best you can, all while trying to help the church move on, even if you personally aren’t ready. When the new pastor arrives and makes small and large changes without first settling in and getting to know and love his new church, the grieving can turn to suffering of sorts.

    I experienced all of these without the support of elders coming alongside staff, but rather just having had them expect “church-business as usual.”

    Serving a church vocationally, I have discovered, is more impactful and sobering and difficult than I ever could have imagined. It’s a noble calling. God is faithful. But oh for more wisdom and care for staff members caught in the crossfire of such change.

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