Leaving a Church Plant without Losing Your Mind

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Credit: Siri Stafford / Thinkstock

While cliche, the phrase “Ministry is not just a job; it’s a calling” is probably never more true than when it is applied to church planting. The relationship between planter and church is unique. This isn’t just your job and it’s not even just your family. It is, or at least it feels like, your baby.

So what happens when God tells you that this season of ministry is over and it’s time to move on? How do you leave a church plant without losing your mind? It begins with releasing five key things.

  1. Release Responsibility

This one feels good. You’ve been carrying the weight of this church in your soul for however long. You’ve invested countless hours in everything from sermon prep to sound system set up. Much of your life, maybe too much, has revolved around a deep sense of responsibility for the effectiveness of this plant: “Woe is me if I do not plant this church” sort of stuff. Congratulations – now you can let that go. It’s not your baby to keep alive anymore. God is no longer looking for you to carry this ball down the field. There are still 56 things that need to happen but they are now someone else’s responsibility. Let the freedom of that wash over you and lighten your soul. Release responsibility for the church.

  1. Release Identity

This one feels weird. I don’t know about your experience but for me being the pastor of the church I planted became a big part of who I was. Probably too big. For good and bad it became part of my identity. The risk is high for all planters and even higher if the plant goes well. “I’m the dude who planted church X.” I’m not talking about pride or arrogance here although that can be a problem, too. I’m talking about figuring out who you are if you are not the planter/pastor of this church. Planting this church is something you did but it’s not something you are. It never was. But now you are going to be forced to frame your sense of self in different terms. You have to release the church from your core identity while keeping it part of your personal story.

  1. Release Influence

This one feels hard because you likely have a ton of influence in this church. The people who are there like you. They trust you. They look up to you. You could likely have a strong, even dominant influence on this church for years to come. Don’t. Don’t be that person who tries to lead from a distance. Don’t try to use your influence to keep the church on the trajectory that you had set for her. Be available as a resource when the new pastor wants your help but don’t try to influence the church. In fact, if you can do it with integrity, you should use the influence you have on your way out to increase the influence of the new pastor on their way in. Speak highly of them. Encourage people to get behind them. Make it clear that you are handing the baton to them and that they are the new leader. You have to release the influence you have over the congregation. If you don’t you can never fully release responsibility and identity either.

  1. Release Hurts

This one feels. A lot. I have a growing sense that one of the key skills of ministry is the ability to absorb pain. Not to ignore it like some sort of superman but to process it, forgive it, release it, and move on. I think this can be heightened in church planting because of the depth of emotional investment planters have in the church and in people. Ideally planters need to be in a regular rhythm of process, forgive, release, move on at all times in ministry but leaving a church is a great opportunity to take stock of all the hurts, all the disappointments, all the let-downs, all the jerks, and release those things. I have a journal with about 4 pages filled with the hurts I had to let go when I left the church I planted. I waited way too long to make that list and let them go but once I did my soul got a whole lot lighter. Stack up those hurts and release them.

  1. Release Praise

This one feels the best. I’m assuming your heart is in the right place regarding the work that has happened in the church plant. I am assuming that you are grateful to God. So how do you model that clearly for your congregation? You must celebrate God’s victories publically. Celebrating the wins God has accomplished can feel awkward or self-congratulatory. This is especially true in the lead up to a departure when people begin to make a big deal about your contribution to the health and growth of the plant. But you must release praise; you must plan and celebrate what God has done. Here’s why: Remaining silent can come across as though you think you deserve the credit, decrease God’s glory, and increase the plant’s dependence on the leaving pastor. Celebrating God’s victories gives God glory and increases the people’s faith in the God who will always be with them.

A warning: This may feel like ” perception management” but it’s not about making you look good; it’s part of the discipleship and leadership development of the church plant’s congregation. It’s not about giving them a sort of false impression. It’s about making the truth so clear that there is no room for them to add in their own misperceptions. Make your heart felt praise to God explicit so that there is no room for people to imply that you are taking credit for yourself. Brag on God for all you are worth. Celebrate all the good things he has done. Rejoice that you got to be a part of it. Tell stories. Sing songs. Show pictures. Tell more stories. For the health of your soul and the edification of the church—release that praise!

Conclusion: Take Time

Those 5 key releases come with a “take.” Take time. Feel free to do this on “company time.” Odds are that your last 3-4 weeks in the office will be a little slower than normal. You won’t be working on long range plans or doing advanced sermon prep. So go ahead and do the work of releasing while you are still on the clock. Spend some extra time in prayer. Do some journaling. Maybe blow the last of your expense account on a good counsellor. And just goof off some, too. That will help you keep your mind, too.

I grew up in small town (Sussex) New Brunswick, Canada where I played some very poor basketball and ran around in the woods a lot. My favourite colour is grey, which makes me sound boring but I really am a pretty fun guy. I am married to Kelly and we have two sons, Micah and Isaac. I graduated from Kingswood University in 2000, and after a couple of staff pastor gigs, I led the team that planted Deep Water Church in the urban core of Halifax Nova Scotia where I serve as Lead Pastor.

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