Navigating pastoral transitions

From Our Leaders

June 7, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 8
Karen Schellenberg |
Photo: Mantas Hesthaven/UNSPLASH

My interview with the pastoral search committee was wrapping up when one of the members asked me if I had any questions. They were not expecting the one question I had: “When my ministry at the church is finished, how do I leave?”


By the surprised looks on their faces, I’m certain they were thinking, “You’re not even hired yet and you’re asking about leaving?”


At Mennonite Church Manitoba, we are experiencing another round of pastoral transitions. Some pastors are retiring and others are moving on to different assignments or study.


Leaving a congregation after any length of ministry is potentially one of the most challenging seasons in the entire pastoral experience. Pastors are wondering where they will worship, if it’s appropriate to officiate a funeral in the church they once served and what will happen to the friendships they have made with people in the church.


In 2017, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA put together a polity manual called “A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership.” The guidelines for exiting pastors are addressed in this document and it is clear: “When the pastoral assignment is finished and the pastor moves on to another role or retires, the pastor gives the former congregation and its new leader space to form a new pastor-congregation relationship. The reappearance of a former pastor at times of crisis or life-transition interferes with the normal development of that relationship.”


The manual suggests 12 months as a suitable amount of time for the former pastor to remain absent from the congregation.


Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? So why isn’t it? Because some pastor-congregant relationships are very strong, built up over time as they journey together through shared experiences steeped in a mutual desire to serve Christ and his church. Our hearts do not release those bonds easily.


This can be a very lonely time for the retired pastor. When the worship committee reaches out to ask the pastor to preach on a Sunday morning, the pastor might have a hard time declining the invitation. Invitations from families to officiate a funeral are even harder to decline.


Although the rationale and guidelines are clear, it is also clear that there are exceptions that need careful consideration. The manual suggests that one way of caring for both the new and former pastor is for the congregation to set up a support and accountability group whom both of the pastors can go to when navigating a particular invitation or situation.


This group should be formed prior to the pastor’s exit and remain in place for the initial 12 months of the new pastor’s start date. It would be important that members of this group are not the best friends of either pastor, but rather people who truly have the well-being of both pastors and the congregation at heart.


This is a discussion that I hope we keep having, both at the congregational and regional church levels. How we navigate the exit of our wise retiring pastors while giving new pastors space to flourish is critical to the health of the church.


Karen Schellenberg is a pastor who found leaving the congregations she served difficult. She is co-director of leadership ministries at Mennonite Church Manitoba and is increasingly interested in finding ways for pastors and congregations to transition well. She can be reached at

Photo: Mantas Hesthaven/UNSPLASH

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