Thursday, November 25, 2010

How far in advance should a pastor give notice?

In a post a couple of months ago, I received a comment asking about how far in advance a pastor should give notice about his resignation/transition. This is a great question, and an important thing to consider.

The commenter expressed concern about becoming a "lame duck" if he announced it too far in advance. I think this is a valid concern; we sometimes see this take place in a political office when an incumbent has been voted out: there is a season when he may feel he cannot act on his conscience and convictions, even though he still occupies that office for a time. A pastor is called to be a spiritual leader of his congregation, also in an office of authority and leadership. If his congregation, lay-leaders, or fellow staff have the impression that he does not have the "right" to function in that office, he cannot effectively function in that office.

The commenter also stated his desire to allow the congregation and leaders to begin moving toward finding a replacement. Again, I'm sensitive to this desire, but I think other factors may mitigate it a bit: first is the "lame duck" problem, and another is the realistic fact that a few weeks, a month, or even a couple of months will not likely represent a significant advantage to most congregations in this way.

Let me start with the shorter end of time-frames: I think a month is the absolute minimum that is appropriate; less than that, and a congregation doesn't have adequate time to make adjustments, say goodbyes, and begin preparing for a season of transition. It may also unintentionally communicate that the departing pastor "can't wait to get out of there"-- which will cause them to question their leadership and themselves in unfair ways. Even if he is leaving under difficult circumstances, a pastor should commit to staying for another month after his announcement.

On the far end, I think three months is probably the far-end of how long a pastor should typically stay. By the end of that time, he will almost certainly face a lot of "lame duck" tendencies. Still, there may be things that will take time to properly hand off and/or delegate to those who will handle them in the interim (especially in larger congregations).

In my view, somewhere around two months is ideal. This gives ample time, in most cases, to say goodbye and to make good preparations for the ministry hand-off. There will be time for the congregation to begin the process of searching for a new pastor in earnest, but not so much that the outgoing pastor will be around to make things awkward.

There are always exceptions. In the case of a pastor who will be retiring after many years of service, that announcement might be made six months ahead (or even more) without impropriety. And unfortunately there are sometimes circumstances that are so dire that the quickest departure that is possible is needed. But these are obviously not typical scenarios.

Let me also say that this is with regard to the public announcement before the whole congregation. The lay-leadership (like Elders and Deacons) might be told further in advance-- and probably should be in most cases. It is usually respectful courtesy to inform fellow staff members even before the transition is certain.

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