Transitional Pastor: After the Loss of a Pastor — Phase 1 Grieving

Transitional Pastor: After the Loss of a Pastor — Phase 1 Grieving

This is the first of a three-part series by Chuck Deglow in preparation for our Transitional Pastor Training. See sidebar for links to more information and to register for Transitional Pastor Training

After the Loss of the Pastor: Three Phases for the Congregation (part 1)


When a church experiences the traumatic event of the senior pastor’s resignation, it will encounter several challenges that require strategic responses, which consider the complex uncertainty within which they arise. It is not appropriate for a minister to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. One size does not fit all.

What happens to the churches and the people who comprise them during the period between the senior pastor’s resignation and the new pastor’s installation? The church will experience increased levels of anxiety. That is common for most people. Unwanted change produces fearfulness and anxiety. Questions abound. Who is in charge? Who will visit the seriously ill? Who will conduct funerals and weddings? Who will help referee minor disputes? Who will make final decisions?

The interim period consists of three phases through which each church must pass: Grieving, Regrouping, and Going Forward. Each stage has its peculiar characteristics, which distinguish it from the others. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the phases have clearly defined beginnings and endings. We are dealing with people. And each person will have distinct personality characteristics. One person may be ready spiritually and emotionally to begin the search for a new pastor immediately. Others may not be prepared for the new pastor even after a year of searching. Also, these individual people form an organism-the church. The church body itself has a unique personality. Granted, some of its characteristics directly result from the departed pastor’s teaching and role model behavior, but the essence is uniquely its own.

Each church first experiences a period of grieving. Regardless of the reason for the pastor's departure, or the length of time the congregation had to prepare for it, the congregation will grieve. In some ways, there are similarities to divorce. The death of a marriage signals a failure. Dreams have died. Goals have been set aside. Expectations for the future are no longer valid. Assumptions are rendered irrational and invalid. Just as there is cause for grieving the failure represented by divorce, the pastor’s departure brings about many of the same feelings. It is time to grieve.

A joyous departure may find the church body excited about the new challenges that the resigning pastor has chosen to accept and rejoices in his obedience to God's leading. The pastor may be leaving to accept a position as a faculty member at a seminary. He may be responding to God’s call to the mission field. He may be making a ministry career change to serve through the denomination. Although the reason for his departure elicits inner applause from the heart of every member of the congregation, they will still grieve their loss much as a mother grieves when she releases her child to attend college or to enlist in the military.

An indifferent departure in which the church and the pastor mutually accept the necessity of a change may find the church experiencing a bittersweet separation. Both pastor and church know intuitively that they never quite attained the effects that could have been. They never experienced the “blessing” of God that they expected when they entered into the work; they both sensed that God had called them. Perhaps the congregation’s expectations were too high. Perhaps the pastor failed to follow through with the extravagant vision he could only talk about. Perhaps the pastor was simply too human. He exhibited genuine weaknesses, and the congregation wanted—even required—someone who was more image-conscious from a marketing perspective. He was not a bad person. He did not exhibit sinful habits. He did not intentionally abuse his authority. But he made mistakes. Occasionally, he failed to have the right answer immediately when confronted with situations that required it. Some people may have begun to lose confidence in his leadership ability and feel a sense of disillusionment. They expected—they needed—him to inspire them to be greater Christians than they knew themselves to be, and he was not up to it.

Another expression of the indifferent departure is found in the attitude of some who have come to expect that “pastors come and go.” They may give tacit consent to the pastor’s new ideas for ministry. They may not be resistant to the vision he has for the direction of the church. They will not stand in the way of whatever he wants to do. But they are always thinking to themselves that this is only another phase that the church is going through. They “know” that the pastor will eventually leave and that his ideas will be forgotten. They will not get “worked up” about things one way or the other. They are indifferent to whether the church experiences what may be considered successes or failures. The next guy will just introduce another list of new ideas, and it is a waste of time to get too set on one way of doing things.         

A hostile departure allows for the most advantage for the Evil One. It does the most damage to the reputation of God Himself. It soils the image of the church. It raises the specter of behavior that contradicts the very definition of what it means to be Christian. It contradicts what it means to be part of a community that has been given the ministry and message of reconciliation. It contradicts what it means to be a company of the forgiven. We serve the Father, the God of peace, the Son, the Prince of Peace, the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is peace. Unresolved sinful conflict is an insult to God. A hostile departure will leave its mark upon the church indefinitely. Some churches never fully recover. It is a strange paradox that churches that experience the pain of a hostile departure and continuing unresolved conflict, nevertheless, often forge straight ahead, assuming that reconciliation is somehow unnecessary and that God will “bless” their ministry when they get a new pastor. They consider that it is enough that they have won the contest and that collateral damage was necessary and acceptable.

The grieving phase of the interim period is also an opportune time for some to orchestrate a “power grab.” Due to the increased sense of uncertainty, members of the congregation will look to people who have shown evidence that they have strong, take-charge personalities. The congregation may be uncomfortable, not knowing who is in control, and may be eager to assign authority to the first person who assumes control. Often this person will be someone whose desire to assert preferences has been frustrated by the previous pastor. This person often has been expressing this frustration to a select few among the congregation, thereby establishing a following. This is an evil that has awaited the right time to surface. The temporary absence of an authority figure provides the opportunity to make a move. This “leader” may come from among the currently installed leaders. He had given nominal consent to the previous pastor’s direction while simultaneously undermining the effort and planning ways to subvert the God-assigned authority over him. It is an issue that revolves around a sinful misunderstanding of or rebellion against God's design for authority and submission in the church. Submission and authority are not statements of value or worth. They are statements about role and function.

Whether the departure is joyous, indifferent, or hostile and filled with animosity, the congregation will grieve.

Tuesday, October 19 
9:00 AM - 4:30 PM
State Convention of Baptists in Ohio

9000 Antares Avenue Columbus, OH 43240

Designed to equip men to guide a congregation through the period between pastors.


  • The stages through which each church will progress during the interim period
  • Guiding the congregation through a review of their ministry effectiveness based upon historic trends in attendance, giving, baptisms, etc. 
  • Introducing the congregation to relevant current demographics and trends that indicate ministry opportunity
  • Selecting and training a pastor search team
  • Resources available including books, surveys, demographic sources, websites, etc.

Registration: $10.00 includes lunch and all resources

Whether the departure is joyous, indifferent, or hostile and filled with animosity, the congregation will grieve.

Chuck Deglow
Transitional Pastor Trainer

The words of 1 Peter 5:2-8 hold special relevance for the congregation during this period in the church’s life.

2 Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;
3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.
6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,
7 casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

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