Reward: Helping people transition to another church

August 5th, 2014

Pastor, we’re leaving the church . . .” can be the start of one of the most gutwrenching conversations any minister will have. But over the past eighteen years of ministry, I’ve experienced that conversation differently. Over time my experience has been that, when conversations begin with that dreaded phrase, it turns out that these people are often leaving for positive reasons, especially those between eighteen and forty who are in transition. More often than not in the case of my ministry, these initial frightening words are followed by “. . . we’ve accepted a job across country,” or “. . . we’re getting married and moving closer to family,” or “. . . we’re being deployed.” So our church celebrates these departures with intentional responses.

First, we create a climate where change, growth, promotions, and relocation are both celebrated and expected. Our small group leaders always celebrate these types of change with joy and prayerfully minimal tears. Congregationally, we see these life upgrades as blessings from God. Second, we celebrate the departures with corporate prayer in worship with a circle of seven other people who’ve been close to that family or individual, and I lead a congregational prayer. Third, we maintain connections with those who leave via social media, phone calls, and e-mail. I’m often asked to help them  find churches where they’re going that are as loving as we are.

Pastorally, these practices help the congregation affirm connections made here while also celebrating promotions to new places. It’s been a win-win for us because it is not uncommon to have those who move away come back frequently for visits; some have even moved back to our city and reignited their place in the congregation. One Sunday during worship, I looked in the choir stand and saw the face of someone who had moved away months earlier to start a new job. When I spoke with her after worship, she said, “It’s like we never left.” Though the family was only visiting, it was a testament to being intentional about departures.

Theologically, I truly believe the world is our parish. The church should pastor and care for those who are with us and not assume that a child baptized in our church will grow old and be buried here, as well. In our context, people come and go, and our mission is to make sure, whether they are at the beginning of their journey or the end, we offer joy, peace, and love.

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