Leadership, as a trust, inevitably comes to an end. It is given for a time, and then removed. As Solomon wrote, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven” (Eccles. 3:1, KJV). Thus, the time for leading comes and goes. We measure most everything in terms of time—either time as chronos, involving duration, or time as kairos, identifying a significant moment. Wise leaders and their effective leadership careers seem to fit better with kairos—the opportunity to do something of moral and spiritual value.
Unfortunately, knowing what to do when a leadership career approaches the end is an act of wisdom that not all leaders perform well. Bringing a leadership career to a formal conclusion has become more an art than a science. Particularly when serving as an Adventist denominational leader, one could be dealing with unforeseen and disrupting changes when faced with an unexpected career change or a career conclusion. Before such challenging times come, the leader needs to give careful attention to finishing well.
When Paul wrote, “I have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7, NIV), he was wrapping up his journey at the finish, and his final affirmation indicates that finishing well had made the entire journey worthwhile. Finishing well is, indeed, the challenge of a lifetime.
Leaders are neither offered guarantees of success nor assurances of a grand finale. Within the Adventist Church, denominational leaders often finish their careers silently and are soon forgotten. They face obstacles and adversities along the way, and live their journey moment by moment until one day it is over. According to J. Robert Clinton, there are several reasons why leaders may not finish their careers well:
1. Finances—their use and abuse
2. Power—its abuse
3. Pride—leads to downfall
4. Sex—illicit relationships
5. Family issues
These six reasons represent potential issues quietly lodged in the leader’s life and are able to obscure or destroy a lifetime of accomplishments and successes, preventing the leader from enjoying a respectable departure and the enjoyment of his or her legacy. In this regard, the pertinent questions to leaders are, “How can spiritual leaders leave honorably? When is it time to leave? When does a leader come to the end of the trail, take the saddle off the horse, and hang up the ol’ hat and spurs? Leaving in dignity seems to be a lost art.”2 That may be the intent behind the words of Samuel (1 Sam. 12:3–5) as he addressed the people of Israel when Saul was crowned as their king: “Here I am; Bear witness against me before the Lord and His anointed. Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? I will restore it” (NASB). The time had come for the prophet to leave, and he sought to leave with dignity, honor, and an unblemished integrity.
This topic goes to the core of my personal experience, the fact that one day we will come to the end of our formal leadership, and we will no longer be consulted, sought after, or perhaps even remembered. I write this from the perspective of an Adventist Christian denominational leader fully aware that these matters are not addressed officially and that my lifetime commitment includes my professional career and submission to the electoral process and the committee system of the Adventist Church. By subjecting ourselves, we also subject the futures of our families to an evaluation process that comes at the end of each service period, and to a governing or a nominating committee that can alter our most perfectly laid out plans.
Jan Paulsen, Seventh-day Adventist Church world president, wrote, “All who serve as elected leaders in the church serve at the pleasure of that community and the Spirit. And that service is an honor and a privilege which should not be presumed or taken for granted. Therefore, bitterness and anger do not belong if one’s elected mandate is not renewed but passed on to someone else. In the words of one elected leader, ‘If you cannot accept being elected out, you should not accept being elected in!’”3
When does the time come to leave a job, redirect yourself, and/ or end a career? Leaders leave for many different reasons and point themselves in different directions. These changes happen when a better offer comes along, they do a crash and burn, reach retirement age, they become bored, and/or do not have a vision for the organization anymore.4
The list is not intended to be exhaustive; there could be multiple reasons for leaving. However, a differentiation must be made when a leader leaves under a forced or unforced departure, and when the departure is justified or just comes as an unwelcome or untimely detour.
When faced with these circumstances, A. E. Nelson recommends,
1. Resign with grace
2. Make your apologies if needed
3. Be humble
4. Repent if necessary
5. Walk away with honor
6. Put adverse memories in neutral or constructive terms.5
Most likely the worst part of leaving prematurely might be keeping emotions, voice, words, thoughts, and manners under control because most leaders would prefer to leave when a suitable infrastructure is in place, managerial systems are functioning properly, and potential leaders have been identified that would provide continuity to our work.6 Leaders should avoid “leaving messes behind” and should stay on during tumultuous and tempestuous times. Plus, any major career choice should be avoided when the person is depressed or overly tired.7
Some leaders enjoy the gift of longevity, and the entities they lead benefit from the fullness of their abilities and continuity of their service. Other leaders are better suited for a shorter time of service in an assignment, as lengthening their stay seems to affect their effectiveness negatively. The dangers of staying too long include an unchanging leadership style, lacking innovation, harming the organization, not having an honest look at productivity statistics, and showing lack of judgment about uncompleted projects. Prayerfully reflecting on whether the organization benefits more from their departure than from their staying, and keeping in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:25) is important, not just to lead but also to know when to leave.8
Facing a constituency, board, or committee
Most leaders prefer to leave when they have accomplished what they had set out to achieve, and consider that others might be able to move the organization further. In the Adventist organizational system, leaders are elected for a varied but defined period of time by action of a group of assembled representatives. Others may be appointed by boards or committees. The actions of these bodies express approval, disapproval, as well as affirm or end the leadership tenure of elected leaders. Having been exposed to a few of them at different levels of church work—as elector, candidate, observer, and advisor—I offer these ideas that may have value to those who may see their formal leadership career in the church coming to an end at an unexpected time.9
In anticipation of election time I remove all personal belongings from my office, return the office keys to my assistant, and thank the Lord for the time He allowed me to serve. This ritual has served as a reminder that my leadership is a trust that will one day be removed from me, and that perhaps kairos (the right time) has come for my formal leadership career to end or go in a different direction. I view the process of election with humility and entrust it to the Lord’s hands that He work His will through the process for what is best for my life. In anticipation of any upcoming election, I offer this additional sincere advice:
1. Organize your work.
2. Document all you can. List pending items for your successor and higher organizations, keeping a copy for yourself.
3. Delegate what you can.
4. Brief your associates.
5. Inform your board chair.
6. Clear your office of personal belongings before the election.
7. Leave your keys, and plan what to do with other assets (for example, cell phone, laptop) you have.
8. Resist the temptation to look back.
Hans Finzel identified the characteristics of those who finish well. These characteristics provide valuable counsel to anyone facing the conclusion of their career: maintain a personal vibrant relationship with God and a learning posture, evidence Christlikeness in character, leave behind one or more ultimate contributions, and walk with a growing sense of destiny.10
When the time has come for you to depart,
1. Applaud those who have helped you.
2. Thank everyone for the opportunity to serve them.
3. Do not review those things that irritated you.
4. Do not make apologies and try to “set the record straight.” 5. Do not linger in regrets.
6. Celebrate and smile.
7. Accept compliments—but don’t let those compliments inflate your ego.
8. Encourage people left behind.
9. Leave with dignity, which is the final touch of leaving a legacy.
10. Thank God for His guidance and power.
The original question still remains valid today. What elements should a leader consider prior to bringing their formal leadership to a conclusion with dignity and honor? Finzel says, “I used to want to be a man known for great accomplishments— a person of notable deeds and ideas that rocked the planet. But now I would settle for this epitaph, ‘He was a good and godly man, loved his family deeply, and finished well.’”11
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1 J. Robert Clinton, “Finishing Well: The Challenge of a
Lifetime,” a plenary address given to the 1994 leadership
forum in Estes Park, CO (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers,
1994), 8, 9.
2 A. E. Nelson, Spirituality and Leadership: Harnessing the
Wisdom, Guidance, and Power of the Soul (Colorado Springs,
CO: NavPress, 2002), 166.
3 Jan Paulsen, Profiling Adventist Leadership (Saint Louis, MO:
General Conference Session, July 3–7, 2005), 36.
4 Nelson, 166.
6 Ibid., 167.
8 I bid., 168.
9 Juan R. Prestol, “Things I Have Learned About Constituency
Elections,” Adventist Review, September 20, 2007, 30.
10 H . Finzel, Empowered Leaders: The Ten Principles of Christian
Leadership (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing Group, 1998),
11 Ibid., 175.