Ministries end for a host of reasons. Some are positive, a clear, exciting call to a new ministry. Some are expected and well planned, such as retirement. But sadly, many endings are tinged with disappointment and frustration. We love to celebrate God’s call in new beginnings, but seeing God’s hand at work in the leaving can be harder. Some ministry endings are traumatic, like a sudden death, formal discipline, or subtle abuse. These are the hardest points in ministry journeys and threaten to derail ministry callings completely.
It is vital for our own well-being as ministers and for the health of our congregations that we learn to see God at work in endings as well as beginnings. This means attending to grief, the loss and all it means, and supporting one another through the hard times. This article identifies four reasons ministry transition can be uniquely challenging, together with four biblical themes that enable us to grow “out the other side” of endings.
Over the past three years, I have talked to people about endings and transitions, which formed into a book called Moving On: Grief in Ministry Transition.1 It began with my own healing after I resigned from a parish, but as my colleagues shared with me, God called me to continue this work and offer it to the church. Over 50 people contributed to Moving On, a rich cultural and theological diversity. Their stories ring with faith in Christ, crucified and risen, who leads us and walks with us, especially in the places where we struggle to recognize Him.
Multiple loss challenge
Why is ministry transition uniquely challenging? First, because of multiple losses. Ending a ministry involves many losses all at once: friends, a job, an income, and a role with status. When I left my parish, I grieved for my hopes and plans, the goals not yet accomplished, and the things that might fall over without me. Where housing is provided, leaving a position means losing the family home. It can mean changing towns and leaving friends and schools. But the main thing is the loss of our faith community and sense of belonging.
When a minister leaves a position, suddenly support systems such as supervision and ministers’ groups end. I found myself having to take total responsibility for my own recovery, a rapid lesson in self-reliance that would have been made easier by more recognition from my denomination of the challenges of post-ministry grief. There is little curiosity about the experience of ending. Ministers who resign are typically expected to keep silent about the reasons for their resignation. It is a lonely place.
Grief theory names multiple loss as a complicating factor in grief. Too much to deal with can overwhelm our ability to process well. The biblical theme that speaks to this is exile. God’s people knew what it was like to be cast out of their homes. Could they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Ps. 137)? John knew exile on Patmos, cut off from the church. But even there, Jesus met him, inspired him, and gave him a new phase of ministry.
The challenge of recovery is twofold: honesty and rest. Psalms and Lamentations invite us to pour out all the truth of how we feel before God. Hold nothing back. Yes, count your blessings, but also count the cost. What have you lost? What have your spouse and your kids lost? Which relationships do you miss the most?
And rest. After a death, we know that people must rest, but after a ministry ends, we expect our leaders to rush straight into the next one. No wonder we feel tired. Take time, make time, somehow, to allow the Holy Spirit to heal and restore. Churches, give ministers a holiday between appointments.
The second challenge is a tricky one. According to grief theorist William Worden, “the type of relationship that most frequently hinders people from adequately grieving is the highly ambivalent one with unexpressed hostility.”2 The more complicated your relationship with the person who has died, the more complicated your grieving for them will be. The same applies to churches. On the face of it, leaving a conflicted ministry is a relief, but years later, pastors still struggle to forgive and be at peace.
Pastoral relationships can be complex and ambivalent. As a parish minister, I was a leader and friend, surrogate daughter, aunt, and celebrant at the same time. Like it or not, I represented God and the Presbyterian Church. No other professional role is so multilayered, which is a wonderful giving of ourselves, but it has a unique capacity for rejection that causes pain.
Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24–30) helps with this. “ ‘ “Let the weeds and the wheat grow together,” ’ ” the landowner said (v. 30, ERV). Jesus had plenty of experience of both the good and the bad, the ambivalence of human relationships and the dark side of good intentions. This parable teaches me not to get too stressed about broken promises, divided loyalties, hard hearts, and refusal to change. We can let go of our expectations of how we “should” have been treated. We can and must forgive those who have hurt us. We might even come to see, as Jesus does, the weeds in ourselves as well as in others. In God’s hands, the brokenness of human life, including church life, will dissolve away, leaving only what endures: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13).
The circumstances challenge
The third factor is that the more stressful the ending of the ministry, the more time and energy is needed for recovery. Perhaps the most traumatic experience in ministry is “forced exit.” Some parishes close or can no longer afford a stipend. Ministers can violate ethical standards, and as a result, the church cuts the pastoral tie. Some ministers resign due to illness. And some pastors end up feeling as though they have no choice but to resign. Many have experienced bullying or abuse. To leave a ministry under circumstances not of your own choosing or of feeling mistreated leaves a strange intensity of grief for that ministry. It’s a wound in the soul.
The biblical word that powerfully resonates with trauma is crushed. In the Old Testament, crushed means total defeat, as in David’s song of victory in 2 Samuel 22:38 (NIV); the soldiers of Israel either are celebrating the crushing of their enemies or are themselves defeated. Crushing is also the process by which wheat becomes bread, olives become oil, and grain is offered as a sacrifice on God’s altar (Lev. 2:14). Isaiah prophesies the coming Messiah who will be “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5, NIV) but “will not . . . be crushed until He has established justice in the earth” (Isa. 42:4, NRSV). In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes himself and his friends as being crushed to the point of despair by an attack (2 Cor. 1:8), and yet he goes on to declare, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (2 Cor. 4:8, NRSV).
This paradox of being crushed and yet not crushed is central to the Christian experience of trauma. The metaphor of crushing reveals God’s process of transforming people, like grains of wheat become flour, which becomes bread, which becomes the body of Christ, which was broken for us in the greatest act of love. This is a circularity in which human pain is matched and held within Christ’s suffering. The work of grieving in the aftermath of trauma, informed by the Christian faith, is a work of willing sacrifice to unwelcome suffering, surrendered into a power made perfect in weakness.
The call challenge
Last but not least, ministry transition can involve a crisis of calling. When I was inducted into a parish, I felt strongly that I was called by God, there and then, to that place and those people. I was determined to be resilient and stay the course. To come to the point of resigning from a ministry confronts core assumptions of identity and trust in a God who saves, empowers, and protects. Feeling undermined and unwell is a faith crisis.
Grief theory describes this as an existential component of grieving. Psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman highlights how our deep assumptions can be challenged by loss. Are we safe in the world? Is life meaningful? Is it fair? She points out, “It is those with the most positive pre-existing assumptions whose core schema are most deeply violated.”3 The church claims to be a safe place of belonging, family, meaning, and justice. When our experience contradicts that, we experience profound grief.
Our theology of call may or may not serve us well. One of the contributors in Moving On: Grief in Ministry Transition describes months of struggling with “but I thought I was called.” Another contributor challenges pastors to allow their understanding of the call to break open and expand. My own experience was that, through this process, God both affirmed my call to ordained ministry and opened it in directions I could never have predicted.
The spiritual work of reevaluating calling and career leads us on a path of surrender and resurrection. We find ourselves walking the road to Emmaus while a stranger tells a story of suffering and healing. We recognize Jesus right beside us as, eventually, we find our place in His dynamic plan for the salvation of the world.
As ministers, our stories include the pain of ending and the joy of new beginnings. The space in-between can be an uncomfortable one, even traumatic, and is often walked alone. Coming “out the other side” of transition requires support, including professional help as well as rest and recovery. Prayer is vital to stay connected to God even when we are cut off from the faith community. Scripture overflows with resources to help us, for we learn that God’s people were in transition more than they were settled, and God met them there.
It is my prayer that those in ministry will find greater healing for past pain and fresh energy for the work of mission. I would love for ministry endings to be done with grace so that those who go and those who stay are blessed and able to “farewell” with peace.
- Silvia Purdie, ed., Moving On: Grief in Ministry Transitions (Wellington, New Zealand: Philip Garside, 2022). The book discusses endings and transitions, with resources for prayer and liturgy as well as career counseling, supervision, and support.
- William Worden, Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th ed. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2010), 127.
- Henry Krystal, “Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 181, no. 3 (March 1993): 208, 209.