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Time To Move On

By Susan Stevenson.

It is three years since my last Sunday as Pastor of the church I had loved and poured myself into for nearly 18 years; and two and a half years since I took up a new pastorate. Only now do I feel ready to reflect on the process. I knew it would be hard to move. In reality it has been an even longer and more uncomfortable process than I had anticipated.

I did not have to leave. I could have stayed on another decade towards retirement and still, I suspect, have been loved. Yet I knew it was time to leave. Things had become too comfortable. After 17 years I had begun to sense that I was as reassuring to have around as mother; and in danger of becoming as much of a limitation to the church’s growing. Teenagers need space to spread their wings, and sometimes churches need that space, too. And I had given my all. It was time for someone with fresh energy to bring new gifts and emphases to the ongoing story of God’s mission in and through this community of faith.

It was time, but it was far from easy. In a multicultural church, our European members understood that ministers move on from time to time. For our African members, however, pastors do not leave, any more than mothers leave. There was anger as well as grief. For me there was a degree of bereavement it took a long time to work through. There was also a huge risk.

To put it bluntly, women do not usually get the opportunity to be senior pastors in large, growing, dynamic churches. I only had the opportunity because I got in by the back door. When we first arrived at the church, my husband and I were called to be joint pastors. By the time he moved on five years later to teach in a nearby theological college, people in the church had gotten to know me and, in effect, ‘forgotten’ I was a woman. They invited me to continue as sole pastor. In a delightful reversal of what usually happens, after I left I was flattered to hear rumours of some in the church asking whether they would be willing to consider a man as their new pastor.  However I knew that these sorts of opportunities are rare for women. In moving, I was giving up a lot.   

But it was right. At my final service, as I sat at the communion table while the deacons were serving, God reminded me that 17 years earlier he had given me these people to care for, and now it was time to give them back. That is what I did. There have been many times since then that I have missed them keenly, but I have never doubted that it was absolutely the right thing to do, for them as much as for me.

I moved without knowing what would come next. I expected people to counsel me to have something to move on to before I announced my leaving, and was surprised they did not. The picture that kept coming to me was of getting into a coracle, as did the Celtic saints of old, and pushing off from the shore, trusting to the winds of God’s Spirit to carry me into his future. As one friend put it, “I suppose that’s what it means to trust in this missio dei we keep banging on about”. Maybe. Once out on the ocean, however, I was amazed how many other people in coracles there were out there.

Finishing well

I very much wanted to finish as well as I could. There were some things I could do to contribute to that. In the four months between announcing my departure and actually leaving, I spent time with people, especially those in leadership roles. I listened, and explained as best I could why I was leaving.

I also took time to work out the practical implications of my not being there for them, and to talk through their responsibilities for the next term or so. I affirmed them and sometimes ‘believed the best out of them’ as they looked to the future. They were ready for this step, but they needed that to be affirmed.

We talked together and we remembered together. In small groups, in church meetings, in personal conversation and in a memorable farewell service with over 400 people present, we celebrated God’s amazing goodness and faithfulness over this recent leg in the church’s journey. We stood together amazed, humbled and awed at the way God really had been and continued to be at work in, with and through an ordinary group of flawed and often failing people such as we knew ourselves to be. There was so much to be thankful for, and for me an immense sense of privilege in being able to pastor this company of God’s people. Such grateful remembering, I hope, served to strengthen the church’s identity and its confidence in the God who was leading us all on.

However, there were things I could not do. In an extraordinarily diverse church, the pastor is a significant focus for unity. Deacons’ meetings had always been challenging to lead, as people of strong opinions from very different backgrounds sought to work together. There was bound to be some ‘storming’, before the ‘norming’ and ‘performing’ stages were reached. Yet I was totally confident they would not only cope, but ultimately thrive. In many ways that would be the test of how good a job I had done.

In those last weeks, I came across a book that offered 10 commandments for pastors leaving churches[1]. Not all fit every situation, but the commandments included: know when it is time to go; explain yourself; do not steal away; affirm the congregation’s ministry; try to mend fences; help your successor to have a good start; be gentle with yourself; attend to your family; stay away (usually) once you’ve left; grieve; and the eleventh commandment, move on.

Some of those things I did better than others. ‘Explain yourself’ needs to be done with wisdom. A ‘staying away’ that involved a total break with a community that had been family for nearly 18 years would be unnatural. Yet I have had to be scrupulously careful not to trespass in any way on the pastoral role it is no longer my place to fulfil.

Moving on

Moving on is costly. There is the question of finding the energy to start all over again, to grow a whole new complex of relationships and connections. In the discomfort of readjusting, there is the danger of comparing where you are with where you were, forgetting the rosy glow that airbrushes out the imperfections of the past. There is the temptation to express your own discomfort in unfair criticism of the new situation.

For, me, however, there is something else happening in this move. A few years ago, while on retreat, I had a real experience in prayer of ‘turning for home’. In mid-life, I saw myself turning from the journey out, to begin the journey home to God. Many have written about spirituality for the second half of life, the years between 40 and 85+, with their different priorities and emphases. However, for me, the moving on from the church and the moving into the second leg of life’s journey are somehow coming together. This leaves me with a sense that I will never be as settled again as I was. Having recognised that, there is a sense of liberation. Life is now more about journey than settled-ness; I am beginning to look not to replicate what was so much as to anticipate what might be.

Moving is always an intimation of mortality. This move for me has perhaps been even more so. I recently read an account by a man of his wife’s death where he describes her dying as “being released into the infinite possibilities of God”. My hope and prayer is that I will hold on to something of the sense of liberation, and joy of God’s infinite possibilities, through a very long journey home!

[1] Farris, Lawrence W., Ten Commandments for Pastors Leaving a Congregation.  (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2006) 91pp.  

Susan Stevenson

Minister of Chatsworth Baptist Church, West Norwood

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You are reading Time To Move On by Susan Stevenson, part of Issue 51 of Ministry Today, published in March 2011.

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