The transfer of pastoral responsibilities can be a traumatic experience in the life of a congregation and of the leaders involved. The purpose of this document is to identify points of question and detail which should be clarified in times of transition and to present guidelines for consideration by the retiring pastor, associated leaders, and the congregation.

“Retirement is used in this document to refer primarily to retirement because of age. However, many of the provisions in this paper are applicable to other settings of termination. Though slanted for pastors with indefinite length of term, the paper generally is applicable to cases of definite term also. The application of this paper includes pastors, associate pastors, and deacons. The term “minister” is used inclusively to include the various roles.

Procedures and arrangements for transition of pastoral leadership vary a great deal from denomination to denomination, from conference to conference, and from congregation to congregation. In some cases, the pastor is not responsible to give leadership in selecting replacement, while in other cases he is.

This document assumes that in many cases the retiring pastor will continue to be a part of the community and congregation in which he pastored. Where this is not the case, some points in the document do not apply.

This document is concerned with procedure and detail. But the importance of prayer and the need to seek God’s will must not be forgotten.

Preparing for transition

Anticipation and preparation for transition of pastoral leadership in a congregation involves the following considerations:

  1. Recognition of the reality of aging
  2. Development and discipling of younger potential leadership.
  3. Sensitivity to the congregational situation and effectiveness of current leadership.
  4. Awareness of the CMC constitutional provision: “Because of possible declining efficiency, at the approximate age of 65 or 70, ordained brethren are requested to arrange for their pastoral responsibilities to be given to younger men who are faithful to the Scriptures and are able to carry on the work.” – Article IV, Section 8.
  5. Awareness of the availability of assistance from outside the congregation in the process of choosing new leadership. Examples of such resources are experienced CMC ministers of other congregations and the CMC office and Executive Board.
  6. Anticipation and planning for a time of retirement a few years in advance.
  7. Establishing a definite point of retirement at least one year in advance.
  8. Sharing information on plans and process with the congregational leadership and the congregation.
  9. Identification of responsibility in finding and selecting a successor.

The approach of the pastor being responsible to give leadership to the selection of his successor seems most consistent with the CMC constitution. However, it is also appropriate for a bishop or an overseer who is not the senior pastor to give leadership in the matter.

Details of transition

Care should be exercised in dealing with each of the following points. Confusion on these points tends to cause unnecessary conflict.

  1. Memo of UnderstandingA memo of understanding should be developed which states in writing the responsibilities of the retiring minister and his successor. If the retiring minister does not carry any pastoral responsibilities in the congregation, the memo should say so. The memo of understanding should clarify the various points mentioned in this document. The involvement of a third party in the writing of the memo of understanding may be helpful.
  2. Status of the retiring ministerQuestions like these should be answered: Is the retiring senior pastor a member of the pastoral team, perhaps an associate pastor, after his successor has been installed? Is he expected to attend congregational and area ministers’ meetings regularly, by invitation only, or not at all?
  3. Pulpit MinistryIs the retiring pastor expected to preach by a regular schedule or only upon request of his successor? If by schedule, what is that schedule initially and how are changes in that schedule to be determined?
  4. Counseling MinistryIt is generally considered appropriate that the retiring pastor be free to engage in counseling church members. He should exercise care, however, in referring members to the pastor when questions of church administration and discipline are involved.
  5. Officiating or assisting in weddings and funeralsHow should the retired minister respond to requests for participation in a wedding or a funeral service? Is he free to accept, or should he refer his request to his successor?
  6. Official recordsThe official records of the congregation should be handed over to the successor. Exception to this guideline include personal papers such as sermon notes, personal notations related to church activities, and materials which cannot be passed on with integrity because of violation of confidentiality.
  7. Temporary absenceThe retiring pastor should consider absenting himself from the church and community temporarily immediately after the point of transition. This could be a time of service elsewhere or of vacation and could include absence from church services and other congregational meetings in the weeks immediately following the transition in order to encourage bonding between the new leader and the congregation.

After transition

If the retiring minister resides in the geographical area of the congregation he had pastored, his presence in the congregation should be a source of encouragement to his successor. He should avoid damaging criticism and should take great care in handling criticism of his successor which others may offer.

The successor in the transition

The retiring pastor’s successor contributes to the success of the transition. He should assume active leadership as called and assigned while also respecting the precedents of values and practices lodged in the congregation, thus avoiding unnecessary stress in the church’s life.

The new minister should relate to his predecessor with sensitivity to possible trauma in the experience of transition and should avail himself of his counsel. If the predecessor is local and available, he should be included in the ministries of the church as may be appropriate according to the arrangements of the transition, the expectations of the congregation, and his readiness to participate.

Pastoral Transition Checklist

This checklist accompanies the “Guidelines for Retirement from Pastoral Responsibilities” of Conservative Mennonite Conference. This checklist is intended to bring to the attention of those responsible for leadership in arranging pastoral transitions to speak to points of vital consideration in the transition. Each of the points is noted, in some cases with explanation, in the Guidelines document.

  1. _____Consideration of the congregational situation and effectiveness of current leadership.
  2. _____Recognition of the CMC constitutional provision.
  3. _____Establishing a definite point of retirement.
  4. _____A plan for sharing information with other congregational leadership and with the    congregation.
  5. _____Identification of responsibility for the search of the successor.
  6. _____A plan for drafting, discussing, and ratifying a memo of understanding.
  7. _____Defining the status of the retiring minister in terms of:
    1. _____Member of the pastoral team.
    2. _____Associate pastor
    3. _____At meetings of ministers/pastoral team
    4. _____Pulpit ministry
    5. _____Counseling ministry among members
  8. _____Procedure in regard to officiating in or participating in weddings and funerals.
  9. _____Handing over official records (what is official and what is personal?)
  10. _____Temporary absence immediately after transition.
  11. _____Understanding on handling criticism heard by retiree against successor and vice versa..