Enter your e-mail address to receive my newsletter and series update notices. For more info and a sample newsletter, click here.

Note: If you get an error message when you try to subscribe, let me know. I will not use your e-mail for any other purpose. You can unsubscribe at any time using the button below.
        Subscribe         Unsubscribe


Laity Lodge Websites

Featured Book

Website for
Linda Roberts


Some of My Books: Click on book for more info

St. Mark
Presbyterian Church,
Boerne, TX

Irvine Presbyterian Church

Recent Series


Links in categories


Professor Blogs

Resources for Leaders

Resources for Worship Leaders



Visitors so far:

Letting Go of a Church; Leaving a Church; Pastor and Church; Pastoral Transitions

Letting Go of a Church

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2007 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: Some of this material appears also in the series Sharing Laity Lodge

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Letting Go of a Church

Part 1 of series: Letting Go of a Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

On June 30, 1991, I preached my first sermon as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. On September 30, 2007, I preached my last sermon as pastor of this fine church. That afternoon I got into my truck and began the 1300 mile drive to Texas so I could start my new ministry as Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge.

I have not been the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church for three months after having served in that role for sixteen years and three months. Although I love my new job at Laity Lodge as well as my new ministry colleagues, it hasn't been easy to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church emotionally. Pastoring, after all, isn't simply a job. It engages mind and heart. It's rather like being the parent and the older brother in a family. Though my official relationship with Irvine Pres ended at midnight on September 30, 2007, my heart connection has continued. I still love the people there and care deeply about the church. (Photo: Irvine Presbyterian Church, December 30, 2007)

I've been especially aware of these feelings recently, since my family and I have been back in Southern California for the Christmas holiday. I've visited the Irvine Pres campus on a couple of occasions, but not for worship services. Though there's nothing official to keep me from attending Irvine Pres as a worshiper, I believe that it would not be best, either for the church or for me, just to show up on a Sunday morning. The church is in a season of letting go of me as their pastor, and I am in the midst of letting go of them. For now, it's best that I keep my distance.

This sort of letting go isn't easy to do on either side. For me, it requires acting in a way that seems to contradict my feelings. I say "seems to" because, in fact, doing what I believe to be best for the church is consistent with my love for the church. But it feels strange to do this. I expect it's similar to what a parent goes through when a child goes off to college. The parent might want to call the child every day, but this behavior runs the risk of keeping the child a child, rather than allowing the child to grow up, and allowing the parent to move on to a new kind of relationship with his or her adult child.

Many pastors don't let go when they step down as pastors, much to the peril of all involved. Now I'm sure there have been cases when a pastor stops being the pastor yet remains active in a congregation and the result have been just fine. But these are the exceptions to the rule. And usually these exceptions come after at least a couple of years have passed after the pastor's official ministry came to an end. I've been watching church life pretty closely for the last 23 years, and to this point I have never seen a positive result when a pastor stops being pastor but immediately remains actively involved with a church. In every single case, the ongoing relationship between pastor and church makes a mess of things.

Now you might wonder why a retired pastor, for example, shouldn't just hang around with his former church, joining them in worship, but otherwise not meddling. I can think of a several reasons why this isn't a good idea. First, it would be extremely difficult for the retired pastor and his former congregation to make the transition to his being no longer the pastor. Second, the very presence of the pastor would make certain kinds of change very difficult, and change is essential for any church, especially a church that has recently said goodbye to a pastor. Third, having a former pastor hang around could easily intimidate the new pastor. Fourth, the temptation for the former pastor to meddle in church affairs would be huge, especially if certain changes were not to the pastor's liking, something that would almost inevitably be the case.

There are situations when the involvement of a former pastor in a church can be edifying. I'll have more to say about this later in this series. But I'm not in this season in my relationship with Irvine Presbyterian Church. I am now in the "stay away" period of a pastoral transition. This doesn't mean I can't have personal friendships with members. And it doesn't mean I don't care for the church and vice versa. But it does mean I need to do nothing that would make this transitional period more complicated, both for the church and for me. As much as it's hard to stay away, it does seem best at this time. I need to let go of Irvine Pres, and they need to let go of me, at least insofar as our pastoral relationship is concerned.

In this effort, there are several things that are helping me choose and stick with what is best. I'll begin to mention these in my next post.

What is Helping Me to Let Go (Section A)

Part 2 of series: Letting Go of a Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post I talked about my current struggle to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served as pastor for sixteen years until three months ago. By "let go" I don't mean I have to sever my personal friendships with church members, or that I need to stop caring for the church. But I do need to step completely back from my pastoral relationship with the church so that both parties can grow. Moreover, I need to limit my face-to-face involvement with the church for a season so we can all move on emotionally.

I have lots of help as I seek to do what's best both for Irvine Pres and for me and my family. There are several things in my life to help me do the right thing. I will note these below. My point in doing so is not only to explain my own situation, but also to offer help to other pastors and churches. I have seen so many relationships between churches and former pastors become destructive, and I'd like very much to help this not occur. So, here are some of the things that help me stay on the right course as a former pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church.

1. My Conviction that the Church and I Need to Move On

I believe that the sort of transition I'm writing about is important, and that pastors need to let go of churches when they leave. This conviction helps to govern my behavior, especially when my feelings might lead me astray.

2. My Observations of What Happens When a Pastor is Too Involved with a Former Church

These observations strengthen my conviction in #1. I elaborated upon this in my last post. In every situation I've been able to watch closely, the involvement of a former pastor in a church soon after the pastor's departure leads to trouble.

3. My Personal Support System

I have several people in my life who help me do what's right, including my wife, my close friends, several fellow pastors, and friends who are also leaders at Irvine Presbyterian Church.

4. Physical Distance Between the Church and Me

For most of the past three months, I've lived 1300 miles away from Irvine Presbyterian Church. When one lives in Boerne, Texas, there isn't too much opportunity to drop in. Surely this has helped me let go. (Photo: A view of Boerne in the summer)

I've thought about how much more difficult it must be for a pastor who leaves a church, perhaps through retirement, without moving away. In some cases of which I am aware, the pastor's family continues to be active in the pastor's former church, understandably so. But this almost inevitably leads to problems, even when the former pastor and family try to be supportive of the new leadership.

I'm grateful that, for the most part, physical distance helps me to let go of my pastoral role at Irvine Pres. Yet we mustn't forget that technology shrinks distance. If I wanted to meddle, I could easily do so by phone, by e-mail, or even by blog. I could put up a seemingly innocent post on "Why Such-and Such is a Bad Idea," knowing full well that Such-and-Such was being considered by the leaders of Irvine Pres. Yet this is something I will not do. Wouldn't be prudent.

5. I Love My New Job and Have Plenty to Do

I mentioned yesterday that I love my new job as Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence at Laity Lodge. I have wonderful colleagues. The mission of Laity Lodge engages me and excites me. There are big challenges here and big opportunities. And I have more than enough to keep me thoroughly occupied. All of this helps me to let go of Irvine Pres, I'm quite sure. If I were sitting in Texas pining away for my old job, or if I were bored, or if I realized that I had made a mistake in coming here, I expect things would be different. But, thanks be to God, Laity Lodge is a perfect fit for me and I couldn't be happier. No doubt this helps me let go.

Tomorrow I'll suggest some other factors that are helping me to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church.

What is Helping Me to Let Go (Section B)

Part 3 of series: Letting Go of a Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

On Friday I mentioned five things that are helping me let go as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. They were:

1. My Conviction that the Church and I Need to Move On
2. My Observations of What Happens When a Pastor is Too Involved with a Former Church
3. My Personal Support System
4. Physical Distance Between the Church and Me
5. I Love My New Job and Have Plenty to Do

Today I'll add two more to the list.

6. A "Boundaries Covenant" Between Irvine Presbyterian Church, Los Ranchos Presbytery, and Me

If you're not a Presbyterian, let me say that a presbytery is an organization of Presbyterian churches in a given location that exercises some authority over its member churches. Irvine Presbyterian Church is part of Los Ranchos Presbytery, which includes Orange County and a part of Los Angeles County in Southern California. In most matters, the church has authority over its own life. But in matters having to do with pastors, the Presbytery offers guidance and accountability. When I left Irvine Presbyterian Church, I signed a "Boundaries Covenant", which was also signed by leaders of the church and the presbytery. Here is the essence of this covenant:

Both Pastor & Session (on behalf of the church) mutually agree to support the following conditions of the covenant:

1. As of the above date, the pastor will relinquish all pastoral and administrative duties and will no longer function as part of the pastoral or administrative team of the church.

2. The pastor is determined to be supportive of future pastoral and lay leadership of the church and will refuse to receive or participate in any negative comments, conversations or activities which might undermine any program or person of the church.

3. Any future contacts which may occur between the pastor and the congregation will be as friends and not in a pastor/parishioner relationship.  The pastor will not participate in any weddings, funerals, baptisms, nor engage in any hospital or pastoral visitation or serving of Holy Communion unless requested by the Session (which includes the Moderator/installed Pastor/Head of Staff).  This is intended to allow the new pastoral relationship to develop. [Exceptions to this provision must be agreed to prior to signing this Covenant and attached as an Appendix.]

Notice that the "Boundaries Covenant" does allow for exceptions, In fact, I was permitted to perform a wedding for a church family. It was something to which I had committed long before I was called away from the church and which was judged not to compromise the well-being of the church.

7. My Advance Communication to the Members of Irvine Presbyterian Church

After I announced that I would be leaving Irvine Pres, I preached several sermons that were intended to help church members prepare for the future. In one of these sermons, I preached on 1 Corinthians 3:5-11. This text talks about how Christians are to think of their leaders, emphasizing that human leaders are mere servants, and that God is the one who really matters. (Photo below: A preacher's view of Irvine Presbyterian Church)

In the context of this message, I spoke specifically about how my relationship with the church would need to change. I asked people, for example, not to tell me about changes in the church they didn't like. I asked them to respect my need to step back from my pastoral role. I urged them to support their future leaders, including their next installed pastor. These statements not only helped church members get ready for the future. They also built in accountability for me. If I were to meddle in church business in the future, my own members would be prepared to tell me to knock it off.

I also preached several sermons that pointed to the future. I wanted my congregation to focus less on me and my leaving and more on God's future for the church. That future, I said, is wonderful. Irvine Presbyterian Church is headed for better days, days of greater fruitfulness in ministry, greater outreach to the community, and deeper growth in fellowship and in Christ. I really believe this, and feel a little like Moses on the edge of the Promised Land. I can see great things ahead for Irvine Presbyterian Church, but will not be the pastor to lead that church into those great things. I am praying, even now, for the pastor who will be called to Irvine Pres in a year or two. What a wonderful, challenging, hopeful calling it will be!

Tomorrow I'll mention a few more things that are helping me let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church.

What is Helping Me to Let Go (Section C)

Part 4 of series: Letting Go of a Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

So far I've mentioned seven factors that are helping me let go as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. They are:

1. My Conviction that the Church and I Need to Move On
2. My Observations of What Happens When a Pastor is Too Involved with a Former Church
3. My Personal Support System
4. Physical Distance Between the Church and Me
5. I Love My New Job and Have Plenty To Do
6. A "Boundaries Covenant" Between Irvine Presbyterian Church, Los Ranchos Presbytery, and Me
7. My Advance Communication to the Members of Irvine Presbyterian Church

Today I'll finish up this list with three other factors.

8. My Confidence in the Leadership of Irvine Presbyterian Church

Most of the authority in a Presbyterian church is given to the Session, the board of elders and pastors. The pastor has specific and unique authority only over the content of the worship service/preaching. Otherwise, authority resides in the Session.

Irvine Presbyterian Church has always had outstanding Session leadership, and this is just as true today as it was when I was pastor. If anything, I can envision new pastoral leadership contributing to the growth and strength of the Session. My confidence in the current leadership of the church certainly makes it easier for me to let go.

Since I've been gone, the leaders have made a few changes, some of which have touched things I put into place when I was pastor. Though I would confess to moments of wistfulness about a couple of these, I fully support the actions of the Session. I know their integrity, their wisdom, their prayerfulness, and their heartfelt desire to honor God in all they do. Thus I believe they are doing what's best for Irvine Pres. Plus, I'm well aware that churches need to change, and that a pastor's departure usually allows for necessary change that the former pastor just couldn't lead.

9. My Confidence in the Interim Pastor of Irvine Pres

In most cases, when a senior pastor (which Presbyterians simply call "pastor") leaves a church, an interim pastor leads the church for a year or two. In my experience, most interim pastors are older, experienced pastors who aren't yet ready to retire, though some people are called to interim pastoring when they are younger. They bring lots of wisdom to their interim task, which they understand as helping the church get ready for fruitful ministry under a new senior pastor.

I didn't know the interim pastor of Irvine Pres until a few months ago. But I have come to have the highest regard for Pastor Rick Hull and his leadership. This began when he interviewed me by phone prior to his accepting the call to come to Irvine. I quickly sensed his passion for Christ, his love for the church, and his excellence in leadership. My high regard for Pastor Rick grew as we got to know each other personally. And my confidence in his leadership has grown further during the past few months as, from a distance, I have watched him lead the church by his preaching, pastoral care, and administrative efforts. I am grateful to have passed on my pastoral torch into such competent hands.

I realize that not all churches go the interim pastor route. And I'm sure there are times when an immediate change from one installed pastor to another works well. But I am an energetic proponent of interim pastoring because I have seen it work well in so many cases, including my own. Irvine Presbyterian Church was founded by Ben Patterson, a man of distinctive strength and charisma. I'm not sure the church would have been ready to accept me as its pastor were it not for the interim leadership of Pastor Jim Hewett.

10. A Reminder of Whose Church is Irvine Presbyterian Church

In one sense, the church to which we belong is "our church." Similarly, the church where a pastor serves is that pastor's church. For sixteen years and three months Irvine Presbyterian Church was "my church."

But it's terribly easy for pastors (and prominent lay leaders as well) to say "my church" with a meaning that isn't right. We can begin to feel ownership for a church that goes beyond appropriate stewardship. We can see "my church" as that which I control, even as that which contributes to my own glory. When this happens, both pastors and churches are in grave danger.

Irvine Presbyterian Church was never my church in the sense of ownership. It always belonged to Jesus Christ, and to him alone. All Presbyterians should acknowledge because the first section of the Presbyterian Book of Order makes this abundantly clear:

G-1.0100 1. The Head of the Church

Christ Is Head of the Church

a. All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. 

Christ Calls the Church Into Being

b. Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.  

Christ Gives the Church Its Faith and Life

c. Christ gives to his Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

Christ Is the Church’s Authority

d. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God. 

During my tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was mostly aware that Christ "owned" the church and I was simply his servant and steward. Surely there were times when I held the church too tightly, but inevitably the Lord helped me to loosen my grip. (Photo: from a stained glass window in the sanctuary of Irvine Pres)

Leaving my pastoral position at Irvine Pres has, more than anything else, forced me to remember whose church it is. It isn't mine. Never was. In fact, Irvine Presbyterian Church doesn't belong to the staff, or the elders, or the congregation, or the presbytery, or the Presbyterian Church USA. It belongs truly and solely to Jesus Christ. What's true of the whole church is true of Irvine Presbyterian Church in particular: "It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills" (G-1.0100b).

In the end, I will be able to let go of Irvine Presbyterian Church because I acknowledge that it is now, as it always has been, in the hands of Christ. My concerns for the church and my love for its people will lead me to pray, acknowledging that Christ alone is head of this church, and that his will alone is what should be done. Thus letting go is, for me, ultimately a matter of trusting God more. It's an occasion for me to grow in my faith as I let God be God.

Letting Go and Coming Back

Part 5 of series: Letting Go of a Church
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

When pastors leave a church, they need to let go. This is essential for the health of the church, both in the present and the future. When pastors who leave continue to assert their influence, almost inevitably future pastors are undermined. Love and friendship continue, but pastoral leadership comes to end.

At least for the most part. If a pastor has let go of a congregation, there is a time when involvement, even pastoral activity to some extent, can be appropriate. For example, a friend of mine is the senior pastor in a Presbyterian church. A former senior pastor of that church is actively involved in the congregation in a way that is consistently helpful. Why does this work so well? For one thing, the former pastor is not my friend's immediate predecessor. One installed and two interim pastors stand between them, as well as about ten years. Furthermore, the former pastor is a staunch supporter of my friend's leadership. If he has any misgivings, he keeps them to himself. Period.

A second example comes from my own experience at Irvine Presbyterian church. I was the second installed pastor of the church. Ben Patterson, now the campus pastor of Westmont College, was the founding pastor of the church. When he left the church after fourteen years, there was an eighteen-month interim period before I came as the new pastor. At my invitation, Ben preached at my installation service, offering enthusiastic support for my leadership. Ben continued to preach at the church about once a year for many years, and I'd have been happy to have him more often. One of my all-time favorite memories of my ministry at Irvine Pres was our 25th anniversary worship service when both Ben and I preached and then we shared in serving communion together. Ben was always one of my strongest supporters, and his support aided my leadership and encouraged me personally. If Ben ever thought I made a poor decision – and I expect he must have done so because I made plenty of them – he never let me know and never said anything about this to anyone who might influence the church. (Photo: my installation service in 1991, with Ben Patterson [left] and Lloyd Ogilvie [right]).

In both of the cases I've mentioned, the pastor who truly lets go of a church is able to receive it back, even in some sense in a pastoral relationship. The two essential elements in this process are:

Time: It takes time for a church and a former pastor to let go of each other enough so that they might receive each other back in a new and healthy way.

The behavior of the former pastor: If the former pastor supports the new pastor and church leadership consistently, then a new, edifying relationship between church and pastor is possible.

This second factor raises the question of what former pastors should do if they don't truly support the actions of new pastors and leaders. In my opinion, the pastors should almost always keep their concerns to themselves. The only exception I can imagine is if a church were actually abandoning essential theology. But, even then, the former pastor might choose to keep quiet and let authorized church officials deal with the theological aberration.

Unfortunately, many pastors mess around with their former churches, openly and/or covertly undermining new leaders. The result is a painful mess, and usually leads to the weakening of the church that the former pastor pledges to love. These days, it's increasingly common today for former pastors to open up shop right down the street from their previous congregations and start a new church. The net result is rarely a positive one for the churches involved, not to mention the kingdom of God.

As one who is in the middle of letting go of my former church, I can understand the temptation to stay too involved. But, in the end, I truly want Irvine Presbyterian Church to be everything Christ wills it to be. This will happen, I believe, as he guides the current and future leaders of the church . . . without my involvement. My chief task at this point is to take my love for this church and turn it into heartfelt prayer, trusting Christ to be Lord of his church. In the classic phrase, my job now is to "Let Go and Let God." By his grace, I'll be able to do so more and more.