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Clergy Transition in the Time of Coronavirus
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41e5cah1esl. sx355 bo1204203200 215x300I’ve been seeing a lot of announcements from United Methodist clergy friends who have gotten the word that they are moving to new pastoral appointments this July. Moving creates its own set of challenges in a normal year, but this is certainly not a normal year, what with the coronavirus, social distancing, and not seeing people in your own church let alone the one to which you are moving. How do you navigate leaving well and starting well when you’re not able to be physically present with people and in a time when community is especially important?


Hopefully, by the time the moving truck actually backs into the driveway to load up those four tons of books you’ve collected the virus will have subsided enough to make what I’m about to write a moot point. If not, however, I want to offer my itinerating colleagues some possible options for making your best move despite the circumstances.



Social distancing and stay-at-home orders may mean that your congregation won’t be able to put together the kind of send-off you and they would both like to celebrate. That large group party with testimonials, potluck food, and tearful goodbyes may not happen. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t begin to engage the process of leaving well. If the announcement has already been made, you have an opportunity right now to get a head start on getting things ready for your congregation and your successor. Here are some thoughts:

  • Begin collecting all the paperwork and information your successor will need. Think of all the meeting minutes, policies and procedures, bulletins, and other stuff you wish you had when you moved into your church office.
  • Plan for gatherings of smaller groups of people to say your goodbyes, rather than a large group (in accordance with the guidelines for gatherings in your state). In my book on clergy transitions, I encourage pastors and congregations to set up these smaller groups as a way of getting to know the congregation upon entry. Now you may need to use them as a way of conveying your care for one another as you exit. Some questions to ask: “How have you grown in faith during this time we have spent together? What advice would you give to help me grow as a leader? What are your hopes and dreams for the church in this next season?” If you are not able to do these small groups in person, consider setting them up online. Plan for the extra time you will need to do this.
  • Plan your final Sunday well, especially if it is going to only be online. Consider having folks submit pictures or short videos expressing their goodbyes and words of encouragement and edit that together as a montage for the service. You might do the same in your sermon as a tribute to the congregation.
  • Send handwritten notes of appreciation to key leaders and to those who may not be able to participate in goodbye activities in person or online, particularly those who are isolated. Follow them up with a phone call. Ensure that you make personal contact with each family at some point before departure.


What’s true for leaving is true for entering your new church. You may not be able to have that big first Sunday gathering in July, so plan for smaller events or online meetings to get to know your new congregation.

  • Invite people to send you pictures and text or short videos introducing their family to you. You might do the same to be distributed to the new congregation.
  • Plan for an extended period of getting to know the congregation, setting up a Transition Team, and looking for early wins. You will have to move more slowly than in a “normal” transition, where the first 90 days can be a critical time to add value. Since you may be largely operating independently in a new environment, proceed deliberately. There will be a new “normal” on the other side of this that the church will have to experience as well as experiencing the arrival of a new pastor. Look for places to add value, in conjunction with your Transition Team, but be mindful that too much change all at once can derail your transition. Be strategic!
  • Don’t be afraid to over-communicate during the transition. Use a variety of platforms to introduce yourself and your family (email, social media, etc.). Give people multiple windows in which to view your life and your leadership until they can meet you in person.
  • Start some new rhythms. If the church still cannot meet physically, consider adding online daily prayer services or devotionals and make them interactive. Invite people to experience your spiritual leadership beyond Sunday morning.

These are just a few quick ideas to consider as contingency plans for this summer. Lord willing, we will all be able to be the gathered church again soon. In the meantime (shameless plug) you may want to get your hands on Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for the Local Church. This little book has been used by pastors and lay leaders across the country as a tool for starting well. There’s also a video training you can purchase to help you and your leaders work through the creation of a transition plan.


Best wishes and prayers for you as you prepare for your best move!

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