My friend Adam, an ordained elder in the Rio Texas Conference, gave me these words when I was leaving my first church, “Finish well.” This was the best advice I was ever given when getting ready to leave a congregation.
About a week ago I had to tell my students I was leaving. Honestly, it was pretty terrible. I have journeyed with these students for three years. I have experienced many “firsts” with them. I have known the pain and heartache of breakups, death and disappointment. I have rejoiced with them in achievement, milestones and new experiences. And so, on Sunday night when we kicked off our programming, played silly games and ate pizza, I had the arduous task of telling my students that I would only be with the church through the end of June.
Leaving is delicate and hard in youth ministry. As a child of two career military parents, I was always told, “the only things constant in your life are God and change.” If you are leaving or considering leaving, I don’t have one magic way that works, but I can give you a few things I do know.
Have you sought God and counsel in this process?
Every congregant has unique gifts and talents. You are no exception. Sometimes our gifts and talents can blind us in the process. We can want out so bad that we make compromises and promises we cannot keep. Leaving well should be bathed in prayer. Each time I consider leaving a congregation, I have a few in my tribe who commit to pray and discern with me. Those few are the ones who will be honest with me even if their opinion is not popular. If you don’t have these kinds of people in your life, I encourage you to work toward making those connections. My tribe has spent many an evening talking me off a ministry ledge when I was simply fed up.
Finishing well requires integrity.
How you choose to finish follows you. I once worked for a church where the youth pastor was so angry with his departure that he hijacked a church-wide e-mail to share his parting thoughts with the congregation. That, my friends, is not leaving well.
Pray about how best to convey you’re leaving.
I spent a whole two months working on this before I told my students. Leaving is hard and not for the faint of heart. It is especially painful for students.
Tell your students (and parents) in a way that sets the next youth pastor up for success.
This requires you to know your students. I established a rule in our youth ministry right after I began that says “don’t destroy nouns: people, places, things or ideas.” It came out of necessity, but what my students learned early on was that words are important to me and I wanted them to see this importance too! The best way I knew how to set my students and the new youth pastor up for success was to write a letter. Parts of this letter were taken from a letter a mom wrote to her son as a toddler but it worked so well in expressing what I felt to my students that I didn’t feel I needed to reinvent the wheel.
Everyone will react differently. Be prepared to weather the storm.
You may or may not be leaving on good terms. Regardless, there will be many people who have feelings about your leaving and they are entitled to those feelings. My letter to my students turned into sobbing and questions of the future. I answered them as honestly as I possibly could. I held my students as they cried. I reminisced. I did not, however, make promises I could not keep.
Below I would like to share the letter I wrote to my students. While it is deeply personal and unique to our family, it may help you as you begin your journey to finishing well.
Dear Youth Family,
Sometimes I see you each week and realize that you’ve grown overnight. Your face is more defined, your eyes look older (and you get drivers licenses). A part of me is excited and in awe; I know you have so much ahead of you. Another part is scared because time is racing and I can’t slow it down. I wonder, have I gotten to know you enough? Have I taught you about Jesus? Have I modeled what it means to be a Christian? Do you know that you’re loved?
I’m not always good at this. I’m not always as good as I want to be at being your youth pastor. I want to be great; and sometimes I am, but sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I do it right, and sometimes I completely miss it. Every day I make mistakes.
Sometimes I snap when I should be sensitive. Sometimes I lecture when what you need is a hug. Sometimes I completely and utterly miss it. I know that I do. I mistake your pain for complaining or your sad heart for a bad attitude. I watch myself miss it, and later I grieve that I didn’t respond differently.
I miss it when I am tired, and you get something that’s not my best at the end of a long day. I wish that you didn’t, but sometimes you do. I miss it when I am scared. I am scared of big things and little things. Sometimes fear snatches my heart and I can’t seem to think of anything else. I forget to relax and to enjoy hanging out with you. I forget to smile and to laugh.
I know that it is easy to hang on to the negative things and forget all the positive, but I want to set the record straight. When I look at you I am SO PROUD. When I look at you I see God. I see someone who is mighty, brave, and courageous. I wonder how I have been trusted with such a treasure. Your heart is pure. You are gentle and kind, you are vivacious and fierce.
I am forever your biggest cheerleader and your greatest fan.
I hope that my weakness teaches you something. I hope that when you come upon your own brokenness, tiredness, fear, and confusion, that you will be okay with it. I pray that your imperfections won’t scare you. I pray that you won’t run from them, but that you’ll wrestle with them and you will keep showing up, saying sorry, and trying again. We don’t always get it right and that’s okay.
We are all professional mistake makers, and you will make lots and lots of mistakes. You will make countless amounts of mistakes, just like I have, but not one could darken the fact that I see God’s presence when I look at you.
Even though life is racing by, sometimes we have a moment. Sometimes we can reach out, grab time, and hold it. The world stops, all is quiet, and we really see each other. In this moment when I glimpse the person you are and who you’re becoming, all I can think is…
Wow. God is doing INCREDIBLE things.
On this evening, where it seems you’ve changed overnight, I want to tell you that you are wonderful. You amaze me every day – and as I watch you, you inspire me. You inspire me to pull out the greatness that’s inside me. In this family, we will make mistakes, but we will keep doing it together and we will keep holding each other tight. It turns out I’m never, ever going to be perfect, but I’m always and forever on your team. That I can promise you.
It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you I am leaving Fulton….I’m sure at this point you have many questions and I will answer all of them, maybe not in this letter but definitely in the coming months.
Serving you was the hardest, best, most heart wrenching three years of my life. You chose to love me unconditionally and accept me even when I wasn’t “from here.” You taught me about farming, life in a small town, and how to be “from this area.” You invited me into your life and allowed me to hope, dream, cry, shout and love others with you. I can honestly say that I loved every minute I spent with you, even if those minutes were hard. You see, ministry is messy. People and life are messy. And through all of that, we lived a messy life in the name of God and his work together. This was more than a job for me. I consider you family.
It was not an easy decision and one that I cried many tears over. My leaving has absolutely nothing to do with you. I have prayed about this decision and know that it is what God wants me to do. [You will be receiving another youth pastor] This is exciting to me because you are a PHENOMENAL family to be a part of.
Here is the good news, you’re not getting rid of me right now. You know I am a girl of my word and am intentional about keeping my promises. I am taking you on your mission trip this summer. It will be my final trip with you. In working with the church, it is our hope that your new youth pastor will be able to get here early enough to go with us so you can have both of us on your trip.
I also want to be clear that I am still completely invested in being your youth pastor until I leave. I will still be at your games, concerts, dinners, awards and graduations. Everyone handles this kind of news differently and you are no exception. Honesty has always been our family policy and that does not change. You are welcome to ask me anything you want about my departure and I will answer it with honesty. And, you are free to express your emotions to me as you have always been. One of the biggest things I want you to know about my departure is that I am not leaving on bad terms with the church or being forced out in any way. It is my prayer that you will treat your new youth pastor with as much love and respect as you have treated me.
Thank you for being my first “real” youth group. Thank you for being my family. And most of all, thank you for being you! You all know that I LOVE to read and I have enclosed the last page of my favorite book. I hope that it gives you solace as we continue our journey of being warriors of the light!
When the order to move on comes, the Warrior looks at all the friends he has made during the time that he followed the path. He taught some to hear the bells of a drowned temple, he told others stories around the fire.
His heart is sad, but he knows that his sword is sacred and that he must obey orders of the One to whom he offered up his struggle.
Then the Warrior thanks his traveling companions, takes a deep breath and continues on, leaden with memories of an unforgettable journey.
– Taken from The Warrior of the Light by Paulo Coelho
Tori Mick has served in both youth and worship capacities for several churches across the U.S. She is passionate about youth, worship, racial reconciliation and issues of social justice. When she’s not doing awesome things with her students you can find her hiking with her dog Roscoe, exploring new places, eating great food, and reading a good book. You can connect with Tori on Instagram, Twitter or her blog.