Reflections on transition in ministry

By Sam Doerksen and Marshall Eizenga

When you spend four and a half years in one church and then 28 years in the next church, it is easy to think one hasn’t faced much transition. As I look back, I have to say, this isn’t the case.

My transitions happened as I moved from my first ministry position as the youth pastor to being an associate pastor in a new city, in a church over twice the size. Then during the 28 years in the second church, I transitioned through various role changes and four lead pastors. Twice I was asked to be the interim pastor, which meant transitioning back into my previous role. After 20 years of being the associate pastor, I transitioned to the lead pastor of that great congregation. After almost eight years as the lead pastor, my wife and I both knew our Heavenly Father was asking us to take a step of faith and transition into the unknown world of future possibilities. So, we did! – Marshall


I remember being taught in college that it is good to think long-term. This was in the context of answering the question, “How do we know how long to tenure at a church?” The professor mentioned that we should plan as though this was going to be a long-term relationship. I thought that was good advice – to pastor and shepherd a group of people without setting an end date. I pastored in the same church for 22 years. I had not spent a lot of time wondering about how to do “transitions,” but I was aware at some point there would be a transition.

I did not really think about transitioning from being a long-term pastor – until the day came. Even then, it took a while to realize what was happening. The transition was positive as I left being the full-time lead pastor to becoming an associate lay pastor in the church I grew up in. I had many friends in the church. Family friends. Generational friends. How would this transition impact me?

I was surprised at the amount of emotion that was triggered – that was unexpected. How does one plan for the emotions one is not unaware of? I felt I needed to deal with them as they came and not deny them. I needed to own them and work through them. – Sam


We freely admit the transitions we have faced have been of our choosing. Thus, the emotional components have been easier to manage and work through. Yet even in good transitions, we’ve experienced the emotional rollercoaster change brings. However, we are sadly aware that our experience differs greatly from the negative emotional impact many pastors and their spouses, whom we’ve interacted with at Kerith Retreats, have had to navigate.

The toll of an unwanted or unforeseen transition has left them heartbroken, feeling betrayed, confused, disorientated, disillusioned and without the confidence they once had.

On top of trying to work through those devastating feelings, these pastors and spouses are gripped by the loss of position, respect, financial security and friends (including their children’s). Unfortunately, the loss of friends has, in many instances, brought about a shattering of relationships which the pastoral couple thought had been deep and enduring.

For those of you who have lived through an unwanted transition, you know full well that the depth and scope of your woundedness is far greater than what has been written.

In pondering the pain and agony these pastoral couples must work through, Joseph came to mind. He was doing his father’s bidding when his brothers turned on him. Not only casting him into a pit but selling him as a slave. Gone in a moment was any sense of security, future, hope or dream! At that time Joseph may have concluded that life would never return to anything that would be considered normal. Maybe that is how you feel or have felt. But that is not the end of the story!

As we reflected on transition, here’s what have we have come to understand:

  • Be prepared for transition – nothing stays the same forever.
  • When transition is on the horizon, don’t jump. When possible, wait for a bridge to be built.
  • When transition has been made for you, instead of by you, stop and take some deep breaths – the crushing sensation will come to an end.
  • Seek wisdom – talking to a trusted friend/mentor/counsellor is prudent. Be careful not to justify your position.
  • Praying for guidance is pivotal – one needs to hear, “This is the way, walk in it.”
  • Grieve what is being left behind – relationships, position, home, city, family.
  • Enjoy the highlight reel of great memories. There will always be moments that bring a smile to your face and a warmth to your heart.
  • Don’t miss the lessons that need reflection/contemplation – think through what the Spirit brings to mind. The wounds of a friend can produce growth.
  • Don’t hold on, move on. Your opinion can create discord and discord corrupts.
  • Know there will be an intermediate time of unknown duration before the new season starts. If this time feels like winter, don’t waste your winter – appreciate the rest.
  • In the intermediate time, look for the oasis instead of concentrating on the wilderness – this keeps your heart full of faith and hope.
  • Process the transition over time – it adds to your perspective.
  • Don’t try and rush the new season – be patient, God does know what he’s doing.
  • When you know the transition bridge has been built, make sure you finish well – don’t quit before you leave.
  • Prepare for the new adventure – know you are going to have to fit in more than people will fit you in.
  • Be realistic – don’t assume the transition will be all negative or it will somehow be everything you hoped for.
  • Step into the new season with confidence – but remember, nothing stays the same forever.
  • Finally, here is a piece of sage advice from Socrates to assist you during transition: “The secret of change is not to focus all your energy on fighting the old but building the new!”

There are times when reading the Bible that we may wish for an extra chapter or two to provide more details about what the central figure was enduring. Joseph’s story is one of those instances. It would be wonderful to know how he processed his transitions. Likely, if we knew, we’d expect God would work in the exact same way when change in our life has gone horribly wrong. The only nugget we have is his statement to his brothers, decades after he’d processed the events of his life: “God meant it for good!” Although we would like to know how long it took him to get to this point, the important thing is he got there. Until we can say something similar, what we need to remember is God never forgot about Joseph. He had a purpose in his future beyond Joseph’s broken aspirations.

Lynn Cowell writes, “Sometimes God brings times of transition to create transformation.” This was true of Joseph and we trust it will be true for us.


Marshall Eizenga and his wife, Merrie, are the program directors at the Alberta Kerith Retreats location.

Sam Doerksen and his wife, Pauline, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.


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