Endings are not easy. Transitions are seldom smooth. As I note in Missing Voices, filmmaker Woody Allen once lamented, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” We would just as soon not leave.
I began my third pastorate in an interim role, serving until a real pastor was found. Eventually, I was called to fill the position. Reflecting back, I realize that I never really changed positions. Every pastor is an interim. Every leader is a temp. At some point, we move on, move up, move down, retire, get fired, get assassinated, or die. No one is permanent. Not pastors, not corporate leaders, not even Presidents.
It’s not a question of leaving—it’s how we leave. Sonnenfeld, in his book Hero’s Farewell, notes that many leaders are unable to transfer power. They have a fear of letting go, of plunging into “the abyss of insignificance.” Sonnenfeld calls them monarchs. They do not resign until they are forcibly extracted. We find some in Scripture. Moses argues with God and will not leave his post, until God tells him, “You will not enter the land—so don’t bring it up again.” David hangs on, all the way to his deathbed. Hezekiah begs for fifteen more years and makes a mess of things.
All too many leaders become obsessed with their self-importance. On stage, they become overly inflated, convinced they alone can do the work. We do well to remember the words quoted by Ruth Haley Barton: “We may never see the end results, but this is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Sonnenfeld gives names to other kinds of leaders—generals, those who yield, leave, and plot their comeback; governors; who accept their succession, break ties, and are never heard from again; and ambassadors, those who step aside at the right moment and remain available to help their successors lead.
Interestingly, most leadership books leave out the chapter on transition, even though changeover is part of leadership. There are no exceptions. Like putting together a will, we know we have to face its reality, but we tend to put off the thought.
Last night my class wrestled with the subject of departure. Most are preparing for ministry, but I could see that they already think about the inevitable. Among their questions—
-how will I know when it is time?
-if I leave a difficult assignment, do I tell an exit interview how I really feel?
-how can I know if a new opportunity is a distraction or a necessary next step?
-how do you know if you have completed your purpose?
-how do you confront a leader who is hanging on too long?
None of these have easy answers. Part of humility is knowing how transient we are. The next chapter can be done just as well, if not better by someone else. And if not, this is no longer our problem.