It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye: Transition in Leadership

This past Sunday, our assistant pastor said goodbye to our parish after three years of faithful service to our parish community.  As Father Swann Kim reflected on his time at St. Paul’s at the end of Mass (one year as a deacon and two years as a priest), he choked up in a touching and genuine display of emotion.  On cue, many in the congregation (including this writer) had to wipe away tears as we listened to Fr. Swann speak about how we had all become his family and that he was sad to move on.

Fr. Swann won’t be too far as he takes up residence at Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Port Coquitlam.  As with many of the priests who have lived with and learned from Monsignor Luterbach, Fr. Swann will likely become a pastor somewhere in the not-so-distant future.  Life at St. Paul Parish will go on, in large part to the strong leadership of Msgr. Luterbach and countless others in the parish community.  As well, we are all excited as to what our new assistant pastor Father Rodney Nootebos will bring to our parish.

In reflecting on this transition, I started to relate it to youth ministry (surprise, surprise).  In particular, it underscored for me the importance of having a good transition plan in place when a parish youth ministry coordinator or youth minister moves on…for whatever reason.

It’s happened before:  a popular, highly-competent and highly-effective youth ministry coordinator leaves a parish and youth ministry seemingly leaves with her.  The parish is apparently caught off-guard (even though it knew this day was coming) and youth ministry has a hard time recovering, if at all.  All because the church’s youth ministry efforts were tied directly to its leader and not to the community.

Part of my role is to aid in this vital transition period so youth ministry doesn’t fall off the map in both the eyes of the pastor and the church community.  Thus, I offer three ways to ensure that youth ministry doesn’t leave with the outgoing youth minister.

1.  Mentoring.  Youth ministry is a prime opportunity for solid mentoring and leadership development.  Even the best youth ministers know that they aren’t going to be around forever; the smartest ones will realize this before it’s too late.  A strong leader should be able to identify and perhaps even groom one or two people to take his spot…without feeling threatened.  Leadership always needs to be evolving….otherwise our ministry isn’t growing.

2.  Create a Job Description & Procedures.  You might be turned off by reading this one thinking that it’s way too much work.  Realize that I’m not talking about lengthy, complicated, air-tight dissertations here.  But I am talking about concise, pointed documents that will bring consistency and transparency to the ministry.  Thus, I encourage you to spend some time creating some of these documents.  The last thing you want to happen is for someone to leave and to take all of the “trade secrets” with her.

3.  Know what you are doing and why.  If we are truly doing our job as youth ministers of leading young people to an encounter with Jesus Christ, then it shouldn’t matter just who on the team is doing it.  Ideally, young people will relate youth ministry to a multitude of people rather than to just one person.  Youth ministry is more than one pastor, one priest, or one youth minister.  We’ll know we’re doing it right when a prominent leader leaves yet the young people stay.

I pray that all of our youth ministries are designed so young people relate their leaders to youth ministry, and not the other way around.  That way, when it’s indeed someone’s time to move on, young people will be able to see that it’s a natural part of growth and evolution.

Then it won’t be so hard to say goodbye.