Transitions in Ministry



Every minister faces numerous life transitions and transitions in ministry including:

            • A desire to quit
            • Retirement Transition
            • Physical Transitions (e.g., moving to a new church or parish, including a move to a new culture)
            • Grief
            • Empty Nest (when a child leaves home)
            • Prodigal Children
            • Recovery from a crisis

The transition stage commonly persists for several weeks to several years. If you planned thoroughly enough, the transition stage seems short, lasting only a few weeks. If you neglected to develop a plan, this stage may last for many years. That is, thorough planning acts as an antidote to the normal feelings of chaos during transitions in ministry.

The Normal Emotions of Transition


A lack of schedule, a lack of structure, and exaggeration of problems stimulate feelings of chaos during the transition stage. Almost every part of one’s life seems in transition. Check below if you currently experience any of these common feelings:

  • Nobody seems to care
  • Decisions are hard to make
  • Bewilderment
  • Frustration
  • Being “out of step” with current values
  • Irritation
  • Anger
  • Disillusionment
  • Too materialistic
  • Anxiety

Feelings of chaos typically result from a self-esteem shock. In reality, many ministers feel like misfits during transition. They sometimes feel paralyzed in their church because they no longer recognize their ministry role.

During transition, the magnitude of the change often deeply impacts the minister’s self-esteem. They not only change jobs, but they also change residences, sometimes speak another language, develop new daily habits, establish new social networks, adapt to a new culture, and modify their ministry roles. Unlike secular individuals, a minister’s entire identity seems to change.

Structure and schedule act as an antidote for chaos. Carefully plan and develop new structures and new schedules for each area of your life. Transition offers a great opportunity to redefine the self. Methodically review the webpages on Life Issue Goals and Work Issue Goals located in the section on Balance. After developing or refining your Life Issue Goals and Work Issue Goals, the webpage on Finding Balance will help you find a new pathway to juggle those goals.


Evaluate the way you would communicate “right now” if you were to express honestly your heart attitude and feelings. Which of the following would best characterize the spirit of your communication? (Please note that these are all normal feelings during transition.)

  • ___Pressure builds up inside me to the point of explosion.
  • ___I trust the Lord to communicate through me.
  • ___I withdraw and stop communicating.
  • ___I don’t have anything to offer to anyone here.
  • ___I speak kindly and gently.
  • ___I talk continually.
  • ___None of the above is applicable.


Stokes (1992, 116) states, “Any crisis of identity is accentuated by the fact that occupational identity is a primary means by which society defines a person and they define themselves. Loss of the work role does not establish what the new identity of the retired person should be, and lack of a defined role may lead to feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.” If Stokes is correct, no wonder that ministers (and especially missionaries and chaplains) facing transition commonly report feelings of worthlessness.

Feelings of worthlessness result as the minister perceives that others view him or her as finished, without further value, or without much importance. Sometimes, their self-worth gets damaged by events on the field or at a recent church assignment or, more frequently, by the transition process itself.


Ambiguity is a sense that life includes little or no connectedness. One no longer feels as if he or she belongs to a team, has status, or has intimacy with any work group. Commonly, a minister will retain “sacred objects” such as photographs, souvenirs, and cultural objects to remember the time at which he or she felt connected to others. This is appropriate even though others may not understand one’s desire to retain these objects. David Pollock frequently noted that those in transition possess “special knowledge without use”—knowledge that no one seems able to use.  Accept their limitations. Their disinterest isn’t due to a disinterest in you, but a background that lacks any knowledge about your experiences and culture.


Anxiety induces feelings of emotional instability, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of losing one’s mind or suffering from a nervous breakdown. Sometimes, one may experience nightmares such as dreams of death, loss of a loved one, or loss of a body part. Anxiety includes:

  • A sense of isolation, of “What am I doing here? Will I ever adjust?” “No one understands me.”
  • A sense of self-centeredness resulting from frustration.


Any job change, especially retirement, can stimulate intense grief. The minister grieves not only about losing a job assignment and close relationships, but about the potential of losing his or her God-given identity as a minister.

The five “stages” of grief describe changes commonly experienced during transitions. The stages usually follow a predefined sequence but sometimes occur in random order. One may spend more time in one stage or even return to a stage several times before reaching acceptance. The five stages are commonly defined as:

Denial: Involves shock, disbelief, and protest. (“This can’t be happening to me! There must be some mistake.”)

Anger: Involves feeling irritable, withdrawn, often demanding, questioning God. (“Why me? This is not fair!”)

Bargaining: Includes a response between anger and depression during which the individual may make promises or resolutions, or issue ultimatums and threats in an attempt to regain control of circumstances and thus get a grip on reality.

Depression: Characterized by hopelessness, guilt, extreme sadness, indifference, low energy, loss of libido, sleep disturbance, and loss of appetite.

Acceptance: Because grief is a normal human process, there is no “cure.” However, you can gradually learn to accept it.

Develop Your Transition Plan

Consider for a moment—pastors without goals usually feel devastated when their church suddenly asks them to leave or retire. Without meaningful goals across all domains of life, their hope and self-worth are easily obliterated when their ministry goals get suddenly blocked. Can you identify how a transition could affect you, similarly? How will you feel if you suddenly find that no ministry exists for you in your present location? Sir Francis Bacon, said, “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” Indeed, a wise minister will also make goals across more domains in life than ministry, alone.

A minister’s plan for transition often gets firmly blocked during the initial steps of  transition. That is, no matter how well a minister plans the transition into a new or different ministry, unseen events can block the best-laid plans temporarily. When our goals conflict with each other or get firmly blocked, physical illness and depression often result (Emmons, 1999, 75). This aspect of goal development affects well-being more than any other characteristic about goals (Ibid., 60).

We recommend the following resources for these common transitions:

1. For Retirement Transition, we highly recommend Finishing Well: Retirement Skills for Ministers (by Nathan and Beth Davis). This book represents the most thorough resource available on retirement transition skills for ministers.

Ministers face much more difficult retirement issues than most secular individuals. They not only lose their occupation, but they often lose friends, identity, self-esteem and too frequently, even their future hope of effective ministry. Loss of identity proves more difficult for ministers than any other occupation.

However, the minister who successfully transitions into retirement can offer more to the Kingdom of God after retirement than at any previous time of life.

This book addresses:

  • What is a successful retirement for a minister? (Chapter 1 of Finishing Well: Retirement Skills for Ministers)
  • How can you know when it is time to retire as a minister?
  • How can you gracefully transition to a new ministry?
  • How can you survive and even thrive like never before?

Retirement: Should I or Shouldn’t I? Click on this link for tips on this decision.

Please click on book cover to order this book.

finishing well coverAvailable at

Retirement transition seminars are available for audiences of at least 50 pastors. Click here to ask for details.

2. For Physical Transitions (e.g., moving to a new church or parish), we recommend Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (by William Bridges). This book provides skills for managing transition in general, and especially applies to physical transitions.

51oMEvUJElL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Please click on book cover to order this book.

3. For Grief transitions, we recommend Life after Loss: a Personal Guide Dealing with Death, Divorce, Job Change and Relocation.

51gETWIzgCL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Please click on book cover to order this book.

4. For transitions involving prodigal children, we recommend two resources:

Kathryn Iwasko has written an excellent book entitled, “Transforming Shattered Dreams: Hope for Wounded Parents in Global Service.” Her focus is not on the child but on the deep struggles, the heart- rending process of facing the reality of a prodigal child. The book is filled with spiritual guidance, practical advice, and anecdotes of those who have walked this rocky road, including those of the author, her husband, and their daughter. It is highly recommended. Available at

shattered dreams

Please click on book cover to order this book. Read more about this book under Prodigal Children.

Don’t Waste your Sorrows: Finding God’s Purpose in the Midst of Pain (by Paul E. Billheimer)

41evOAVpQVL__SL500_AA300_Please click on book cover to order this book.

5. Those recovering from a crisis often benefit from a multi-discipline approach. Crises induce an emotional response, itself a potential crisis. While many great organizations address the physical needs resulting from a crisis, the emotional needs often represent a deeper and more long-lasting problem. The emotional needs induce burnout, depression, PTSD, transition to a totally different ministry, and attrition from ministry. Thus, recovery from a crisis often puts the minister’s call at risk in addition to his or her personal health and relationships. We highly recommend:

Rebound From Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers (by Nathan and Beth Davis).

This book provides the most comprehensive prevention and intervention skills available to help ministers address burnout and emotional recovery from a crisis. Just click on the book photo to order a copy of this book, available at

Rebound from BurnoutThis book is also available in KINDLE format at

Crisis Response seminars are available for audiences of at least 50 pastors. Click here to ask for more information.

Rebound From Crisis: Resilience for Crisis Survivors provides the same comprehensive prevention and intervention skills discussed in the book aboveWhile the previous book is written specifically for ministers,  Rebound From Crisis: Resilience for Crisis Survivors is written for the average church member. Just click on the book photo to order a copy of this book, available at

Rebound from crisis cover

© 2013 Nathan Davis

One thought on “Transitions in Ministry

  1. Dear Dr. Nathan Davis,

    I am writing a book on pastoral ministry and I would like to use and adapt a small portion of your article “What is successful retirement for ministry?” I will give you the appropriate credit for that. Thanks granting me this authorization.

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