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Six Rules for Letting Go when You Retire

Photo by Stas Kulesh on Unsplash

I am about to do something for the first time, but probably not the last. In a month, I will retire after eleven years as a non-profit executive. I wish now that I had written a good set of rules for myself ten years ago, when retirement was something old people did, and I wasn’t bouncing back and forth between anxiety and elation. But like most people, I’ve acted as if this day would never come. Now that it is finally happening, I’m forced to make up the rules as I go.

Rule One: You can’t go back.

Fortunately for me, not all the rules have to be made up. The first rule is something I’ve known for a long time. I learned it from my father when I was seven and he left ministry to teach—You can’t go back.

This was a cardinal rule of ministry in our home, a rule Dad learned in seminary in the 1950s and which he broke only once when he went back to the church he’d served while in graduate school so they could throw a Ph.D. graduation party for him. Otherwise, although the members of that congregation loved my parents and although some of them keep in touch to this day, we never visited because it wouldn’t have been fair to the next pastors. I realize that pastors increasingly make the case for being able to stay in their last church after they’ve retired, but I’ve rarely seen this work in the eyes of anyone other than the lingering pastor and his or her friends.

Rule Two: Move on.

The second rule is one I’ve posted on my mental refrigerator for years—I will never volunteer to be involved in anything I previously cared about or did professionally.

This rule has its roots in years of sitting with older adults who propose, for example, that if we just went back to doing Sunday School the way they used to do it, kids would come in droves. (No, they won’t.) I don’t want to be the next person tempted to start a sentence with, “We used to…” or “You just need to…” The next generation of leaders will have to adapt to circumstances that I’ve never even imagined, and their work is hard enough without having to fight through my particular thicket of old ideas.

Rule Three: Do that hard thing now.

Rule three is something I learned from my husband as he retired more than a decade ago—If you have something hard to do, do it yourself rather than leaving it for the next person. The “hard” thing will almost always be something we don’t want to do—a difficult conversation with a board member, for example, or terminating a challenging employee—but if the situation is fully developed and ripe for resolution, the best thing we can do for our successor and for the organization is to deal with it rather than letting it get worse.

Rule Four: Don’t mess it up now.

The next rule is really more a reminder—Don’t mess it up. When we can see that we’re almost done, the temptation is to care a little less about today’s problem or be a little less thoughtful about what we do or say. But the work isn’t less worthy of our full engagement just because someone else will soon be in charge. The people we serve depend on our organization to do its work with care and integrity regardless of what’s going on internally, so we should try to be consistent all the way to the end.

Rule Five: Tell the truth about your work.

Rule five is more challenging to express because it hasn’t been rattling in my head for years, but I think it goes something like this—Make sure the search committee knows the true scope of your work, but also knows that your successor is not obliged to do it the way you did.

In my organization, for example, I’ve reminded my board frequently over the last few months that innovation is fundamental to our brand. But my style of discovering the next innovation—by continuing with sometimes obscure conversations until something finally evolves—may not be the style of the next person.

In other places, though, this rule could just as easily mean that a successor is allowed to take down your full-page, single-spaced instruction sheets about how to make coffee (in my first church, this took a year), and that you will send no snide emails to current members, copied to your successor, about how you would respond to their concerns if you were still in charge.

Rule Six: Make a clean break.

The final rule is simple—Make a clean break. I will spend time with my successor before I go, largely to make sure they are off to a good start with the staff and to hand off some of the relationships that I’ve developed over the last decade. But on the last day, I plan is to get in my car and decide at that moment which direction I want to drive. My successor will know the secret number to text in cases of extreme emergency, but the best thing I can do for them is get out of the way, and the best thing I can do for myself is turn up the music and go.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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