Transition sucks. Change is hard.
Fifteen months ago I announced that I would be leaving the youth ministry I had been tending for the last twelve years. At that point, I was certain that after fifteen months a new normal would have developed and life would feel settled for my family and me, for the ministry I left and the new ministry I entered into. Unfortunately, transition has a mind and schedule of its own and we all continue to be in the throes of change. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and so it is with hope that I feel able to reflect a little on the past year and share what I hope to be helpful tips for those of you in the midst of a similar phase of life or those who are contemplating a move. Here are my top learnings about transition…
1) Discernment is important. So is decision making.
I loved my previous call. I journeyed in ministry with some of the best youth and adults in the world. But even in the midst of a very satisfying job, I knew I couldn’t and didn’t want to stay forever. My new call certainly isn’t what I thought would be next, but when the possibility presented itself I spent a good amount of time in prayer and conversation with God, family, and friends, wondering if this could be my next adventure. I didn’t allow myself to wonder very long, however, and quickly made the decision to be open to this possibility. Then, when the position was offered to me, I decided to say yes fairly quickly. Discernment, wondering, and prayer are all really important parts of transition, but so is decision making. Don’t let yourself linger too long in the wondering. Be confident in these words from the book of Joshua, “Remember that I have commanded you to be determined and confident! Do not be afraid or discouraged, for I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9 GNT).
2) Grieve and say goodbye.
Closure is important to humans, but I think especially so to young humans. Youth need to know your leaving isn’t about them or anything they did to make you want to leave. A youth ministry leader transition can be the perfect time to model healthy ways of saying goodbye and grieving the loss of things you knew and loved.
Blessings in your transition, dear youth worker. Change is hard, but necessary, and you are not alone in it. Keep your head up and your heart open. Know and believe that God walks with you and that God is with those in the ministry you left behind.
If possible, gather the youth in your ministry and tell them about your leaving before a public announcement is made. You’ll likely be in the midst of bittersweet emotions, so be honest about the ways your heart is breaking to leave them but excited to see what lies ahead. Be sure to establish good and clear boundaries with the youth and adults in the ministry. You don’t have to unfriend everyone, but be sure they know you can’t be involved in their daily lives in the same way. You will no longer be a spiritual leader in that place. This will make the transition better for you and for them and for whoever is hired to take your place in that ministry.
Find a way to celebrate your days, months, years of ministry together. Go on a final retreat, throw a party, have a prayer circle, make a banner – whatever feels like a fitting way to honor the ways God has been at work in you and those in your community during your tenure at that place.
3) Rest a little.
Before you launch into your new job, take some time to just be. Saying goodbye is exhausting. If you can figure out a way to swing two or three weeks off, do it. Your brain, your heart, and your body will thank you for the time of rest and rejuvenation. It can be your final time of grieving as you set aside your previous ministry and prepare for this next phase. Schedule a massage, spend a day in silent prayer, read a book, have a coffee date with a friend, snuggle a puppy, go to a movie in the middle of the day—whatever recharges you.
4) God’s plans often aren’t your plans.
I’m a fairly intense “Type A” personality. I like to have a plan and I function best when that plan works. This transition has been a true test of my resilience as things have not happened as my plan laid them out. My best advice is to be ready for things not to go the way you planned. Be kind to yourself, your family, and your friends in the midst of it. The struggle is real, folks. That’s all I got for you on this one.
5) Listening is a good way to start.
I spent most of my time listening and asking questions the first five months I was in this new position. Listening to colleagues, listening to my predecessor, listening to team leaders, listening to those who participated in this ministry. I went old school and bought a cute little notebook to write down bits of wisdom, more questions, new ideas, and key learnings. I asked a lot of questions about the way things have been and about the way things could be.
At some point a few weeks in you’ll have brain overload from all the newness. At that point, take a deep breath and heed the advice of our friend Dory from Finding Nemo—“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”
6) Fresh starts are amazing.
Starting a new job is kind of like going away to college in that you have a fabulous opportunity for a fresh start. So whether you’ve always wanted a new haircut or a clean desk, now is the time to make the change! There were a few things on my fresh start list when I walked into my new office building. I pledged to have better boundaries. While I loved my previous ministry, I allowed it to take over my life far too often. I promised myself (and my family) to be home for dinner more often, to check work email less often and to not let this job define me. I’m pleased to say, so far so good. With this fresh start I also wanted to get into the good habit of daily devotional or Bible reading. This is still a work in progress, but I’m giving myself a little grace.
Blessings in your transition, dear youth worker. Change is hard, but necessary, and you are not alone in it. Keep your head up and your heart open. Know and believe that God walks with you and that God is with those in the ministry you left behind. Rest assured in this promise from God, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV).
Molly Beck Dean serves as the Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Youth Gathering, a ministry that gathers 30,000 high school teens and their adult leaders every three years. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, Brent, two children, Clara and Connor, and the family’s two dogs.