Newsletter #518 – Leaving a Leadership Position

Queen Beatrix - 2

Queen Beatrix

Anyone who leads an organization is on a mountain top. Sometimes the mountain isn’t prominent or noticed. At other times it’s a big mountain, complex and involving many people. All who reach the top eventually come down although some resist this. They hang on, lose their effectiveness and often harm their organizations as a result. But eventually even the resisters give up their control. They come down from leadership in several ways:

  • Some are carried down because of sickness or death.
  • Others are pushed down–removed by election results, retirement, coups, ousters, or employment terminations.
  • Many fall down because of moral failures or other bad choices.
  • More than a few just quit, forsaking difficult circumstances or abandoning their responsibilities.
pope-benedict 2

Pope Benedict

Most admirable, perhaps, are leaders who chose to walk down voluntarily. These leaders recognize that the time has come to resign or retire so they relinquish their duties and begin the succession process. In the Netherlands last month Queen Beatrix abdicated so her son could bring a younger perspective to the Dutch throne. Then Pope Benedict resigned, citing age and declining health that was preventing him from leading most effectively.

Stepping down can take courage and be very difficult, especially when your organization is doing well or your work has been fulfilling. Leaving leadership can bring a sometimes-unexpected onslaught of readjustments. These include:

  • Grieving. We give up a lot when we leave, including influence and status. Deep sadness can arise from what we leave behind, especially relationships. This grief extends to people who see their leaders go. Catholics around the world experienced grieving and anxiety when the Pope resigned.
  • Loneliness. When leaders go they tend to be forgotten, even if they have been prominent and influential. Soon they realize “I am not in the game any more.”
  • Mixed feelings. Depending on what led to the change, there can be anger, resentment, and boredom but also relief or new enthusiasm.
  • Readjustments. Leaving leadership roles can involve lifestyle change, seeking new direction, changing friendships and making moves.
  • Confusion. This is the “where-do-I-go-now?” questioning that comes especially when the change was sudden.

What would you add to this list? How have you handled a change in leadership? Please comment.

(BTW: This is nor a veiled announcement. Currently I, Gary, am not planning to resign from anything).


  1. And then there are times when you can feel great when you’re leaving because you have a new and exciting new challenge that you’re looking forward to, and you have discipled people so that you have left your past organization in very competent hands so you know that they will carry on well without you. That is a wonderful feeling.


    1. Bravo! Thanks so much, Duane, for your clear reminder that there are times when leaving the old means moving on to something new. It is even better, of course, when we sense God leading us to something new. But even then there can be sadness, especially about the relationships that will need to change or maybe be left behind.


  2. First off, selfishly I’m glad you’re not retiring Gary.
    Out of firsthand experience with leadership changes at church; I agree with Bill Hybels that for a smooth transition to occur there is a need for a transferred vision from the outgoing pastor to the board (or whatever body) choosing the new pastor. Without it, long-time members may ask: “What happened to our church?” feel disenfranchised and leave. As people leave, the new pastor may have difficulty getting buy-in to his/her new vision and find it tough to hang on to their new position. Ministers even have a name for this when the retiring pastor is hugely popular and new pastors last less than one year: “following in the steps of the beloved.”
    It would make sense for this to apply to secular organizations as well. Thanks for your ongoing contributions Gary.


    1. Thanks so much Larry. Your warm and encouraging comments are appreciated. Probably you can guess why I wrote a postscript to my post. I suspected that some folks may have wondered if I was about to make some kind of resignation announcement. Nope. But I did want to deflect this. As long as God gives us energy, opportunity and enthusiasm, it is important that we keep going. I have a couple of close friends who, I believe, will tell me when it is time to trim back or to do things that better fit my energy level. We need to talk about this with the people who are willing to point out what we don’t see.

      It is sad that some of those beloved pastors do not prepare their successors better and then give them support and freedom to take over. The congregations or others in the groups we lead may need this even more. That is where the Dutch monarchy is a good example. The Queen, the new King and the Dutch people all were prepared and the transition is likely to be smooth.

      At the leadership summit Bill Hybels once had five presidents of World Vision all on stage talking about assuming and relinquishing leadership. It was a powerful lesson right before our eyes. Transitions of leadership can be smooth. Preparing for who comes next surely is one of the most important parts of leadership. I think. This is the old idea of leaving well. Some beloved pastors do this well. It seems that others do not and help create problems for their followers and the new leaders who follow.


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