Passing on the ministry torch

A sermon that I’d really like to listen to someday that I don’t think gets thought about too much would be titled:  “How to leave a ministry.”  I definitely hear lots of encouragement to get involved in ministry, but it doesn’t seem to occur to too many people that even in ministry, all good things must come to an end.

The reason I’m thinking about this now is that I’m in the process of leaving a ministry role I’ve had for the past two years.  When I was first contemplating the fact that it was time for me to move on, I found there were some things about how I was going to leave that were quite important to me.

To start at the beginning, the Sharehouse ministry was launched by two local Evangelical churches, including the one my husband and I attend.  The days and times have varied but pretty much from the beginning, the Sharehouse was open to the public in our rural community to come and “shop” for free food and second hand items for a couple hours once a week.

This required making sure there were volunteers staffing the place each week.  A lady from the other church and I started off kind of taking care of this.  We did it in a very clunky way.  We’d each recruit a couple people from our respective churches each week, the two founding pastors held a couple brief training sessions and things got going.  I volunteered pretty much every time it was open and ended up for a while fielding questions about how things worked from the volunteers on a regular basis.

At some point I mentioned to the pastor of “my” Evangelical church that there was clearly a need for a volunteer coordinator and I’d be happy to take on that role on an interim basis until an actual member of either church could be found to fill that position.  Being the resident Catholic congregant I’m quite sensitive to the fact that the pastors generally prefer a full fledged Evangelical member to hold the more visible leadership positions.  The pastor told me to go ahead with it and so I did.  Fairly soon afterwards the lady from the other church had to back out due to increased family obligations or something along those lines.  So then I started compiling a list of volunteers from both churches and calling a few each week.

As the ministry progressed, the two founding pastors caught up with developing and implementing some more formal procedures, including how scheduling would work, which streamlined the process considerably and also more precisely defined responsibilities.  I started scheduling volunteers for three months at a time and I was made to understand that my responsibilities were pretty much limited to scheduling, so I started referring other types of volunteer questions to the two pastors.

Over time I developed a system using a free email marketing software which automated certain aspects of the process and made it very easy to communicate by email with all the volunteers.  Each quarter that I scheduled got easier and easier as I figured out more ways I could streamline the process even further.

The two pastors also handed off their roles as Sharehouse coordinators to other members of their respective churches.  My husband became one of the new coordinators.

At the end of this past summer, I accepted the position of Director of Religious Education (DRE) at my own Catholic parish.  In the months following accepting the position it became clear that my responsibilities at my own church were going to grow as I grew the religious education program.  About the time that things started to get really busy, it was time to schedule another quarter at the Sharehouse.

I was able to juggle both ministries for a while but I could see that this wouldn’t last.  I wrote an email to “my” pastor, who was still acting as Sharehouse coordinator at the time.  I told him about my new job and how excited I was about it, and that it meant that eventually I would need to step down from serving as the Sharehouse scheduler.  I didn’t have a set end date in mind, but I wanted to bring it up right then because I wanted him and the other coordinator to have plenty of time to find a replacement scheduler.  I also said I wanted to be able to train the new scheduler.

I scheduled the next quarter after sending this letter, and it was interesting because I was asked if it would be OK for me to schedule that round as a new scheduler hadn’t yet been located.  I answered that of course it would be OK; just as I’d said, I wasn’t in a hurry to stop or anything.  I think the usual way people resign from ministry is something along the lines of giving two weeks’ notice and then the job gets dumped on someone else even if a true replacement hasn’t been found yet.  One thing I knew I didn’t want to do was have either of the church pastors have to take on the scheduling even just once.

When the next round after that came along, the new scheduler had been located and accepted the position.  It was just in time for getting  the whole process started.  I arranged a meeting with both the new scheduler and one of the coordinators so that we could go over the entire process.  It turned out to be a two hour long meeting and I think I talked nonstop.  I took them through the email marketing program I was using, started to set up some of the emails which would have to go out while they were watching and methodically went over all the other little details that went along with the job.  We decided the initial emails requesting information about volunteers’ availability would go out that week and we would meet a week later to actually go through the scheduling process.  That meeting was to take place yesterday morning, actually.

As if to hammer home to me that yes I did indeed make the right decision to back out of this ministry, I found myself this week slammed with having to make a number of last minute preparations for a Confirmation retreat to take place this coming weekend.  In fact, I scheduled a meeting for that later on that day and was hoping I’d have a bit of time before that meeting to at least begin preparing the two talks I would be giving at the retreat.

It was actually a little strange not receiving the usual replies to the emails that went out requesting people’s availability–we had programmed the replies to automatically go to the new scheduler.  I wondered how that was going.

Monday morning, my questions were answered by an email I received from the new scheduler saying that she’d gone ahead and made up an initial schedule and that it would only require some tweaking based on my feedback.

I thought “Oh boy, oh boy!  Short meeting!  Yay!”

The meeting was short and could have been a lot shorter had the four of us not spent some time simply hanging out and lazily talking about various miscellaneous tips about scheduling that I’d think about (most of which were probably redundant from the previous meeting anyway).  There were a few necessary changes that I spotted right away, and then that was pretty much it.  The new scheduler and coordinator told me I’d set it up well and they felt confident moving forward after the previous training I’d given them.  Because at the moment we are all sharing a dropbox folder, I can see that the necessary changes are being made to the schedule and it will probably go out to all the volunteers shortly.  Once this month is through, my term as scheduler will be officially over–all I have left to do is make sure all the volunteers scheduled this month confirm that they are going to be serving and call them if they don’t.  But starting next month, that job also falls to the new scheduler.

Once the meeting was over I hurried over to where my next meeting would be held and had a very productive two hours before my friend and fellow retreat coordinator arrived and we could go over the retreat plans.

After my friend left I thought a bit about letting the Sharehouse scheduling go, as I’d thought about it some throughout the process of letting it go.  On one hand I’m relieved to have that off my plate.  On the other hand, I’m a bit sad to not have it on my plate anymore.  My time serving in this capacity has been a tremendous learning experience for me, and I’ve also been told on many occasions just how valuable my contribution was.  A part of me is going to miss those affirmations as well as the whole involvement with the Sharehouse ministry itself.  Since my husband is one of the coordinators, I’m also to a large extent letting go of volunteering there–one of us has to stay home with the children!

So it’s not this total happy thing.  I get sad about it at times.  But then I get going on something to do with being DRE and I then get so happy that there is one less encumbrance to me doing a good job with this new ministry, one that I really truly have free rein to not just perform a duty (however valuable) but to be actively involved in discipleship and evangelism (things that because I’m Catholic were not open to me within an Evangelical ministry).

But mostly I feel very satisfied with the way I left the Sharehouse ministry.  I told people well in advance that I would be leaving.  I gave them plenty of time to find a replacement.  Then I took the time to effectively train the new scheduler as well as cross train the coordinators.  As far as the volunteers can see, all that’s changed is the name at the end of the Sharehouse emails they receive.  The current round of scheduling took place on time and with no problems, and everyone will know when they are going to be expected to serve within a week.  No one was left with an extra job dumped on them; no one was left in the lurch.  There was a good transition from me to the new scheduler and we both feel confident that she has everything she needs (her own skills and experience plus what I was able to give her) to do the job well for as long as she wants to do it.  I know that what I have developed to streamline Sharehouse scheduling will not be abandoned or reinvented (only improved on as time goes on) since I was able to thoroughly pass on that knowledge.

As I’ve mentioned I learned and grew so much through serving as the Sharehouse scheduler, and I know much of what I learned prepared me for my current and more challenging ministry.

But it’s also made me think a lot more about passing on the torch of my current ministry.  No, I’m not looking to quit anytime soon.  But I’m seeing the great value in building this ministry in a way that will allow it to function just fine without me.  I’ve already had the experience of having substitutes cover for me on Religious Education nights that I couldn’t be there, and a huge part of what I’m emphasizing is making sure that the teachers in the program are well formed spiritually and mentored both in their walk with God and in growing as teachers.  I’ve already thought about things I do and how I can delegate some of those tasks to other people in my church.  And I’ve gotten quite conscious of the fact that I don’t have to provide everything–I can make use of all kinds of resources available to me in my parish and through the Archdiocese of Denver.  And yes, I’ve started to give some thought to how I might approach training and mentoring a replacement or backup DRE.  I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally take some time off and know that the ministry will still be OK without me?  Or, to know that the ultimate “what if something happened to me?” question will be answered by “the ministry will go on just fine.”

So strangely enough, leaving a ministry well actually has helped me to consider how to run a ministry well.  So going back to a teaching or sermon topic, yes, I think the subject of how to leave a ministry is well worth exploring.  Any takers?

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One Response to Passing on the ministry torch

  1. Thomas Hodge says:

    Laura and I are currently winding down on a rather large ministry responsibility at St. Peter in Greeley. Because of this, your words of wisdom are quite welcome — and useful. Hope to see you and the children at Bonell Mass again soon.

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