Leaving Well

I’ve been a ministry insider my whole life, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of departures. The ones caused by outside factors (job transfer, moving to be near aging parents, etc.) are relatively easy. The ones caused by differing convictions, firings, the many variations on poorly-disguised firings, and so on…those are much harder. There’s an art to leaving well. Here are some tips:

  • Care for the People
    • “A good man leaves a legacy to his children’s children.” Everything you ever did for anybody in that group will be seen through the lens of how you left. So leave well. You were there to help people; don’t hurt them on your way out the door.
    • Organizations are totally dispensable; they are vehicles that travel a certain distance in time and space, and then fall apart. Don’t feel at all bad about dropping or walking away from an organization.
    • People are another matter. People are eternal, and are of incalculable value. Don’t make the mistake of treating the people as gears in the organizational machine. Treat them as people. (Even when they’re treating you as a cog. Especially then–rebuke the bad by practicing the better.)
    • The above point applies doubly for the ones responsible for the separation. You don’t get to ignore the golden rule, even if they did. Show grace.
  • Tell the Truth
    • You and the other actors involved did what you did. Own your part of it, and let the others own theirs. If they canned you, say so. If they had good reason, admit it. If you think their reasons are nonsense, say that. If they never gave a reason, you can say that too.
    • Firings are frequently disguised as something else. Your pride will tempt you to go along with the pretense; it beats having to admit you were fired. Don’t give in to that temptation.
    • Hide nothing. Gossip thrives on secrecy and the appearance of secrecy. Defuse it with openness. Don’t hide your feelings either. If it’s painful, say so. If you’re kinda relieved, admit it. Don’t lie.
  • Fighting
    • Mostly, don’t. It will be sufficient to tell the truth about why you’re leaving.
    •  For most of us, it’s easier to be angry than sad, so it’s easier to go out fighting than to just go out wounded. Therefore, you will be tempted to find things to fight about on your way out the door.
    • Resist that temptation. It leads to massive collateral damage, and hugely hinders reconciliation. 
    • When you’re looking for a fight, you rarely pick the root issue.  You pick the fight you think you can win — or at least the one where you can do the most damage to your target. There is no surer road to irreconcilable differences than ignoring the real issues to fight about something else. 
    • Read Tale of Three Kings. Don’t be a Saul or an Absalom.
    • Understand that your (soon-to-be-former) organization may actually value and reward Saul/Absalom behavior. Determine ahead of time that you will not accept that from yourself, regardless. Membership in an organization is not worth your soul.
  • Severing Ties
    • You need not be hesitant about cutting ties to the parts of the thing that are no longer your business. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” can be your mantra…internally. Externally, there’s no need to be snarky about it. “I don’t work there anymore; you’d have to ask them” is a good all-purpose response.
    • The more professional the organization, the fewer loose ends you’re likely to have. If you come out of your meeting with HR to find the contents of your desk in a box and security standing by to escort you from the building, then you probably don’t have to worry much about loose ends.
    • In less formal situations, there will often be phone calls later — “Hey, where are the _____?” Or “How did you do _______?” When you get that phone call, don’t be a jerk.
    • That said, those calls can be painful. Try to set it up so you don’t have to deal with that later. Make a list and pass it on to someone responsible, then refer all inquiries to that person. 
  • Changing Relationships
    • Some of your relationships were built entirely on you representing the organization. Those relationships were not actually with you, and they will evaporate or transfer to the new organization representative.
    • You aren’t required to sever all ties, even if they want you to. Personal relationships don’t just evaporate because the organizational relationship has changed or ended. Keep your friendships.
    • You will be surprised at which friendships stay, and which ones evaporate. When a friendship you were counting on evaporates unexpectedly, it’s okay to be hurt — that’s completely natural. But don’t force it, and don’t go to war with the person that hurt you. It’s a waste of effort, and it won’t get you what you want. Take it as data, and move on.
    • The relationships that endure will change, because the rhythms of the relationship have changed. The transition changes when you see each other, in what context, how often, and so on. That will change the relationship, often in unpredictable ways.
  • Learning Lessons
    • Be willing to take a hard look at yourself. How did you contribute to the problem? Did you have a hand in escalating it? Were you seeking occasions for reconciliation, or were you looking for a fight? (Looking for a fight is not automatically wrong; there are things we should fight about. But own what’s yours. If you came in talking like Jeremiah, you shouldn’t be surprised when they treat you like Jeremiah.)
    • In the heat of the moment, we often learn the wrong lessons. Do your best, but when the dust has settled, be willing to revisit what you learned. You’ll often have a more complete picture later.
  • Unintended Consequences
    • Take a long look at what you’re being spared here. In what ways has the separation liberated you?
    • Don’t assume you know what the separation means for the future. Remember, Steve Jobs worked for Apple twice.
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