When a Pastor Leaves

A pastor will typically serve three to eight churches in his or her career. Coming to a new job is usually filled with joy and excitement but often the departure is tinged with disappointment and even legal threats. In our litigious society, and now with a propensity for retroactive lawsuits, what should a pastor and the church do to ensure there isn’t any lingering ill will so that the pastor can leave well and to protect all sides from frivolous accusations after the separation?

Here is a list of issues to be settled. I strongly suggest getting the answers to all these in a written document which both sides sign and keep. The church should place its copy in the minister’s personnel file.

  • Who owns the books/materials the pastor purchased using church continuing education money while he was the pastor? Can the pastor take those with him or is the church requiring him/her to leave them?
  • Who owns the sermons and other published material he wrote on church time, church computers, and using church staff for research? All material produced by the pastor using church time and resources (office, computer, paper, etc.) belong to the church – the pastor needs to get the church to release those docs.
  • Who will conduct an exit interview so the pastor can tell someone what are some things that need to be done to help his/her successor be set up for success?
  • Who will the pastor give the annual personnel review files to since these contain confidential info?
  • Who will the pastor tell of confidential information he/she knows which involve current members/attendees of the church and that someone must know for the health/safety of the church and its members?
  • A release from ministerial negligence is not legally possible, but the church can pay for the pastor to visit a lawyer so the minister can share with the attorney any info which might jeopardize the church and/or the pastor in the future. Then let the attorney decide what action needs to be done. This conversation is “double protected” by the lawyer and ministerial confidentially understanding in the law.
  • The church can do an “exit background check” to ensure that nothing has occurred recently that they are not aware of. Churches do a background check when a staff person comes but they should also do one when a key staff person leaves.
  • For some staff positions, the church and minister should have a financial/credit background check so that if there is some major debt, the church will learn about it. That debt might have caused him or her to leave because he or she was embezzling to cover the debt.
  • Are there any discrimination issues related to his or her supervision? This can be uncovered through an interview by a member of the personnel team or attorney with each of the pastor’s direct reports to determine if there are any potential issues.
  • What are the specific details and considerations of a severance package, disclosure of that package, what happens if the pastor gets a new job while he is still receiving benefits from that package, etc.?
  • Do you have a release for all financial transactions: personal loans, unreimbursed business expense, credit card payments, perhaps a loan for down payment on house purchase, etc.?

The personnel file of the departing minister must be kept by the church for at least three years (legal requirement) but 10-15 years after the employee leaves is better. That ensures the church has a written record of what happened when the minister was on staff (by then memories have faded or are no longer as accurate about events as they used to be).

All sides need to protect themselves from useless accusations. Having these issues and questions answered allows both sides to separate with dignity.


Lead On!



  1. Excellent list of recommendations on an important topic.

    How about a companion article/list on what to do when church leaders leave for whatever reason(s)?