I just announced that I’ll be leaving the church I serve as a pastor because I have accepted another position. There’s a lot of shock and dismay. Some are angry. This is the third time I’ve said goodbye to a congregation. I should know how to do it by now, but I’m still overwhelmed by the emotional awkwardness of the breakup. I keep telling my parishioners, “It’s not you. It’s me.”

I have always resisted analogies that depict the pastor-congregation relationship as if it were a marriage. We pastors commit ourselves to serve the church, but our lifelong vow is to Jesus Christ. If we believe that Jesus is inviting us to work in another part of his kingdom, we have to go.

The problem is that the discernment process for making a move typically ignores the church where the pastor is currently serving. Search committees meet secretly with their candidates in order to maintain confidentiality and not jeopardize the parish relationships of those who are not chosen. But that means the chosen pastor startles the congregation with the decision to leave it. The search committee gets a vote, the pastor gets a vote, sometimes a bishop gets a vote—but the people who are left behind only get to grieve.