Lance Wallace: Getting goodbye right

Celebrating a transitioning leader is a tricky business.

Editor's Note: This is Lance Wallace's second post about navigating leadership transitions. Read the first post here.

Saying goodbye to a pastor or organizational leader feels a lot like grief.

So how do you celebrate someone’s tenure without veering off into maudlin displays, phony platitudes or trumped-up idolatry?

WallaceAs the director of communications and marketing for an organization that just said goodbye to its executive of 16 years, allow me to humbly offer five tips for sending your leader off with integrity:

1.) Plan and prepare. It is a trap to think that spontaneity creates emotion. We’ve all heard the unrehearsed tribute to a retiring or transitioning leader that was overly long, meandering and ultimately pointless. I’m reminded of something I heard Fred Craddock say once at a preaching workshop: “God hears your prayer, even if you write it down ahead of time.” Don’t think an unrehearsed celebration will capture the right tone and convey the right message. At best it falls flat, and at worst it produces unintended humor or even disrespect.

2.) Follow the leader. The celebration should reflect the character and personality of the honoree. The departing leader will tell you if you listen what he or she would like to see happen. Most senior leaders have enough self-awareness to avoid the trap of saying one thing but meaning another. If the leader really doesn’t want too much attention, let that guide you. Make it personal and meaningful with less fanfare. If the honoree wants the moment to be bold for the sake of the church or organization, then you have a legitimate reason to plan big. Listen to the leader. You can still have a few surprises up your sleeve, but unveil them in a way that the leader would appreciate.

3.) Remember who you are celebrating. Who can forget Martin Short’s portrayal of wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer in the 1991 film “Father of the Bride?” At some point, the wedding became more about Franck’s expressions of creativity rather than the celebration of holy matrimony. Don’t let your goodbye be overtaken by the unrecognized needs of planners to be expressive. It’s OK to be creative, but keep the focus where it needs to be.

4.) Establish limits. I know Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but I would offer this slight amendment: “Where there is no budget, the organization suffers.” By the time you’ve paid for the reception catering, commissioned anthem, video tribute or painted portrait, you could end up with a hefty bill that robs the organization of financial health, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the leader you are trying to honor as well as the organization. When an event tries to capture every moment of someone’s 30-year tenure, it can exhaust participants and the honoree, casting a pall over the festivities. Less is more when it comes to celebrating.

5.) Give space for response. By definition, leaders make an impact on a lot of people. Give those people an opportunity to respond. It can be through letters, scrapbooks, a receiving line, video tributes or even gifts. If you don’t let the constituency give voice to their feelings, you are doing a disservice to the organization and preventing the organization’s ability to move forward. There are a lot of similarities between transition and grief. Don’t cause the constituency or congregation to get stuck in a stage of grief by not giving them an outlet.

For what it’s worth, I think Cooperative Baptist Fellowship got it mostly right in our send-off of retiring executive Daniel Vestal. He will be missed, but he reminded us in his final sermon to keep our focus on God. Perhaps that’s the best way to avoid an inappropriate goodbye.

I’m sure there is much wisdom this brief post has neglected. Take a minute to leave your thoughts below. We’ll all be better for it.

Lance Wallace has served as director of communications and marketing at the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for more than nine years. A national fellowship of 1,800 churches, CBF was formed in 1991 and partners with 15 theological schools, 18 state or regional organization and more than 150 missions partners.