Letting Go of Leadership: Painful but Necessary

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In 2017, I spent weeks (months?) wrestling with the decision to retire as executive director of Kentucky WMU. I loved my job, was in good health, and had good relationships in my setting. Yet there was a nagging in my soul that it was time.

Some of my angst came because my husband had retired and a grandchild was on the way in another state. Some anxiety came as my husband experienced health issues, and I realized he needed me. And some of it was my ego. I had set a personal goal for how long I wanted to be the WMU leader in Kentucky, and retirement in 2018 would mean not making the goal.

I prayed. I did not sleep well for weeks. But I paid attention. There were several trips to the hospital with my husband. My grandson was born, and the pressure to retire grew. And then my pastor spoke from Philippians 1:19–26, where Paul wrote about how he had wrestled with staying or leaving. And in that message, I knew I was not the first to struggle with the decision to stay or go, to retire or keep working.

And so, I announced in October 2017 that I would retire “not sooner than September 1, 2018, and not later than September 1, 2019.” In God’s providence, Liz Encinia was called as our new leader, and she arrived on October 15, 2018. We had 2 weeks together for the transition. Over and over, I chose to be positive and supportive. Even after my departure, I have prayed daily for Liz and communicated my prayer support to her.

Liz is young enough to be my daughter. She does things differently. Yes, I keep up via social media, but I don’t interfere. I am watching, praying, and cheering from a distance. I am celebrating her wins and the good things I see taking place.


Develop Other Leaders

Letting go of leadership is also needed in churches and associations. There are times someone stays in leadership for many, many years. While such faithfulness is appreciated, the outcome is new leaders are not developed. And when the leader is unable to continue, there is no one to step into the role.

Every leader needs to develop other leaders. Do this by inviting others to join you in events and tasks. Assign responsibilities and give compliments along the way. Affirm the leadership others exhibit, and encourage their work. Whether leadership is exhibited in a one-time assignment or ongoing work, by noticing and affirming the efforts, you are developing leadership skills.

Some lessons I have learned include when guidance is needed, wait to comment. Ask questions about the event or task. What went well? What was difficult? What problems did you encounter? What would have been a help in this situation? Often, by asking well-placed questions, the emerging leader notes the same things, but now the needed changes and improvements are her idea. Your role is simply to facilitate her development as a leader. (I must acknowledge I did it wrong many times, jumping in with comments and criticisms that were not well received. Stepping back from leadership has helped my perspective!)


Leave a Strong Foundation

When the time comes to hand off leadership to the next leader, always remember if the situation falls apart after you leave, you have not done your job as a leader. It is tempting to want everything to go wrong so you will be appreciated more. My dad used to encourage me to work so hard that when I was gone, the people there would know it. While the encouragement to work hard and do a good job is important, the reality is if things go well, even if they go differently, you have done your job and left a strong foundation upon which to build. Letting go can be both painful and joyous simultaneously—painful when a chapter of life closes, but joyous that our work continues through the next leader.

You may not be retiring from a job or leadership position but simply stepping back to allow others the opportunity to lead. Regardless, letting go at the right time is vital to a steady flow of leadership.

Letting go of a leadership role may be for a season or a permanent handoff. But it does not mean letting go of the mission of God. You are still responsible for making disciples of Jesus who live on mission. You continue to pray, give, help, support, and encourage. Paul wrote letters from jail when he could not go on missionary journeys, and it is his letters that have had a lasting influence. Keep that in mind as you let go of leadership, and keep encouraging new leaders through notes, cards, email, and kind words.

Letting go should be on God’s timetable. Seek His direction, and follow His lead. Pray for wisdom, and keep praying for the next leader.

Joy Bolton serves as WMU churchwide and associational lead strategist for WMU.


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