As some of you know, I've recently said goodbye to one of the two churches I was serving and have taken a full-time position at the other church. This shift necessitated my saying goodbye to a youth ministry program that I've been serving for the past five years and to some youth that I've literally seen grow up right in front of me. All this came at a time of great transition for the church and the youth program: the senior minister and the other associate minister had both resigned in the past year for professional and personal reasons. Additionally, a young couple who had been working with the youth for years announced that with the immenient arrival of their first child, they would have to step out of the youth program. I knew this would be a lot for the youth to process at a time in their lives when we hope that church and youth group might offer some stability to the chaos of adolescence. With all that in mind, I offer just a few thoughts on how to leave a youth ministry program in a way that is healthy and positive for all involved:
1) Don't rush things. Youth will go through a lot of emotions when a mentor announces it's time to move on: sadness, anger, denial, possibly even a sense of betrayal (And don't forget joy and relief. Admit it! Some of the teens never liked you to begin with!). Youth need time to figure out what this transition means for them and their group. They need time to try to talk you out of it (even though they know it won't help). They need time to imagine what happens next. So, waiting until the last possible minute to announce your leaving isn't a good idea. In fact, I would advocate making certain that, outside of the church board or personnel folk, your youth are the first to know that you're leaving. And if possible, tell them in person!
2) Honor the past, affirm the future. Provide opportunities to remember the growing experiences you have had together. Have a party and celebrate the end of an era. But then, make space to prepare youth and leaders for what is to come. If there is to be some lag between your leaving and the next youth minister's arrival, help the group develop a calendar of activities that they will feel comfortable facilitating in the interim. As the time comes closer for you to leave, begin stepping out of leadership and encouraging the other adult leaders to step into that void. Assure youth that the church will work hard to find a new caring youth pastor to mentor them -- a pastor who will have different gifts than you and these gifts will help to take the youth program into new and exciting areas and challenges. I was fortunate enough to know who my replacement was going to be so I took every effort to share with the youth that she is smart, talented, much younger than me (so likely more willing to do lock-ins!) and she can play the guitar (a skill I've never picked up so the youth were forced to put up with my acapella song-leading!).
3) Leave a Message in a Bottle. As you are packing up your office, your files, your photos, your can of Silly String, remember that the goal is not to erase all evidence that you were ever there. Provide your successor with some sense of what happened before he or she arrived. Perhaps prepare copies of your past months or year's activities. Leave a list of the church youth with some basic descriptive information about their level of participation, family situation, and ongoing pastoral needs. Describe some of the yearly traditions and events of the ministry so the new pastor can consider whether these are things they want to continue or not. Finally, consider leaving behind a personal letter encouraging your successor and inviting them to contact you if they have questions (such as "Who has been providing dinners for the group? What happens if I park in the senior minister's parking space? What is behind that door with the sign that says "Never, Never go in here!")
4) When it's over, it's over. The ethical standards that I agreed to at my ordination clearly state that when I leave a ministry I cease to be a pastor to that church and its members. After years with a youth group, this can be difficult. It means cutting the umbilical cord, in a sense, so that the youth can make room in their lives for something new. In my last official gathering with our group (which occurred during our mission trip), I explained that I was going to have to put distance between us as I was not going to be their youth minister any more. This meant no more regular messages back and forth on Facebook or email, no calls seeking help with personal issues, no joining them for a movie or ice cream after youth group. I explained that this didn't mean I loved them any less -- it was just time for me to move on and for them to make space for their new pastor. After a pause to take all this in, one of the girls in the group said, "So, does this mean we are breaking up?" We all laughed and I said, "Yeah, in a way. We are breaking up. But we will always be friends!"
Ultimately, the truest evidence of a good "goodbye" is that the ministry continues on just fine without you and even goes places you were never able to take it!