Most people in the LDS culture assume that a release from a leadership calling should be a happy, even joyous occasion. After all, shouldn’t a former bishop or Relief Society president feel grateful to be done with the responsibilities that took them away from their family and leisure time? Isn’t it wonderful that the old stake president can sit with his family in his own ward instead of on the stand? And doesn’t that Primary president enjoy sitting in Relief Society and actually learning something for once? And so supportive ward members and friends congratulate the one who was released, and then go on their merry way, leaving the former leader with a confusing mixture of emotions and no support group to work through what we don’t talk about. And what we fail to talk about openly is that when a leader is released, he or she is often left feeling lost, lonely, bereft, and forgotten. We don’t talk about the need to minister to former leaders and provide support for them through their time of transition. So let’s talk about it.
1. It’s Normal to Miss a Leadership Calling
First of all, the mixed feelings of relief and grief and happiness and loneliness that accompany a release are real, and they are normal, and they are entirely appropriate. We might think that because we’re not supposed to aspire to a calling, that means we’re also not supposed to love a calling. But talk to any returned missionary who served faithfully and you will likely hear him or her say, “I loved my mission. I loved being a missionary. I miss my mission.” We expect that of them, and we anticipate that they will flounder and feel lost after coming home from a mission. We need to allow our faithful leaders the same feelings. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “I loved being a bishop” or “I loved being a Primary president.” It should also be acceptable to say, “I miss being a stake president” or “I miss being a Young Women president” and not feel like that must be a weakness or a sign of pride. We love what we devote our time and heart to, and we should be able to admit a sense of sadness when we lose the thing we love.
So what do we lose when we are released? One Relief Society president shared that she felt a sense of mourning upon her release because she missed not only the members she had served, but also the gifts that had been a part of her calling. A former bishop missed being in the know about activities and programs that weren’t communicated very well to the ward in general. Another bishop missed the youth he had formed close relationships with. Unlike an event like a graduation, where something is done and completed, leaders usually leave works in progress, including people in progress. It’s normal to continue to think about the people who were under your ministry, to worry about them, and to even feel helpless about not knowing and being involved in the details of their lives.
2. Reassess the Foundations of Your Faith
Another loss leaders may experience closely parallels the loss of a recently returned missionary. Often our spiritual experiences take place within the structure of our callings, and being released from the calling leads to losing our closeness with the Spirit, which can feel like a spiritual amputation. One former bishop admitted that he had wrapped too much of his own spiritual nourishment into his calling. “I wasn’t saying my prayers or reading my scriptures as much as I should have been,” he said, “but was being spiritually fed as I met with members or went to meetings or prayed about callings. When all of that was taken away, what felt like my entire testimony foundation was taken away and I had to rebuild it again. It was a painful and personally embarrassing revelation to realize I had gotten myself into that position.”
3. Don’t Let Them Give You a Break
Feeling useful might be one of the most glaring losses we experience when released from a leadership calling. A well-meaning bishop might say, “Let’s give her a break and not extend a calling right away” or “He’s given so much to the ward the past few years. We’ll give him something easy, like librarian.” There might not be a worse fate for an anxiously engaged former leader who loved serving the Lord and administering His kingdom on the earth than “a break” or “an easy calling.” It feels like putting a racehorse out to pasture—as if all of the good he can do with the experience he gained from his calling are behind him and now he’s nothing more than a warm body in the congregation. It’s not only unfair to the former leader, it’s a loss to the ward, which could greatly benefit from someone who has a vision of the Lord’s work and a desire to serve His children.
Of course, this doesn’t mean their next calling should be another leadership role. There is wisdom in giving a family time to breathe and normalize after a member serves in a demanding calling. But a recently released leader does need a calling with purpose, and when considering his or her gifts and talents, it’s a good idea to think outside of the box. For example, does she have a special connection with a youth who might need personal mentoring? Does he have a strong relationship with an inactive family that could use a dedicated friend and positive influence? How can she continue to share her testimony and wisdom? How can he continue to minister to the people he loves? These are the questions a new leader would be wise to ask.
4. Recognize the Emotional Connection That Comes with Leadership Callings
Perhaps the greatest loss a former leader experiences is the personal relationships that are formed through their service, whether it’s a bishop’s counselors who become like close friends or the children who know and love a Primary President. So much of our social lives revolve around our connections in our church community, and when those connections change or are severed, it can feel like we’ve lost our dearest friends.
So what can we do to help former leaders as they transition through the release and the mourning that comes with it? First of all, outgoing leaders should be given time to mentally and emotionally prepare for the release and work on closure. One bishop knew his term of service would end in the coming year, maybe a few months, when suddenly his stake president showed up at his house on a Saturday and told him the release would happen the next day. With no time to process the change and reach closure, this bishop was left wondering if he had done something wrong and wasn’t prepared emotionally to hand over the baton. Just like missionaries, leaders often feel a need to wind things down at the end of their service—to have one last testimony meeting, or one last baptism, or one last home visit to that struggling ward member. Robbed of those “lasts,” the released leader can feel like his or her service was incomplete, and therefore question whether it was fully accepted by the Lord. If you have the power, give outgoing leaders as much time to process the release as possible. And then be mindful of them for the next three to six months as they adjust to their new role within the ward. Consider how to help them feel useful and needed as you pray about what responsibility to call them to next.
For those who are released and are struggling with the loss of personal relationships, consider how you might continue the relationships on a different level. One former bishop said, “The best part of most callings is having a reason to visit with people in their homes. And you don’t have to have a calling to keep doing that. We have the ‘brown bananas’ principle in our home. We buy bananas and let them go brown so that we have to make banana chocolate chip muffins. Then of course we have to go take them to neighbors and have a visit because we can’t eat all those muffins by ourselves!”
Giving a lot of yourself to a calling can sometimes lead to co-dependency, or sacrificing too much of your emotional, physical, and mental well-being in your desire to serve others. If you find yourself feeling withdrawals from being needed and feeling lost without the busy demands of your calling, consider your own needs and what you might have neglected about yourself while focusing so much on others. It’s not only acceptable to the Lord for us to take care of ourselves, it’s essential to becoming a wise steward over all of the things He has given us—including our bodies and minds. You can learn more about co-dependency in this episode of The Next Step Podcast.
Take a personal inventory of how you are nourishing your testimony. Prepare yourself to feel a loss of the Spirit and make a plan for how to invite the Spirit into your life in ways separate from your calling. This is a wonderful opportunity to take what you learned as you ministered to others and apply it to your own home. Instead of mourning the loss of the miracles and spiritual experiences that came along with the calling, pray for and plan for spiritual experiences that will bless your family. Be proactive but at the same time have reasonable expectations of your loved ones, who will be adjusting to the same changes that you’re adjusting to.
Lastly, remember that these feelings of loss and mourning are temporary. There will come into your life other opportunities to serve and grow; there will be other relationships you will form and nurture; there will be other opportunities to teach and testify. It might feel initially like you have gone through a spiritual amputation, but all things can be healed with the help of the Lord.