Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I React to "Why It's Difficult for Pastors to Leave the Ministry"

My reactions to this article are individual in nature. Not everyone experiences this transition in the same way.

My reactions are also (relatively) unfiltered. In other words, I don't like all of them. I wish I could get to the end of the story and tie it all up in the neat bow, like some schlocky "Christian" movie. But that wish is both futile and stupid - what I feel is real and trying to pretend it isn't there is a spiritual & psychological mistake.

And with that, here are ten points from the Why It's Difficult for Pastors to Leave the Ministry... followed by my gut-level honest responses to them.
1. money: any other career change, it is very frightening to let your salary go. Even if it might be an insufficient one, it is still difficult to let go of your guaranteed income. Most pastors have no idea how they will provide support for themselves and their families if they leave. 
While most pastors have a truckload of "transferable skills", it can be very difficult to get companies (and especially HR departments) to recognize those skills & experiences because they are wrapped in "religious" clothing.

Both of my post-ministry jobs came through friends from the gaming community whose connections enabled people to see past the Southern Baptist-fried nature of my resume.
2. family: Especially if your family is Christian, they had so much pride in the fact that you were “serving the Lord“. Pastors will anticipate a great deal of disappointment from their families when they walk away from this very special calling that so many people took such delight in.   
In my case. this wasn't an issue - while my family has always been encouraging about my skills as a preacher, they also have enough history with church conflict and stresses to be understanding & supportive of our decisions.

One of the real blessings in this process has been the incredible support I've received from my family - both immediate & extended. They've been some of my biggest fans throughout my ministry... and my choice to step away hasn't lessened their encouragement.
3. self: When pastors get ordained, they, like me, vow that they will never, ever give up. They swear that they will serve the Lord and the church until death. To even think about surrendering this induces an incredible amount of personal shame.  
I wanted to argue with this one... I hate applying the word "shame" to myself. Yet there are difficult days when that's absolutely the best word to describe how I feel about choosing to leave ministry.

I know that I can serve the big C "church" as a layperson - as well as my particular little c "church". But there are still moments where I fell like I deserted - that I'm AWOL from the army of God.
4. theology: I always took great comfort from scriptures such as, “Run the race. Fight the good fight.” These passages helped me the worst of times to persevere. To quit the ministry evokes enormous feelings of spiritual failure.  
And it's not like your average pastor doesn't already struggle with feelings of spiritual failure. Imagine for a minute working & praying for God to move in the church you pastor... and for things to drift slowly backwards.

A personal story: I was profoundly struck back in the fall of 2010 by Steven Furtick's book on prayer, SUN STAND STILL. I began to pray for the church I was pastoring to grow numerically & spiritually - to double in size. In the next 2 years, I watched as the church actually lost numbers... and as the rising tide of expectations threatened to drown me and my family.

Couple that with the decision to (wisely) walk away - and the guilt is enough to drill a hole in your heart. I'm not suggesting that it should - but there are days when I can feel the bit pressing against me, waiting to bite and sink in.
5. vocation: Almost all the pastors I have known are very specially trained. They have focused their whole lives and educations on theology and ministry to others. It is feared that to walk away from the only job that employs these skills is to expose oneself to a completely unmarketable and unemployable position. Usually it requires retraining, which in itself is too daunting to face.  
This goes right along with #1... so much so that I'm choosing not to add anything more.
6. congregation: To leave the ministry is to walk away from the congregation that the pastor has served. It can feel like abandoning your family. In fact, some might accuse the pastor of being a false shepherd who abandons the sheep. To anticipate this painful separation is excruciating.  
Leaving NewLife after almost 10 years as pastor/shepherd/friend felt exactly like abandoning your family. As a whole, the congregation there was wonderful to myself, my wife & especially to my boys. 
7. enemies: Those who have questioned, ridiculed or even opposed the pastor’s ministry will suddenly have all the ammunition they need to say, “I told you so!” I’ve heard many times that leaving the ministry was proof that I shouldn’t have been a pastor to begin with. It feels like throwing in the towel, and there are people who love to cheer that demonstration of surrender.  
The question that haunts me: "Did I give up too quickly?" Intellectually, I know the answer - regardless of the reactions of those who did not support my leadership, it was the best choice for my family and for me. 

But emotionally, it still feels like I waved the white flag.
8. meaning: To leave most jobs doesn’t bear the weightiness that leaving the ministry does. Leaving the ministry carries an existential significance that shoots a resigning pastor into the darkest of nights because, as most pastors sense, their job wasn’t just a job, but an extension of their spiritual selves. Ministry is the expression of their convictions, and to leave the job appears to be the desertion of these core convictions.  
Darkest of nights: check.

Job wasn't just a job: check.

Expression of my convictions: check.

Feel like I deserted those core convictions: check.

Still the right thing to do: check.
9. waste: All pastors are taught and believe that they are planting seeds. They toil year after year with faith that one day their labor will bear fruit. To consider leaving the ministry is to consider relinquishing the garden and to leave it untended or under the care of another who doesn’t share the same commitments. All that work is gone to waste without any chance of sharing in the harvest, if it ever comes.  
This, thankfully, did not bother in the same way that some of these other issues did. I'm excited for NewLife under the leadership of Pastor Eric. And I know that my seed planting is not in vain, even if I don't get to see the "fruit" up close.

One of my ministry mentors was fond of quoting Elton Trueblood:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.
10. friends: When pastors leave the ministry, they leave friends. For one, they are walking away from their peers in ministry. They are quitting that team. But they are also walking away from people they’ve served through their births, baptisms, marriages, divorces, deaths, tragedies and spiritual pilgrimages. They are saying farewell to people they have loved in very significant ways, intuitively knowing that walking away from the community network will also endanger their chances of that ever happening again.  
Once again, while I'm deeply saddened by the loss of connection with folks in Fresno, I'm incredibly thankful for friends from across the U.S. and around the world who have supported us and cared for us in tangible and intangible ways.

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