What I’ve Learned Since Leaving the Ministry
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On June 12th (2016), I officially retired from the ministry after being a pastor since 1994. It’s still very new, this being a layman business. But I love it. In fact, I don’t miss the job one single bit. I do greatly miss the wonderful people in my former congregation at Wildwind Community Church, but those are human beings. I reiterate — there’s nothing I miss about the job. That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible job or anything, but it had been getting increasingly difficult and stressful for me for several years before I left. It was past time for me to be done, and I’m sure that’s why I don’t miss it.
As new as the experience is of not being a pastor, I am learning some important things about myself and I want to share them with you because maybe at times you’ve had some of these feelings yourself. If I can help you normalize them, feel less guilty, or otherwise not worry too much about them, that’s valuable to me.
1. I still want God in my life
The question that follows a statement like this is, “You mean there’s a time when you didn’t?” And the answer is a resounding yes. My last few years in ministry I got to where I no longer knew if I cared about God for myself or only pursued God because I needed new thoughts and ideas and experiences to bundle into sermons for others. Do something for money long enough and you might start wondering if you ever did it for any other reason. This is the sense in which leaving the ministry has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, because not knowing why, or even if, I’m interested in God has been a major problem for me for years now.
2. In some ways church seems more ridiculous than ever
I don’t mean church in general, I mean the arguments that go on, the fundamentalism, the anti-intellectualism, the Biblicism among so many. Even the certainty. If the Christian God exists, he (or she, or whoever) is absolutely massive, and ultimately mysterious, and being certain that one knows what he wants most of the time seems incredibly vain and presumptuous. This becomes truer and truer the more willing a Christian becomes to hurt other people, alienate themselves from others, and strain relationships over supposedly “Biblical” stances on issues. It’s all hogwash. All that matters is how you treat the people around you. Certainly the clarity with which you can justify hurting others with your theology means less than nothing. I’ve always known this even as a pastor, but now that I’m out of ministry, it’s even clearer.
3. I don’t know where I’ll end up
Naturally, a lot of people have asked me where I’m going to church now and, at the moment, the answer is a relieved “Nowhere.” I have talked to several other retired pastors in the past few weeks and they all felt like they needed a period of recovery time, time away from church, to get their bearings, get perspective, get answers to some of their own struggles and questions, and stop thinking of themselves as vocational pastors. So I know I’m not alone in this.
When I do finally go back to church, I don’t know where I’m going. What I know is that it will probably be a place where what happens in the Sunday morning service doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the creativity or ingenuity of a pastor, programming team, or worship leader. I want to go someplace where they do whatever they’ve been doing for a thousand years, slip quietly into the back seat, lose myself in the liturgy, and leave just before the final Amen.
Yep. I want to simply observe for a while. I’ve never seen the church from the chance I have to see it now and there’s no way I’m going to give up that opportunity.
I also look forward to maybe attending a few services with my wife and children and just sitting there in the pew with them, without having to get up and “work.” I’ve only sat through one church service with one daughter on one occasion in the past 22 years and this possibility is exciting.
Finally, I have a lot of friends who are pastors and I’ve never heard most of them preach. I want to go to their churches, hear them preach, and have dinner with them afterwards. I love them and will enjoy these new experiences.
4. You’re never at the end of the journey
When I started in student ministry in 1994, I was positive I’d do it for the rest of my life and proclaimed that to anyone within ear shot. I lasted eight years before founding Wildwind Community Church, which I also declared to be my final destination thinking I’d surely retire from there. But I was wrong about that too.
I’ll never again think I’m at the end. I’ll always be open, looking even, for what I’m supposed to do next. Right now I’m doing psychotherapy. I’m good at it. It allows me to impact lives at a deeper level than I feel I was able to as a pastor. But I realize I might not do it forever. I’m not at the end. Unless I am, of course, but if so I’m going to live every day like there’s more to do.
5. The church failed me when it came to teaching me to know myself
Many of us learn in church to not listen to our emotions, especially those of us in the ministry.
“Emotions are evil.”
“Emotions will lead you astray.”
“Belief is what matters, not emotion.”
Sure, emotions are fallen and imperfect, like everything else in this world. But still they are often your best gauge for knowing who you are, what you want, and how you’re supposed to live.
When churches teach us to deny our emotions, they teach us to cut ourselves off from ourselves, to ignore an extremely important part of who we are. In fact, emotions come before beliefs. You can tell me you believe something, but how you feel and how you live reveal what you actually believe.
Though I was taught that emotion isn’t reliable, somehow some of the best things I have ever done came from emotion. Marrying my wife. Having my children. Going into the ministry. Leaving to start my own church. And currently, leaving that church to become a full time psychotherapist.
If you attend a church that teaches you to ignore your emotions, I promise you that place is toxic. Get out ASAP and go someplace that honors all of who you are. You’ll be glad you did this when you find out many of the pastoral leaders you once looked up to are burning out, giving up their integrity, and sacrificing their families because of their refusal to really come to know and listen to themselves.
6. I don’t care if what I’m doing is called ministry or not
Since I retired many have said, “Of course you’re not really leaving the ministry. You’ll always be in ministry.” I always think, “What difference does it make?”
All that matters is that you live, and you spend yourself doing what you have been called and gifted to do, or what clearly needs to be done and you have a passion for doing. I don’t want to think of myself as in ministry anymore, that’s a reason why I left the ministry.
To minister just means “to serve.” Of course what I’m doing is serving, but now I’m serving by being a regular person. A person who, if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. As far as I’m concerned, I’m out of “the ministry” because I now have choices I did not have before. What ministry came to represent to me, over time, was not being able to live the way I knew I was being called to live.
Then again, I guess to live according to the way you are being called to live is to acknowledge and serve the one who called you. I guess that’s ministry!