I used to be a pastor. My separation from the ministry is so re cent that it doesn't seem real to me yet. It's like when some one close to you dies; often the denial phase continues long after the reality of the funeral. But it's true, and I must learn to accept it. I used to be a pastor.
I see the question in your eyes, and I hasten to add, no, I did not cheat on my wife; no, I did not embezzle church funds; no, I did not teach heresy; no, I am not suffering from burnout. A subtle shift in your expression, but the question is still there: "Then why?"
Perhaps you belong to the same generation as I do and believe as I believed: the call to the ministry is for life. Barring a serious moral or physical collapse, the young pastor should grow into the seasoned worker, retire after 40 years or so, and then continue to serve the church on a voluntary basis until at last he or she is called to rest.
But this was not to be. My layoff was for economic reasons. The letter from the conference president described the financial problems of the organization necessitating my dismissal. Several other pastors, Bible workers, and conference employees received similar notices of lay off.
I was sad and horrified. Ministry was my calling, and now to leave the work I loved so much! I appealed to the conference administration to work something out. I Federal Expressed resumes all over the United States to other conferences. I kept AT&T in business by phoning conference presidents. I am still hoping to receive a call. I am still praying. But at this point I must accept the reality: I used to be a pastor, and I may never be one again.
You see, the economic climate has changed. There are more students graduating from the seminary than tithe funds can accommodate. It used to be fairly easy to get a call. It is not anymore.
Recently I talked to a minister who had pastored numerous churches, served in the mission field, and was in conference leadership until the constituency decided to make a complete change in leadership, and he was not returned to office. Since then he has been trying to get back into the ministry. He is willing to take a three or a four-church district. He is willing to move anywhere. He is still hoping, still praying. It has been six years.
A stressful situation
I have listened to similar soul-wrenching stories from other ministers who were laid off. Leaving the ministry is painful in itself. But the pastor involved had to bear other burdens as well often cruel, unchristian, and unnecessary. My own experience helped me identify some of these stressful situations.
1. Reaction of family, friends, former classmates, church members, other ministers. I've had to repeat the story again and again and confront the same questioning eyes. Could there be another reason other than economic for my dismissal? Could it be that I am hiding something? Even the best of friends can become silently skeptical.
It wasn't easy to tell my parents. They worked hard and sacrificed much to put me through school, to see me trained for the ministry. Now they are elderly and they are hurt. They don't understand how this could happen.
I am fortunate that the church I was pastoring when this crisis came about is one of the most loving, affirming congregations I've known. Their support and complete acceptance of me have helped me more than they will ever know. I wish I could stay and continue to be an active part of this church, but for financial and personal reasons I must relocate in an other state. I wonder how I will be accepted in a new church once they learn that I used to be a pastor. Will I be met with suspicion? Will I have to constantly prove myself? Will those with a personal ax to grind against church or conference try to get me to side with them?
2. Rumors. The grapevine is an intricate one, and rumors travel fast. Little bits of truth get mixed in with little bits of error, and before you know it the stories become downright laughable except the person at the center of the rumor isn't laughing. I have heard stories about me from persons half a continent away.
3. Stress on family. The stress on a pastor's family when he or she leaves the ministry is unbelievable. My wife and I have gone through physical, emotional, and even spiritual trauma during this period. Our faith hi God, our confidence in the church, our relationship with each other and with friends and family all have been tested to the limit. We have lived with uncertainty for months. We have often had our hopes built up, only to have them dashed again. We have under gone the most painful soul-searching of our lives as we struggled with anger, fear, grief, and guilt. As we were packing to move out of the parsonage, we still didn't know where we would live or what kind of work we would do or how we would keep our children in an Adventist college.
The stress on the kids is the hardest burden for us as parents to bear. Recently I heard a mother's pain-filled voice tell of her daughters who have left the church because they felt their father, a denominational worker, had been unfairly fired. None of us wants our kids to go through that. We want to shield them from the hurts but we can't entirely do so. My own kids have coped pretty well with our situation. I believe this is partly because of the loving, accepting environment of the local church which still holds our membership.
4. Internal stress. I feel as if a part of myself has been amputated. And this emotion is not unique with me. I've picked it up from all the former pastors I've talked to. The ministry is not just a job. Being a pastor is not something that you do; it's something that you are. Just as I cannot think of myself as not being a man, as not being a son, as not being a husband or father, I cannot think of myself as not being a pastor. It's part of my self-identity.
5. Self-concept. Causes outside my self led to my separation from the minis try. I didn't quit. I didn't commit any grievous sin that caused the termination. My ministry was successful. My church was healthy and growing. I was not a failure. But in my darkest moments I feel like a failure. I struggle with feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
6. Finding another job. I have been a professional person all my adult life, but I have been educated and trained for one profession only, the ministry. What skills do I have to offer a secular world?
Many former pastors become sales persons. A logical choice, I suppose, since ministry involves "selling." Yet as a pastor I am absolutely certain that my "product" is good for the customer and never more expensive than anyone can afford. Can I be that certain of real estate or insurance or any other commodity?
I know I can make a living for my family. The point is, finding a job that gives personal satisfaction while filling the financial need is not easy, particularly in middle age.
7. Overcoming anger. When I feel my rights have been violated and there is nothing I can do about it, my helplessness turns into anger. Yet I know that no one has been personally vindictive toward me. Perhaps some in leadership have made mistakes. So have I. I endeavor to practice the forgiveness I have preached for 23 years and to take personal responsibility for my problems instead of blaming someone else. Still, the more dead ends I run into in my search for employment, the more difficult it is to maintain a positive attitude.
What can you do to help?
Some former pastors have urged me to do as they have done and get into therapy with a good Christian counselor. Others have found ways to cope with the pain and frustration and to make the necessary adjustment without going to a professional. There is much that you friend, relative, fellow church member, former classmate, local church pastor can do to help with the healing process. The underlying principle is, of course, the golden rule. Treat the former pastor as you would want to be treated if you were in the same situation. To help you in applying that timeless principle, here are some specific do's and don'ts.
1. Respond to the individual person not to a category. Each pastor's reasons for leaving the ministry are different. Each pastor's way of adjusting to new life is different. Don't assume that because you heard about a minister who became bitter and left the church, all ex-pastors will do the same. On the other hand, don't assume that all will accept the change easily. Learn to know this person as a unique individual.
2. Do not make assumptions as to the reason for the change. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to form perceptions based on firsthand information, rather than on preconceived ideas or on rumors. The person may not want to discuss all the reasons for leaving the ministry. The reluctance is probably not because of any dark secrets, but simply because of the pain associated with dredging up the past. And the person wants to get on with life! Respect that desire for privacy.
3. Do not pay attention to rumors or pass along gossip. You may believe your source of information to be the most reliable in the world. That doesn't mean that everything you hear is fact. I have had trustworthy people who like and care for me nevertheless pass on gossip about me that wasn't true. My friends were not lying and they were not being malicious. They were simply misinformed.
4. Do not sit in judgment. You weren't there. You can't get inside another person's soul and know his or her motives. Maybe the pastor was wrong. Maybe the church was wrong. Maybe the conference was wrong. All those maybe's are pure speculation. Only God knows the heart. A negative, criticizing, blaming, or gossiping attitude never helps any cause or person.
5. Listen with your heart. The former pastor may want to talk about what has happened. He or she may be angry or bitter, and may come across as cocky and arrogant. It is important that you listen, and hear the pain behind the words. Let the person know that you understand the feelings involved. Provide acceptance and assurance that your friendship is not based on what he or she does for a living but on just being friends.
6. Don' t feed the person's anger with your own. The pastor may feel that the church or the conference or both were not fair in the handling of the issue. You may feel the same way. Or you may have your own complaints about church or conference leadership. But don't make the situation worse by adding to the pastor's anger. That person should be allowed to work through his or her feelings, and find solutions to the problems. Unresolved anger destroys; forgiveness heals.
7. Show unconditional love. Do not ask or expect changes in this person be fore you offer friendship. What the per son needs is not a critic or an analyst, but an understanding friend.
8. Be sensitive to the pastor's needs. Some former pastors stay active in the local church, serving as an elder or in another church office and preaching occasionally. Some need to pull back for a while, regularly worshiping with the church family but not actively participating. Still others go through a time when attending church at all becomes difficult. Whatever the pastor's need, do not criticize. If you haven't been through this experience yourself, you can't know the feeling of walking into church and not stepping up to the pulpit. Some are able to cope by making the transition from pastor to active layperson, still up front, still exercising leadership. Others need solitude to come to grips with this drastic life change. There is a danger, of course, that the one who stops attending church regularly may never come back, but all the criticizing in the world will not bring that one back. Continue to be a friend. Invite the former pastor and family to your home for dinner or other social activities.
9. Offer practical help more than advice. Advice is plentiful. I have been advised to stay in the ministry no matter what (the adviser didn't say how to accomplish this). I have been advised to go out and get a "real" job making "real" money (again, the how-to wasn't given). I have been advised to sue the conference, to be humble, to have faith.
I have also received help, strength, and a show of concern. "If you and your family need a place to stay while you're looking for a position, my home is avail able." "I have a friend who might have a position for you. Let me call him." "I want to help with your kids' tuition this year."
10. Assure the pastor about the larger meaning of ministry. We are all God's ministers whether we are paid workers or not. If your conference president does not object, invite the former pastor to go with you to a workers' meeting. This kind of association provides a sense of belonging. Encourage the person to be active in gospel work. Show your continued acceptance of him or her as a fellow worker for God. As a symbol of this acceptance, perhaps you may offer to pick up the subscription to Ministry magazine, which the conference may discontinue.
Yes, I used to be a pastor. But I am still, and always will be, a Christian. I am still, and always will be, a worker for God. Whatever the future holds for me, my assurance of salvation is certain. What I need from you is friendship. What you need from me is friendship. Together we can overcome the hurts and disappointments that come our way until we enter the gates of the City where the only thing we "used to be" will be sinners, and the only thing we are will be children of God.