The following article was published in 2017.
Four years ago, I left pastoral ministry. Without getting into any details, I needed to get out for my personal and spiritual health. I had just come out of a meat grinder of a year and was thoroughly confused, angry, and desperately needed to catch my breath.
And while leaving ministry has been tough, it’s been life-giving. I’ve learned things about myself, God, and pastoral ministry that are nearly impossible to learn when you’re in the midst of pastoral work.
What exactly have I learned? Here are 3 crucial lessons.
1) Ministry Can Put You In A Bubble
Before my departure, I was basically in or around ministry in one form or another for my entire life. I grew up in a pastor’s home, started leading worship at age 18, led our college ministry at 20, and became a vocational pastor at 25.
I was all in, all the time. Prick me and I bled ministry.
But ministry is a funny thing. The longer you’re in it, the more you forget what it’s like outside it. Every day, you can spend your time in commentaries and budget meetings and strategic planning sessions and Sunday reviews. You may immerse yourself in study and prayer, church wide initiatives and creating formal paths to membership.
You can become a ministry “bubble boy” of sorts – mentally cut off, isolated in a somewhat artificial world that most people never enter. Maybe not quite this extreme, but you get the point.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in a ministry mindset that you forget what it’s like to be a “normal” Christian with normal problems working a 9-5 job. You forget that 99% of the congregation doesn’t think about what you think about. They are preoccupied with simply being faithful Christians – paying the bills, caring for family, navigating relational dysfunction, struggling with the grit and grind of marriage.
They don’t have a 5-year vision for the church. They’re just trying to make it on Sundays.
This has at least three implications for me in the future.
- Be with people in non-ministry related ways. Not at community group or in formal counseling sessions. Not only on Sundays. More like over a slow cup of coffee or pint of beer, just spending time together like “normal” people do. No agenda. No specific purpose. Not for the purpose of dispensing pastoral wisdom. Just presence. To learn what their lives are like. Their struggles, battles, and joys.
- To lead people slowly through any change. Though I may have been pondering a particular change for months, when I mention it to someone it’s probably the first time they’re hearing it. To expect them to be immediately on board is absurd. They probably need months to process as well.
- Lay elders are really valuable. Vocational elders are hugely important, but so are lay elders. They live “regular” Christian lives while still being integrally involved in church leadership. They can help me see when an idea is unrealistic, unreasonable, or just plain idiotic. And they can function as guardrails when ambition or stupidity threatens to take me over a cliff.
2) Many People Stay Silent With Their Opinions
In every church, there are at least two groups of people:
- The loud minority who regularly voice their somewhat disgruntled opinion.
- The silent majority who have an opinion but stay quiet.
As a regular member of a church, most of my time is spent with the silent majority. We chat about things happening in the church and share opinions with each other, but rarely feel like we need to take them to the pastors. They’re just not that crucial.
But what I’ve discovered is that the opinions I hear from the silent majority are usually really insightful. They are held by godly people who don’t have an axe to grind with the church or the pastors. They are mostly in line with the vision of the church and they want to see the church succeed. And it tends to be because they’re godly and don’t want to bother the pastors that they don’t share their opinions.
But here’s the rub: those insights can be really helpful. They are usually a somewhat accurate reflection of what’s actually happening in the church, and they’re presented in a non-confrontational way.
The implication for me is that I need to go out of my way to get people’s thoughts on various things happening in the church.
“Hey, tell me what you think about this. Is it a good idea? Is it way off? Would you find this helpful?”
Sure, I might feel “a little pinch” (as the nurse holding the hypodermic always say) if their opinions cut close to home, but in the end this is really good. It gives clarity and correction.
3) Most Things Aren’t That Important
It’s so easy to get fired up about big ministry plans. That 20-year projection or the 8 different new ministries starting in the fall. We get so excited about this or that strategic initiative, eager to do massive, world-shaking things for Jesus. This fire is fed even more after attending this or that conference where our favorite speakers stoke our vision to do great things for God.
And while all those things matter, more and more I’m convinced that they don’t matter all that much.
The pastor is called to be a shepherd. Shepherding is quiet work involving feeding, caring, leading, and protecting. This isn’t sexy, big, glamorous work. It’s daily and mundane, often behind closed doors. It’s done in counseling sessions with weeping spouses and beside hospital beds. It happens on Saturday nights when preparing the sermon.
The most godly Christians I know are those who faithfully do the small things. Bible reading. Prayer. Serving. Not much more. They aren’t radically changed by big pastoral plans, they’re slowly transformed through simple, plodding shepherding.
Many of the things I used to get pumped about don’t excite me anymore. They’re certainly important, but not essential. Slow and faithful is what’s most important.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’m eager to get back to ministry, but don’t have any sort of timeline. We’ll see where God leads.
It’s hard for me to overstate the importance of my time away from ministry. It’s been truly eye-opening and incredibly helpful. And it’s given me fresh perspective on what really matters and what’s just icing on the cake.
I would love to see every pastor should take some time off from ministry, but obviously that’s not possible.
So go for the next best thing: spend a lot of time with those not in ministry. You won’t regret it.