Post-Church Church Leaders

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon:

What do these people have in common?
  • The single woman in her mid-thirties with $40,000 worth of seminary debt now working as an office manager for a software vendor.
  • The former youth pastor now installing replacement windows for a home-improvement company.
  • The veteran minister with 20 years of pastoral experience now an anonymous attender at another congregation after losing his job when a nasty split took place in his old church.
Each aimed at vocational ministry, believing this was how God was asking them to serve him. Now each is adjusting to life on the other side of that dream, calling, or desire.

Since leaving our former leadership roles in a local church more than a decade ago, my husband and I have talked to many, many people who were once either in college or seminary preparing to enter full-time vocational ministry and couldn’t find a job upon graduation, or those who had been in ministry and for a whole host of reasons were no longer in a leadership role. Some were no longer part of an institutional church in any way.

The lure of the promise to spiritually-minded emerging adults that they are destined to be world changers, given them at conferences, retreats and youth group meetings as they grew up, meshes with the ambition that characterizes this life stage. I’ve informally followed the trajectory of some of the amazing, committed students I knew from my days working at Trinity International University who were preparing for vocational ministry. A percentage did connect with paying ministry positions after graduation and are still employed by a church or parachurch ministry five or ten years later. Others found a ministry position, only to discover that the cold reality of harsh politics and/or dwindling church finances pushed them out of a job before the ink was fully dry on their degree. And too many faced a long hall full of closed doors. These people have moved into other lines of work, hampered by the challenging combination of a difficult economy and a degree that doesn’t always translate neatly to other fields.

Some who’ve been in full-time vocational ministry remain stuck in their roles because of that latter reality. (If this is you, I commend you to the excellent work of sociologist Josh Packard and Todd Ferguson, who are compiling stories and data of those who feel trapped by their job and/or finished with institutional religion: click here for more info.) What remains of our faith when we’re not holding the mic and running the show at a church anymore? Packard and Ferguson are asking good questions about this, and working to listen well to the answers.

Scripture verses like “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7) can imply to church attenders, would-be and ex-leaders alike that whoever is in charge at a church or ministry is obviously God’s Pick for the job, and all others are kept from the position solely by his sovereignty. Besides being a terrible bit of eisegesis (Psalm 75 is about the righteous judgement of God, not a guarantee of job security for a pastor), I’ve seen these kinds of passages used to build defensive moats from Bible verses around bad leaders.

I know what it is to feel forced out of a ministry role by nepotism and bad church politics. It took years (and some time with a wonderful counselor) to process my own regret and sift my identity from the seeming debris of church ministry. There were times when I wasn’t sure how much of my faith would survive. But what has survived was real. The rest – my need to be needed, noticed, heard, valued – were good gifts from the One who made me, but needed some refining. In his love for me, he has and continues to do so.

My informal conversations with those who are would-be leaders facing closed doors and those who were once leaders but are no more circle toward questions of identity and regret. Who are you without the position? Were your efforts a noble waste? Can you reclaim your investment of money, time, and desire? Who is God? What is your relationship with the Church and your community to be now?

I hope to dig a little further into these questions in coming blog posts. (Stay tuned.) For today, I’d like to leave one question on the table for those who were once in a position of Church leadership (lay or paid) but aren’t any more: If you could hit the “reset” button on your church leadership experience, what one thing would you change?   

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