Pastors Leaving Ministry: Crafting Winning Secular Résumés

Pastors Leaving Ministry: Crafting Winning Secular Résumés January 15, 2024

My last article discussed the decisions some pastors make to leave church ministry. Here, we’ll build your skills-based secular résumé.

Closeup of man and woman shaking hands. Man is wearing tie. Woman is holding notebook.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels

If you’re a minister who’s decided that it’s time to leave ecclesiastical work, you have soft skills that any employer would like to gain in an employee. The trick is convincing them of that. With a skills-based secular résumé, you can convince a hiring manager that you are the person they want.


A Skills-Based Résumé:

It’s just what it sounds like. A skills-based secular résumé puts your skills ahead of your work history. Nobody’s interested in the choirs you led, how many people you baptized, or whether you play the piano. However, pastors do have soft skills that can translate into hundreds of other professions. The trick is highlighting those soft skills at the top of your résumé. Don’t bury them in the middle.

Most employers take only a few seconds to look at each résumé. You want to make sure that your skills stand out. Instead of a work-history-based résumé, try creating a skills-based résumé. As a former pastor, you have soft skills that would be valuable to any employer. You have been a supervisor, an office manager, a counselor, a consultant, a writer, a public speaker, and an activist. You are a compassionate listener, a creative thinker, a problem solver, and a motivator. Perhaps you have worked with building committees and architects and zoning commissions. Maybe you have served on community boards or civic organizations. Highlight your skills first.


A Sample Skills-Based Résumé

Here’s a sample outline of a skills-based résumé:

  • Name with contact information

Make sure this is up to date. If you have a LinkedIn account, make sure to include that.

  • Professional Summary

    (More current than the outdated “objective.”) Try something like: “Successful professional in the field of motivational speaking and writing, volunteer supervision, outreach, marketing, counseling, teaching, nonprofit management, and charitable work. It is my goal to help (name the specific company) serve its (customers, clientele, etc) by offering excellent dedication and service.” Remember to change this to fit the specific company every time you send your résumé.

  • Skills (Here’s a sample)

    • CRISIS CARE OF INDIVIDUALS – Includes crisis intervention; conflict resolution; In-office counseling; visitation in hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and homes; Justice work for underserved populations including ethnic, linguistic, and sexual minorities. Special attention to the care of seniors and youth, in one-on-one and group settings. Established food pantry, clothes closet, and soup kitchen for homeless and underserved individuals in the community.
    • MANAGEMENT – Includes office management; project management; multitasking; fundraising; time management; event organization; supervision of staff and volunteers; development of promotional strategies; use of Microsoft Office Suite. Use of Google suite of software.
    • COMMUNICATION – Includes use of telephone, email, and social media communication; maintained organizational websites; creative employment of artistic and multi-sensory methods of communication; frequent use of other languages; public speaking.
    • LEADERSHIP – Includes Team building; leadership development; teaching; consulting; planning and leading educational events and groups; public speaking; chair of nonprofit board meetings, following Robert’s Rules of Order; Leadership of building expansion program from dream to reality, doubling the size of facility.
  • Education 

If it’s possible to de-emphasize religious education, please do so, while still being honest. For example, I can honestly list my Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University as “Bachelor of Arts Degree from the School of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University.” If you have a Master’s of Divinity from a seminary, don’t conceal it—any master’s degree is impressive. But if it is possible to put it in secular terms, do that. Your M.Div. will come up in conversation—you’re not concealing it. You simply aren’t highlighting it.

  • Certificates, Licenses, and Training

    Here’s where you get to highlight education you feel may be important in a secular setting. For example, if you received training on church management software and databases, list that.

  • Work History

    Now that you’ve included everything else, it’s time to say, “Oh yeah, and I got all that experience while working as a pastor.” If your career is more than ministry, here’s where you can highlight everything else you’ve done, on top of ministry.

  • References

    List your references on a separate page, available upon request. Obviously, you’re going to include only those people who actually liked you from your former churches. Consider asking a trusted individual in your current church, if you’re still serving as a pastor, to be a reference. This can be delicate, so do be careful with this.


The Cover Letter

Cover letters can be important tools to introduce your résumé to prospective employers. Remember to keep them short and professional. Don’t include faith and family as you might in a ministry cover letter. Instead, reference your management skills in the nonprofit sector, without calling yourself a pastor in your cover letter. You’re not lying—you’ll be transparent once you get an interview. Just like the skills-based secular resume, with a good cover letter, you’re simply putting your best secular foot forward.


The God Who Called You

Remember, the same God who called you into ministry can call you out of it. Ordination can be for a season and doesn’t have to be for a lifetime. Or, you may decide to keep your ordination and exercise your calling in a secular location. Walking away from church employment doesn’t mean you’re abandoning God. It just means you believe in a God who will be with you anywhere you go, and whatever you do for a living.

About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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