it is still difficult for pastors to leave the ministry

it is still difficult for pastors to leave the ministry May 2, 2013

I wrote this a year ago. It still applies. I frequently talk with pastors, and the struggle they are enduring is unbelievable. It’s believable to me though because I’ve experienced it and experience it still. This is what I wrote a year ago and I repost it in total because I would say the exact same thing today.

I am a pastor who left the ministry. It was one of the most difficult decisions and transitions I ever made. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s career. It is much more complex than that.

Here’s why:

  1. money: Like any other career change, it is very frightening to let your salary go. Even if it might be an insufficient one, it is still difficult to let go of your guaranteed income. Most pastors have no idea how they will provide support for themselves and their families if they leave.
  2. family: Especially if your family is Christian, they had so much pride in the fact that you were “serving the Lord“. Pastors will anticipate a great deal of disappointment from their families when they walk away from this very special calling that so many people took such delight in.
  3. self: When pastors get ordained, they, like me, vow that they will never, ever give up. They swear that they will serve the Lord and the church until death. To even think about surrendering this induces an incredible amount of personal shame.
  4. theology: I always took great comfort from scriptures such as, “Run the race. Fight the good fight.” These passages helped me in the worst of times to persevere. To quit the ministry evokes enormous feelings of spiritual failure.
  5. vocation: Almost all the pastors I have known are very specially trained. They have focused their whole lives and educations on theology and ministry to others. It is feared that to walk away from the only job that employs these skills is to expose oneself to a completely unmarketable and unemployable position. Usually it requires retraining, which in itself is too daunting to face.
  6. congregation: To leave the ministry is to walk away from the congregation that the pastor has served. It can feel like abandoning your family. In fact, some might accuse the pastor of being a false shepherd who abandons the sheep. To anticipate this painful separation is excruciating.
  7. enemies: Those who have questioned, ridiculed or even opposed the pastor’s ministry will suddenly have all the ammunition they need to say, “I told you so!” I’ve heard many times that leaving the ministry was proof that I shouldn’t have been a pastor to begin with. It feels like throwing in the towel, and there are people who love to cheer that demonstration of surrender.
  8. meaning: To leave most jobs doesn’t bear the weightiness that leaving the ministry does. Leaving the ministry carries an existential significance that shoots a resigning pastor into the darkest of nights because, as most pastors sense, their job wasn’t just a job, but an extension of their spiritual selves. Ministry is the expression of their convictions, and to leave the job appears to be the desertion of these core convictions.
  9. waste: All pastors are taught and believe that they are planting seeds. They toil year after year with faith that one day their labor will bear fruit. To consider leaving the ministry is to consider relinquishing the garden and to leave it untended or under the care of another who doesn’t share the same commitments. All that work is gone to waste without any chance of sharing in the harvest, if it ever comes.
  10. friends: When pastors leave the ministry, they leave friends. For one, they are walking away from their peers in ministry. They are quitting that team. But they are also walking away from people they’ve served through their births, baptisms, marriages, divorces, deaths, tragedies and spiritual pilgrimages. They are saying farewell to people they have loved in very significant ways, intuitively knowing that walking away from the community network will also endanger their chances of that ever happening again.

If you are a pastor, perhaps you can think of another reason why quitting the ministry is very difficult. I would appreciate your comments… anonymously if necessary.

The Lasting Supper has several members who used to be in the ministry and church leadership. Come join us.

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  • klhayes

    I feel like a lot of those issues can be applied to any profession and have felt that at times. But being a “Man/Woman of God” definitely gets you put on a pedestal. And that is dangerous for the one put there and the ones who put him or her there.

  • Adam Julians

    What do you define as “the ministry”?

    Would you say that such was any more of an issue to do with money, serving the Lord, theology and minstry to others, familiy, having enemies, extension of spritual self, seeds and harvest, and freindships for someone who is in “the ministry” as you define it than say, someone who’s life partner has retired, and is not in “the ministry” but is also a follower of Jesus?

    My father had a difficult time when he retired because so much or his work was tied up with the rest of his life. Would you see that as different or similar?

    Isn’t the same amount of difficuluty and challenge for anyone who has faced a similar significant life changing event?

  • David, I perceive #1 as religion’s hardest problem. The “salary-career-power” matrix is an unhealthy bedfellow to the life Jesus modeled. I’m convinced that clerics, writers, professors, and others who derive a career from religious management of some sort often act against their better conscience for fear of losing income or their stature in the institution-organization-community in which they’ve risen to a high level of influence, or both.

    And then there’s the rare bird like you who LEFT the security and stature of traditional religious employment to follow your better conscience.

    I do think that 2,000 years of Western religion has evolved far less to bring spiritual freedom to the masses and far more as a vehicle of gainful employment to those who best manage and perpetuate the cycles of mediocrity.

  • This is a really good list. I’m now a “community pastor,” which is to say that I don’t have an official congregation and the paycheck that comes with it. My primary focus is what I identify as postmodern ministry. It’s very difficult to do this within the context of an existing congregation. My goal is to build something new. In order to explore that, I had to leave congregational leadership behind.

    For me, the hardest part of the transition was parting ways with the position that I had invested so much time, energy, and resources to attain. Also, I had to find a “real” job. To this day I sometimes find myself feeling a bit jealous of those who hold pastoral offices and can enjoy the security those offices bring.

    Still, I don’t think I could go back. There is a freedom in what I do that pastors generally don’t have. The freedom I have has contributed to me being able to pursue my own sense of unique destiny in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before.

  • Adam Julians

    Thanks for sharing that. I find myself in a similar positon. I have been involved in pastoral work in a church setting but have a freedom from what I do in communities outside of the chruch that I didn’t get inside it.

    I too don’t have the security that would come wiht the position of paid employment in a church. And part of me looks at others and sees the fianancial security in that and the sense of belonging in community that this gives. I’m just not that good with the church politics that comes along wiht that which for me has made such position more of a hindrance than a help.

    It seems to me that this is not dissimilar to the position the apostle Paul was in. In that, he had his own employment with tent-making. If we are being paid for a position, does it not mean that others get to hold the reigns so to speak as to what we do in that position which may or may not be in keeing with Christ?