Reflections on Stepping Away from Pastoral Ministry
I've been asked this question by friends, family members, and readers of this blog ever since I left local church ministry a few months ago to begin a new role as an editor at LifeWay. The question itself is hard to answer. I immediately want to say "yes" and "no." After a little probing, I discover that certain assumptions hide behind the question.
Some people think of God's calling as a fixed vocational role for one's life. If God calls you to serve on a foreign mission field, you go there for the rest of your life. If God calls you to be a pastor, that's what you do until you retire. When people conceive of God's role in terms of a fixed vocation, they don't easily understand how a person might move from one ministry role to another. It seems to be a rejection of one's initial calling.
I have no doubt that God does call people to fixed vocational roles. However, for me, God's call to ministry was general. When I packed my bags and moved to Romania for five years, I was careful to tell people, I don't sense a call to Romania for the rest of my life. I don't know where this journey will lead me. All I know is that God wants me to do this task right now. The same was true when I served as associate pastor in a Baptist church in the South. The same is true for my time at LifeWay. I have not given up my calling to preach and teach. I've answered the call of God at this time and in this place to help launch a new curriculum for small groups that I hope will point people to Jesus.
Thoughts on Temporarily Leaving Pastoral Ministry
It's been five months now since I left pastoral ministry to come to LifeWay. I've been making some notes about how this transition has affected us.
The initial feeling was a wave of relief. I felt released from stress I didn't know I had been carrying. The initial relief felt similar to my brother's return from Iraq. During the months he was overseas, even though I prayed for him often, I tried to avoid thinking about him being in a combat zone. Upon his return, I wept tears of joy and felt as if a major burden was lifted. Life suddenly became less stressful.
Leaving church ministry felt that way, even though our church experience had been wonderful. I realize now that serving in a pastoral role in a local church is inherently stressful. Even when the church situation is healthy and desirable, pastors bear the unique burden of shepherding the flock. An underlying level of stress is omnipresent. You're never really "off." You're never really "unavailable." Your family is always in the spotlight. Your work bleeds into all areas of your life. And when you have a passionate desire to teach the Word faithfully, care for the sheep, share each other's burdens, and evangelize the lost... well, you can imagine the stress that accompanies this position, as the work is never-ending. I wasn't even aware of the stress I was carrying until I was out from under it.
If you are a church member reading this, please - love your pastors. They need support. Discipling people can be painfully discouraging at times. So encourage them. Pray for them. Strengthen them. Love them.
2. Renewed Worship
After we moved, we began looking for a local church. As a former staff member, I felt disoriented to suddenly be searching for a church. It felt strange to be on the outside looking in, to be the stranger in the parking lot, or the visitor at the welcome center.
My wife and I didn't have any particular preferences that we wanted to see enshrined anywhere. Our biggest desire was to find a place where the gospel was preached consistently and faithfully. Most encouraging to me was the fact that - even with stylistic differences - we heard the gospel proclaimed clearly in each church we visited. It was comforting to know that there is more than one Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church in the town we live in. But we didn't just want a church that preaches the gospel; we wanted a church that makes the gospel the focus of celebration each week. We eventually settled on this kind of church, with the added blessing that this church is close to our home.
Corporate worship in another church was particularly refreshing. When you're on staff, it's difficult to focus on Christ during worship because there are dozens of things demanding your attention. In a new church setting, it was refreshing to sing, hear the Word preached, and enjoy the service. (This need for refreshment is another reason why pastors and staff members benefit from time away every now and then.)
3. Renewed Passion for Teaching
For the first few months, I didn't miss teaching and preaching. In fact, it was energizing to not be teaching every week. After about two months, though, I began to get the itch to teach again. Thankfully, the Lord has provided preaching and teaching opportunities in recent months.
My wife reminded me that I never really stopped teaching. I have the privilege to work LifeWay, where I help create discipleship materials to assist local churches fulfill their mission. What a blessing! The day-to-day job of editing a new curriculum has been very enjoyable. I get to work with great people every day. I'm thankful that I get to be in on this new curriculum and see it launch.
4. From the Front Lines to the Supply Tent
Pastors and church leaders are on the front lines of ministry. The local church is the place where the glory of Christ is displayed in fullest measure here on earth. Seminaries, providers of church resources, para-church ministries - all of these are necessary and helpful institutions designed to assist the local church in fulfilling her mission. But they are not on the front lines.
We need people in both places. I miss front-line ministry, particularly when it comes to getting a front-row seat to what God is doing in His church. Salvations, baptisms, discipleship, mercy ministry... I get to see and take part in all of these as a local church member. But church leaders are in the middle of it all, every day of the week. The local church is the vanguard of the kingdom of God. Because I am back in the supply tent now, I miss the front-line intensity.
At the same time, I have the opportunity to see what God is doing on a bigger scale. When you're on the front line, you're so engaged in the current battle that you sometimes miss the big picture of what's going on all around you. Those of us in the supply tent get a bird's eye view of the gospel's advance. It's encouraging to see God working all over the place in all sorts of ways.
Leaving pastoral ministry, even temporarily, has been a challenging step for me and my family. But we have been blessed beyond measure in taking this step.
When I think back on the years we spent in our church, I am reminded that it was never my church. It was always Christ's. God gets all the glory for anything good that came out of our time there. He is the One who is faithful. He is the One who promises to preserve the people who will glorify His name. And that song of praise was resounding from the church long before I got there and it will continue long after I'm gone. Praise to the King!