I sat in my pastor’s office sharing my feelings of being pretty worthless, of feeling abandoned by my peers. I felt like I had sold my soul to the devil, or something worse. After 18 years of steady ministry as solo pastor, senior pastor, or associate pastor, I had reached the point where I just couldn’t keep doing it, and resigned. I was now working in the construction industry as a project manager—running a budget and schedule for major commercial remodeling projects—a long ways from preparing sermons, doing hospital visitation, and discipling men.
My pastor shared a piece of wisdom with me that I will never forget: ‘Chris, there are only two honorable ways to leave the pastorate: retire or die.’ He meant that the vast majority of the ministry world views it that way. Well, I had done neither. I was way too young to retire, and I was pretty sure I was still alive (although on bad days I wondered….). So that meant that I had left the pastorate in a dishonorable way. Or so it seemed.
In the days and weeks that followed, I wrestled with many questions, not the least of which was ‘Can I still pray?’ I wondered if God answered prayer about things that were not ministry related. Was it spiritual to ask God to intervene in a remodeling job I had going? Did God care that I couldn’t find a subcontractor to do the tile work? For nearly 20 years my prayer life had been built around being a pastor and spiritual leader; so now what?
I also wondered what the purpose of Bible reading was now. Of course I had wrestled with the tension of not just reading my Bible for sermon prep, and thought I had struck a pretty good balance. Apparently not.
And then there was the question of calling. God had called me to be a pastor. So now what? Was that call invalidated? Had He never really called me? Is a call revocable?
Probably my biggest question, which took a long time to fully surface, was this: Who am I? I finally realized that my identity had been ‘pastor’ and that was wrong. Completely wrong. And since I was no longer a ‘pastor,’ I had no identity.
Over the next five years I wrestled with each of these questions, and God graciously gave me answers. The answers came slowly in some cases. In fact, over seven years later I am still trying to assess the reasons, the causes, the issues, where I failed and sinned, and where life simply happened. I expect I won’t get the full story till I can sit down with Jesus someday, and ask Him all about it. Maybe then it won’t matter, or I won’t care. But in the meantime, I process. Let me share a few of my ongoing thoughts.
I pretty quickly realized that of course I can pray and read my Bible. And I do those things to maintain a relationship with Jesus, not to achieve a ministry goal, but to get to know the one, true God in a more personal way.
I also determined that yes, I was indeed called to the pastorate. And that I was called out of the pastorate. God’s ultimate call is to salvation and Christlikeness, and I was still on that path. Can’t God call us to different things at different times in our lives? He called Luke to be a physician, then called him to travel with Paul. He called Amos to tend figs, then called him to preach to Israel. He called me to be a pastor, then out of that into construction, then out of that to serve at a Bible college. He could call me to something else someday. What does not change is the call to pursue a passionate, sold out relationship with Christ alone.
And I have slowly learned that my identity is not ‘pastor’ or ‘contractor’ or ‘college professor,’ it is ‘Child of the King.’ I had believed a lie that the pastorate was the ‘highest calling’ and so I placed a very sinful, and fleshly emphasis on my identity as being of the highest calling. O the pride wrapped up in that!
I finally came to grips with the fact that whatever God has called me to—that was the highest calling. When I was a contractor, that was God’s highest calling for me, and not my identity. As Director of Church Relations—that is God’s highest calling for me, and not my identity. My ‘calling’ may change many more times before I die, but my identity never will. I am a Child of the King. Period.
These have not been easy years. This process has been painful, and I have lost friends and colleagues along the way. Probably lost some respect and reputation, too. Right after I resigned, one pastor friend emailed me and told me there obviously was some crisis in my life, or some major problem in the church.
But that is not my concern. I answer to One Person, and only One. I know that I have not always heard His voice clearly. I know that I have not always followed Him perfectly. I know I have had missteps along the way. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Great post Chris. I have gone through similar experiences in a way. I finished medical school and felt strongly called to abandon full-time work as a physician in the U.S. to work serving orphans in Cameoon, Africa.
I agree with you that God can change people’s paths. However, I don’t think you gave enough information for the reader to assess whether indeed God was calling you at any one stage (what made you think it was God for sure etc). I personally don’t think the example of Luke was the best example to use. Before Christ, Luke was a gentile doctor like me. Then he met Christ and was called to follow Paul. I think saying that Luke was called to follow Paul is probable. But to say Luke was called to medicine is possible but not likely. If you make that argument, it seems to mean that anything any unbeliever does is a calling from God. I for one went to an ivy league university and went to medical school because I was capable and wanted to do it. I don’t remember hearing God’s voice to do it as I did to leave it and focus on orphan care and work as a missionary physician…
Again, great article. My website is: http://www.changevolunteers.org/
Thanks Ken. In talking with people about the ‘shame’ of leaving the pastorate, I have often used the example of a doctor leaving his or her healing profession to do welding, or whatever. It is just not socially responsible, or so we think. But no one can say what God is doing in another person’s life, and as you pointed out, sometimes we don’t fully understand what God is doing in our own lives!
Good point about Luke. That even crossed my mind as I wrote it! Same with Amos. But the point still stands that God can and does change our paths. If we could sit and talk, I could share more about my journey and my ‘certainty’ that God did indeed call me to be a pastor. And given my current ministry, one could argue that I am still a pastor in many ways.
Blessings on your good work with orphans!