Formation

Pastors, You Can Leave—So, Feel Free to Stay

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I am torn as I write this. In the last three months, I’ve heard dozens of stories of pastors leaving their churches. I get it…the pandemic has been hard. Many pastors who already planted their church had to re-plant their church when everything went online. And now, they look toward a future of reopening and rebuilding ministry teams and essentially re-re-planting their churches a third time. Like I said, it’s been hard.

Some of these transitions are a result of pastors who left for opportunities in other churches. Some were pastors who left their church without knowing what’s next. And far too many were a result of the various scandals from pastoral failures that have wrought trauma on the local, national, and global church. Whatever the reason for leaving, pain and grief emerge. And I know this because I left my pastoral job not too long ago.

Six years ago, I received a text from a trusted friend about a position at a non-profit organization. My friend told me that he thought I would be a good fit for the job. I researched the organization, the position, the work culture, and everything seemed great. But, there was something that was still unresolved in my heart. So, I called a dozen pastor friends of mine about the most pressing question I had in my mind: “Can I really leave pastoring?” And the corollary questions: “If I leave and want to come back, will anyone hire me?” And, “Do I have any actual skills that are useful outside of the church?”

I had been pastoring for nearly 20 years and all I knew was running a church. The way I saw it, I had no marketable skills to speak of that would give me any options for gainful employment. Luckily, the position I was applying for was in Church Partnerships. So, my job was to network with pastors, cast vision for partnership and preach a message of justice to congregations. I say “luckily” because I felt like the core components of my new job were similar enough to my decades of pastoring that I could hang on just long enough to make it.

So I decided to leave the church and made the leap to a non-profit.

And you know what? As soon as I got there, I was exposed. My new colleagues who were all seasoned veterans of the secular workforce saw right through my façade and quickly realized that I was a fraud…there was finger pointing and water cooler murmuring about how I was so clearly a fish out of water…and actually, NONE of that happened.

Instead, what I realized is that people skills in the church translate to people skills outside of the church; that good strategic thinking in the church translates to good strategic thinking outside of the church; that effective leadership in the church translates to effective leadership outside of the church. I was fine.

People skills in the church translate to people skills outside of the church...effective leadership in the church translates to effective leadership outside of the church. Click To Tweet

Equipped to Serve

In fact, I was more than fine. I was equipped. I had been set up for success. I led my first missions trip when I was 24. I led a whole missions program for multiple churches when I was 26. I was lead pastoring a church when I was 33. I had been given access to authority working inside the church at a much faster pace than I would have received working outside of the church. I have benefitted from a diverse set of experiences that have equipped me very well. But, the problem was that I couldn’t see it.

Consider these two candidates and their qualifications:

Candidate A

  • Preaches once a month
  • Leads the welcoming ministry
  • Coordinates the worship service
  • Runs the pastoral staff meeting
  • Manages Sunday volunteer teams
  • Conducts pastoral counseling

Candidate B

  • Skilled at communication and public speaking
  • Leads strategy and operations for a team of 25
  • Plans events that weekly reaches hundreds of people
  • Manages a staff of 12, casting vision and setting strategy
  • Mobilizes teams of 100 to implement vision of the organization
  • Builds diverse community together through interpersonal skills and communication

Which of these two candidates would you hire for your job? Well, here’s the thing: they’re the same person! It’s the same set of skills cast through a different lens.

If you ask a hiring manager, “Would you hire a strong communicator, people person, strategic thinker, event planner, experienced leader, community mobilizer with an impeccable character?”, I think they would probably ask to see a picture of this unicorn in the wild. 

So if you leave, you’re going to be fine. You have been equipped. You have marketable skills for a variety of jobs outside of the church. The opportunities are there, but you just might not see it. 

Pastors, you can leave.

You have marketable skills for a variety of jobs outside of the church. The opportunities are there, but you just might not see it. Pastors, you can leave. Click To Tweet

When You’re Feeling Trapped

Some of you might be reading this saying, “Yes! This is my ticket out of here! This is the pep talk that I’ve been waiting for.” And if that’s you, then, I hope that you find freedom and fulfillment in the next phase of your life. (And I’m writing this as someone who made that decision six years ago.) But keep reading. 

Because my heart in writing this is not to have more pastors leave their churches. It’s not to have a mass exodus of pastors leaving the holy places of the church for the marketplaces of business. No, my hope is to have the opposite effect.

You see, with every story of a moral failure of a pastor or leader, with every story of burnout, with every story of a leader leaving ministry, too often, lurking in the shadows, is that unshakeable feeling of that pastor feeling stuck, or worse, feeling trapped. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret that all of us clergy already know: pastors often feel stuck. They think, “I can’t leave the church because what else am I going to do?” I know this mentality exists, because I felt that same way. And I’ve spoken to many pastors who also feel stuck, including three just in the last week.

And that the feeling of being trapped builds into a feeling of pressure that can lead to burnout or moral failure. Pastors, before you get to that point, before you feel like the only way out of their current situation is either through disobedience or disqualification to your call, I hope you can find a sense of freedom. A freedom to reevaluate and maybe rediscover your calling. A freedom to remember why you chose to enter into ministry to begin with. A freedom to reimagine what the next years of your ministry will look like. 

Pastors, before you feel like the only way out of your current situation is either through disobedience or disqualification to your call, I hope you can find a sense of freedom. Click To Tweet

I also understand that the issue of calling is a complex one. Many pastors evaluate their decisions about their job through a spiritual lens and not a practical one. So certainly this is not the only and final word on this subject. However, I hope that this can be an encouragement to those that are considering leaving, and specifically to those who feel stuck in their job because of limited professional options. 

Like I said earlier, I feel torn writing this—I don’t want pastors to feel like they should leave, just because they can. Instead, I want them to feel like they can stay, even though they don’t have to. 

As you read this, you may not feel convinced to stay in your ministry role. And that’s fine. But, whether you choose to stay or leave, I hope that you will find the freedom to make that decision without feeling trapped. 

Pastors, you can leave. So, feel free to stay. Not because you have to. But because you choose to.

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