I was in seminary, and had never been a pastor before. But I knew God was preparing me to become one, and my desire was to church plant. So I was overjoyed when a pastor asked me to join him in a new church close to where I lived. This was exactly what I wanted to do, and seemed like the perfect opportunity.
But I had no way of knowing that perhaps the most significant lesson I would learn through that experience would be from the pastor himself. After several years of ministry the church plant disbanded and the pastor left the ministry. He and I still kept in touch after the church shut down, but that communication dwindled over time. I found out he wasn’t going to church much anymore, and when I challenged him about that, he cut me out of his life.
I was shocked. We had been so close. We were together on the battlefield, partners in the gospel, slugging it out in that start-up church. What happened? How did this happen? Were there warning signs along the way? As I look back on that experience, I’ve pulled out three lessons for pastors—warnings you could call them—from a pastor leaving the ministry:
- Separate your ministry from your identity
He was told his whole life that he was supposed to be a pastor. It was so clear. “You have all these tremendous gifts and a deep love for people,” they would say. And he did. It all made sense. That was why God placed him on the planet: to be a pastor.
But when everything came crashing down, he lost more than the church. He lost himself. Everything that he had been preparing for and moving towards his whole life had been stripped from him. In hindsight, there were some warning signs of identity confusion, but those never really came to fruition until the church shut down.
So now I encourage pastors to ask themselves early and often, why am I doing what I do? Ministry needs to be first and foremost about our own sanctification. We are Christians first, and pastors second, if at all. God doesn’t need us in ministry, and we’re not completed or defined by our ministries. Contentment has to come from our relationship with Christ, not from the ebbs and flows of vocational ministry.
- Beware of feeling ‘called’ to ministry when your wife isn’t
Pastors: if your wife isn’t ready to go into ministry, then neither are you. Ministry is difficult enough even with a wife who is fully on board. But when a wife is barely hanging in there, it can signal a disaster waiting to happen. I’ve heard numerous stories of pastors just gritting it out, living in a perpetual state of survival and endurance, because their spouse resents the ministry. That is not how God designed the ministry to work.
This can be very difficult to identify, because generally wives want to support their husbands. But pastors need to take the time to talk and pray with their wives, and ensure that they understand how the Lord has called them into ministry.
If the sacrifices of ministry seem like more of a complaint and less of an opportunity for joy, that’s a serious concern. If a life of ministry is discussed as, “holding the family back,” that must be worked through.
Wives are often hesitant to express their concerns, because they don’t want to be the reason that their husbands don’t follow what they feel is their calling. So the warning for husbands is to not lay heavy loads of guilt or manipulation on their wives. Don’t make your wife feel like you can’t be obedient to God if she doesn’t jump on board.
- Leaders are not immune from going out from us-
John warns us:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19)
Now let me be clear, my pastor was not a false teacher. On the contrary, he was a strong expository preacher and bold proclaimer of the gospel. That’s part of what made all of this so difficult to comprehend. And I do still hold out hope and pray that he is simply in a season of faltering in his faith and will once again come back to the church and continue on with the saints. But this verse was all I needed to be reminded of the fact that even leaders can walk away. No one is immune from backsliding and falling away.
The question for pastors: what will you do when ministry doesn’t turn out like you expected? If the church disbands, or if the elders fire you, then what? I hope that you don’t walk away from the church, the truth, or the faith.
My experience serves as a constant reminder to make sure my (and my wife’s) identity is in Christ, not in a vocation.