March 21, 1979
The author, for obvious reasons, prefers to make his witness anonymously. A former minister of a conservative Presbyterian denomination, he has faced courageously a personal crisis and found his way through it while holding onto his faith.
September, 1977, was a turning point in my life. I finally had the opportunity—and the courage, I should add—to leave church work altogether for the first time in my adult life. And I latched onto the opportunity!
I was taking a “secular” job—”secular” in the sense of not being church sponsored. I had just spent a short three months in my first totally non-church related job in 13 years and I really enjoyed it! However, just to be safe and comfortable I had continued to hold an official position in a local congregation. You know, just in case things didn’t work out in the “real world.”
Well, as it happened, things didn’t work out. But when I was “pink slipped” three months later, a good friend offered me a position with a Christian organization in the South with a generous salary. After talking it over with my wife we agreed that now that the “break” had been made I shouldn’t try to continue in the ministry. At least not now. So I took a position 3,000 miles away with a business firm which specialized in real estate development.
After four years in the pastorate and for the first time since I became a Christian some 13 years before, I was not being paid by, or officially connected to, a church-related enterprise. Why, at the age of 34 with a wife and two small daughters, did I leave a vocation for which I was amply trained? That what this testimony is all about.
The compelling reason to leave church work was the simple realization that I was not called by God (on the basis of the gifts enumerated in Eph. 4:11 and Acts 20:28) to be a shepherd of His sheep. I had the shepherd’s training but not his heart (John 10). I had the shepherd’s expe¬rience but not his soul (I Pet. 5:1-5).
When I became aware of this, it made me unsatisfied in the pastorate. It didn’t matter how well I preached or taught the Word, or how well I administered church affairs, or how well I counseled the church members —without that special love for God’s redeemed children which only He can give I could not adequately “tend the flock” (John 21:15-17).
I believe the flock knew it (if only subliminally) because I surely began to sense it. Consequently, when I had the chance to make an orderly transition out of the pastoral ministry I took it. Several developments in the course of my life in church work contributed to the realization that I was not called to be a shepherd.
The first development in forming my decision was an urge to prove to myself that I could do something oth¬er than church work. I wanted to be in a position to know that I chose to remain in the pastorate because that was what I wanted to do more than anything else, not because it was the only thing I could do, or the easiest thing I could do.
To get into that position, I needed to get out of church work completely and accomplish some personal goals in the secular work world so that if I ever chose the shepherd’s life again it would be a real choice—not a step taken by default!
I’m convinced the call to be a shepherd should be in vocational competition with other callings so that when one answers God’s call it is the compelling option among several possibilities (Amos 7:14-15; 1 Cor. 7:20). I have written this elsewhere, but it is my sad observation that a significant number of pastors and workers in Christian organizations have never held secular jobs for any appreciable length of time—nor do they give evidence that they could. In fact, there seems to be a tendency for young evangelicals to withdraw from the secular marketplace to seek vocational refuge among the flock of God (see Christ’s words in John 17:14-18).
My present choice to take up a secular occupation has had the unexpected benefit of letting me understand, for the first time, what most of my parishioners endure in the non-Christian environment. It was quite a shock to my fragile, cloistered sanctification!
I believe that without having held a secular job and undergoing the temptations, pressures, insults and scrutiny inherent in a non-church occupation I would not be able to empathize to the same extent with the sheep God might put under my care in the future (Acts 18:2-3; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Luke 2: 52).
Such attributes honored in the world (and in the Church) as patience, graciousness, generosity, kindness, loyalty, trustworthiness, selflessness are Christian traits that sometimes need to be burned into the parchment of individual believers through the fire of personal struggle with the Chaldeans (Hab. 1-2; 2 Cor. 3:2-3).
A second development in the progress toward my decision that I lacked a pastoral call was that I came to admit that I was ashamed of being a minister. I remember being on vacation and associating with non-Christian acquaintances who were successful businessmen—lawyers, dentists, and others—people recognized as achievers and contributors in their respective communities. I was only the insignificant leader of a rather small church in a rather small denomination. And I was going nowhere professionally, financially, or functionally.
Simply put, I came to want more respect, prestige and influence than I thought the pastorate could give me.
Of course the real problem was my own lack of self-esteem, and the need to see whatever I did as being vitally important in the kingdom of God. But I grew up thinking that preachers were non-producers and therefore somewhat less than essential or important to the welfare of a community. However abusive that childhood notion was, it did not help my sense of self-worth (or the dispelling of that notion) to be associated with pastors who seemed to fit such an erroneous image.
I came to the realization that the most helpful thing for me to do would be to leave the pastorate and deal with my conception of the shepherd’s call, as well as my own self-acceptance (Matt. 22:39).
For the time being then, I believe that if I am to leave a sanctifying mark on society (Matt. 5:13-16) the best avenue for me to accomplish that objective is a secular occupation.
Money was not really a factor in my leaving the pastoral ministry, although one probably will not prosper financially in the pulpit. To paraphrase Paul, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty” (Phil. 4:12). I do prefer to have plenty.
I have always believed that if a man frets under the salary available in church work he ought to get out (no one forces him into that line of work), rather than trying to devise ways to get rich from his undershepherd’s calling (I Tim. 6:5), or before he becomes a chronic complainer (I Cor. 9:3-12) or a professional mooch (2 Thess. 3:7-9). Vocations are paid in kind (I Cor. 9:9) and a pastor’s pay cannot be solely measured in monetary terms. As a conveyor of God’s peace and blessing he enjoys much benefit from that peace and tran¬quility which comes from the somewhat sequestered life of a minister.
Throughout my years in Christian work (especially the pastorate) it was common talk among my colleagues that being in “full-time Christian service” was the highest calling to which a person could be appointed by God. I don’t believe it. Surely it is a high calling; surely it is an essential calling. But for the orderly function of the body of Christ on earth, it is a no more crucial calling than any number of other vocations (I Cor. 12).
In the final analysis, it is hard for my colleagues still in the pastoral ministry to fully believe that I am fulfilled and contented outside church work, having once tasted the shepherd’s life. There is the tendency for them to think that for the moment I am not experiencing “God’s best” for me, and that eventually I will return to my pastoral roots.
Return I may, but only when God clearly and unequivocally directs me from my present secular vocation. I am back in the situation I was in when God first called me to Him (I Cor. 7:20). He can do it again. But meanwhile, I am finding more personal satisfaction and enjoyment away from the pastor’s life than I found while in it.