“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”– 1 Timothy 4:16
As part of my duties as a ruling elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I regularly witness ordination exams. We gather at our presbytery meetings and grill the new candidates for ordination, asking questions about deep theological and doctrinal issues. Having studied hard in seminary and in preparation for the exam, the nervous future pastors work their way through the answers – mostly to the glad approval of all in attendance. Yet what doesn’t normally come up is how these “soon to be” pastors have studied for the care of their own souls. We seem to read past the first couple of words in the verse above in our ever-vigilant pursuit of right doctrine, never considering that a broken life can be the surer end to a promising ministry.
So, when damage has been done and we find ourselves on the sidelines, God sees an opportunity to help us grow. In transition, we have the chance to examine the more substantial issues of the “life” Paul advises us to watch as closely as we do our theological systems. We can look at who we really are – and where our hearts need to be healed. What do exited pastors have the opportunity to address?
Who are you?
The question asked by the famous rock band The Who, popularized as the theme song for the long running TV show C.S.I., is the most important one an exited pastor – or any pastor for that matter – should ask. The big question is “Who am I?”
Far too many of us find our identity in the ministry role to which God calls us. We forget that God’s first call on our lives – and the one that matters most – is to an eternal relationship with Himself. I have become very fond of saying (and so I will say it again) God is more interested in WHO you are than anything you will ever do FOR Him.
The exited pastor is given the rare occasion to discover that his identity does not equal “the call.” He (or she) can move from being a workaholic to someone with realistic personal boundaries. My friend, Ray Carroll (www.FallenPastors.com), has rightly noted “The church is the pastor’s first mistress,” which is a dangerous liaison. Our life is in Christ – remembering our first love is the first step to recovering our sense of self.
I have been inspired, in a counterintuitive way, by the ordination prayer offered over Henri Nouwen by his good friend Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities.
“May all your expectations be frustrated;
May all your plans be thwarted;
May all your desires be withered to nothingness;
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child
and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.”
What is your calling?
Being exited provides a wonderful chance to rethink the role God might want you to fill in His Body, the Church. Sometimes we can feel stuck on a path with no other options – I must be a pastor! This notion is unfortunately reinforced constantly, from seminary days through every conference we attend and book we read. We are never encouraged to consider that the shape of the call can, and may need to, change.
I was struck by the statement made by David Rohrer in his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, when he said, “Ministry has a shelf life.” Taking his cue from the life and ministry of John the Baptist, Rohrer presents a window through which to look at our calling to serve in a different way. It may be time to change it up.
Are you sufficiently self-aware?
The onset of an exit from ministry will often result in coming face-to-face with our humanity. Being aware that he is also in-process can escape the pastor who is knee deep in the daily work of ministry. A time to look at some of the following can be a liberating experience.
Have I tried to be more than I really am? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Can I learn to be transparent and ruthlessly honest about the areas of weakness in my life? Am I clear on the fact that I cannot walk this path alone, in isolation? Is there a growing freedom to express anger, sadness and pain?
John Piper recently wrote about his own experience in trying to become more self-aware: “Everyone should do this for his own soul. Pastors, you will know your people’s souls best by knowing your own. So try to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. The key here is not professionalism.”
Will you risk trust again?
Since many pastors who are exited sense a deep loss of trust, it is vital that, before resuming ministry, the issue of trust is addressed. The first step of restoration for an exited pastor needs to be a deep restoration to God. Can I trust Him and reframe the past in a new confidence in His faithfulness and sovereignty? The seeming wilderness of an exit can become a place where God shows up in the mundane, and trust in His heart is restored.
The next step of personal restoration, long before there is restoration to a ministry role, is the rebuilding of trust in the church – the people of God. PIR Ministries believes that churches, acting as refuges to exited pastors, are the place where healing and restored hope must to be found. But the exited pastor has to come to grips with the broken trust that is felt when the church isn’t that kind of place.
If an exited pastor can use this time of being out of the ministry to take a new look at the life God has given them – to rediscover Jesus and themselves – then the return to ministry will be filled with joy and an authenticity not known before.