Why Loving All People Left This Pastor Jobless

My parents would tell you that I was never good at conforming, though I’m not sure this is true. I conformed to the surf culture very nicely when living in southern California, the climbing culture in Colorado, and even to the pastoral cultural at one point in time.

In my seminary years, I struggled when I was told not to question or, even worse, when I was told that there wasn’t room for my authentic self – which sounds awfully lonely. No wonder so many of us pastors are lonely.

My sense is that relationship happens when vulnerability happens. So, what does this mean for a career where the pastor lives as if he or she is the savior, the great listener, or the sacrificer of life and family, and all the while hiding behind a professional script that says not to be the discloser? It seems to me that Christ disclosed much. If intimacy is about vulnerability, it would seem that many pastors fail miserably at vulnerability. I guess, I just couldn’t make it in pastoral ministry while hiding my vulnerable self.

I pastored in Colorado, Montana, and Oregon. The pay wasn’t bad, the hours weren’t all that bad either, and the church was only a few blocks from the house so I was able to get home or get to the kids from school with ease. But my last ministry was particularly painful.

As I entered my thirties, I continued to live out a life that craved intellectual and spiritual growth. I wanted to wrestle with the tough issues of faith and life. And, above all, I wanted to love all people. I wanted to break bread with those who would not enter our church and wanted to converse about their lived experience, their worldview, and how was it that many of them professed Christ, many of whom would not have been welcome in my church – unless they changed. Or we simply saw them as something other than Christian. The more I got to know the stories of others and listened to how they had been hurt by the church, the more I wanted to know about my own faith system.

And this is what I was truly unprepared for.

I could not remain in a job, a calling that I was passionate about, when I was having to hide parts of myself. I tried to share my spiritual journey with the congregation but my authentic expression was not met with warmth. Instead, at the drop of a pin, my whole system of belief was questioned. My ability to pastor in this particular evangelical church was questioned. And all I wanted to do was discover how to love all people without putting restrictions on my love.

This made people nervous. I suppose, if they had been open to my authentic expression, it would have meant that they, too, would have to wrestle with such tough questions. And this was too much for them.

I am also a professional counselor with a PhD in Counseling. How could the church not realize that this way of relating was a gross breach in boundaries – a form of dehumanization as they felt obliged to tell me how to believe rather than to understand my heart for Christ and my heart for all people? And how could I relate to others, to those in the church who were also questioning significant faith matters, if I wasn’t willing to live honestly?

I was not willing to hide my true self, so I resigned.

I served in full-time pastoral ministry for 12 years. I resigned from professional ministry when I was 36 years old – I am now 43 – and it was only last year, 6 years after my resignation, that I agreed to preach for a small rural church.

What’s your story?

Photo courtesy: Miles F. Wilson

POSTED ON February 7, 2014
  • Rory Wynhoff

    In my experience it is impossible to live honestly in our church culture. To be open and honest about the struggles of life has, in my experience, always been met with scorn and pushing away – especially by the leaders. I am not a Seminary or Bible College graduate, but there has been no doubt about my calling, passion and zeal for Christ Jesus and His body. God’s calling does NOT equate with a formal education as is so very clear by those whom Jesus called to be His disciples. This whole construct of clergy/laity is simply a division in the house of God, the church. How can a house divided stand?
    Judging by how closed off those who are professional papered pastors are, I can only imagine the lonliness. As one who was often a “lay-pastor” I never was excepted by either group, so I do know lonliness too. I have been kicked out of churches aplenty for no other reason than being zealous about God’s Word in openness and honesty.
    I do not wish hurt upon pastors, but I do hope in the day that this system of sterility is demolished and relplaced by an open body/family of believers. I firmly believe that most of the persons in the church system today are NOT born again, but simply religous in man’s sense of the word – attempting to work themselves into a relationship with God. So, come out of her and be ye seperate, is what I say.
    May God Almighty, our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ, bless you all and keep you in His Love!!! I pray He shows you a way, His Way, into a fulfilling job that allows you true and deep relationship with Him. Amen.

    • It is sad to hear that this is so prevalent in church culture. Though I have seen this myself, I have also seen genuine communities, have been part of them and also currently pastor in a church that I can be authentic and not be judged. That was all due to the up front and open authentic tone our lead pastor has done with us all, giving us all the freedom to be human, because he is human.

      Of course, there will always be people who judge, but I can say that there are communities out there that are looking to be authentic while still striving for holiness and doing this in a environment that people can be supported, loved and belong.

      This can be an almost impossible shift if the culture doesn’t look like this, but if the culture can be changed, it def frees people to be honest and actually grow because guilt does bring change, but only temporal change and usually doesn’t last. It is GRACE and LOVE that brings eternal change that lasts. It is that which motivates towards real transformation.

      I hope you both will be able to find a community that enables people to grow at God’s pace and belong. Blessings.

  • Andrea Noel Ames

    I absolutely love that this blog exists! Chances are that it is about to explode as the conversation surrounding professional ministry has become increasingly newsworthy with the heart-wrenching rate at which pastors are taking their own lives. I’ve been in ministry for 10 years. Straight out of high school I became the ‘intern’ to anywhere and everywhere I was. Whether it was during my post-high school, pre-college ‘intern year’ or during bible college or working for Christian non-profits after college or in full-time missions. I was in ‘full-time ministry training’ for a decade. Until I was trained straight out of full-time ministry. It was confusing, frustrating, disillusioning, and yet the more time I get between me and ‘that time I was asked to leave’ the more grateful I am that I was forced into early retirement. I was asked to leave for the very same reasons I was hired to begin with. My forward thinking, innovative nature, strategic planning experience, and exposure to diversity were the very things that led to my being asked to leave because I was exposing young people to controversial ideas, trying to make to many changes, over-analyzing the way things were done, and endorsing integration instead of assimilation when it comes to the methodology of discipleship. Now that I lead a quiet life at home serving others in ministry ‘virtually’ I am finding it easier to relate to non-believers. I have time to actually minister to people. It’s blown up my ability to have compassion on those who have been hurt by the church. Honestly, I can say I’ve never been more in love with Jesus or had more time available to do his will as I do now that I’m ‘retired at 28’ from ‘full-time’ ministry. It’s led me to write a lot about a church that seems like it is full of elephants in the room all the time! Every conversation, experience, counseling session, staff meeting, and event I’ve ever attended in a Christian environment seems to have some huge elephants in the room that nobody is talking about. So I created a safe place to talk about them. I welcome anyone who want’s to join in the discussion, guest blog, or expose an elephant of their own. http://leselefantes.blogspot.com/

  • Rick King

    I write as a progressive, United Church of Christ pastor who is in year 25 of ministry, but who left ministry for four years back in the 90s to train and work as a massage therapist. I had had a rough start as an associate in 1989, lasted 20 months in that first church, then served in part-time interim ministry from ’92 to ’94, finally leaving active church ministry. During that window, my first marriage ended, I got sober in ’93, got MT certification in ’94, and left active church ministry altogether. Ministry had not been what I’d thought it would be, and I wasn’t sure of my call (as sure as I’d been in seminary), so I left and opened a private practice. It was liberating to leave! I fully immersed myself in sobriety, went through several relationships, and loved not being under the microscope of full-time local church ministry.
    But parish ministry beckoned again a couple of years later. I loved the variety of people and kinds of work I get to do in ministry, and having worked with a wide range of clients as a therapist, I longed for the role of community in the healing process. So I’ve been back in active ministry part-time since ’96, full-time since ’98.
    I definitely resonate with the horrible pay and the impact on my family. But when I headed back into full-time ministry, it was with gratitude at having rediscovered a really strong sense of calling to ministry. And, frankly, after being in private practice for four years–two as my only source of income–I was happy to have a full-time job with benefits! We had had our first of three boys, so family acted as somewhat of a governor on my time and emotional investment in church work, or else I think I would’ve burned out and left again. Yet I well remember when church conflict reared its ugly head in 2000, and how I felt like leaving the ministry again; it was just too hard for the pay I was getting! But at the same time, I really didn’t know what else I’d do for a living–especially something that made me as happy as this did, at the same time as it made me so upset, at times.
    Several things account for why I’m still in ministry, even though it can really suck, at times:
    1. A Very Happy Marriage to a woman who does NOT fit the pastor’s wife paradigm AT ALL – This–plus the fact that my three boys (2 teens, one tween) only occasionally attend church, at present, and we don’t pressure them–creates a buffer between work and family in a way that not all clergy as so lucky to have.
    2. AA – This is my “third place” where I go to receive support, talk about life, be around others who are trying to walk a spiritual path one day at a time, and deal with our impossibly big egos.
    3. Spiritual Director – My associate and I actually benefited from the chair of his search committee working to get funding for this in the personnel budget for both of us. I see my director about every 6 weeks, and it keeps me on track and growing in my own spiritual life.
    4. Running – I’ve always been physically active, but now that my kids our older and the physical demands of parenting very young children are over, I resumed really strenuous exercise this last November after giving up running in ’03 when I had knee surgery. Running allows me to go to that delicious place in my mind where I can pray, chant, meditate, follow my thoughts in and out, and where I am loved, and am doing something very good for myself.
    5. I am Easily Amused – I treasure the people parts of ministry: I now see difficult people as a a challenge to be worked out and as blessings sent to help me grow; I am satisfied with a good day’s work and the feedback after a job well-done; I’m thankful to be in a congregation that’s not as bad off as some; I’m glad most of my parishioners aren’t in the habit of looking to me for all the answers; and I’m secure in the knowledge that I don’t have them, anyway.
    6. I Get to Do Ministry – I learned in AA that life is lived in the “get-to’s, not in the have-to’s.” I get to do a wide variety of tasks and mix with a wide variety of people and stories in ministry; I get to have access to the most personal, intimate moments in peoples’ lives: they LET me in!
    7. I Have Low Expectations – My mission is very much to be fully present for each waking moment, NOT to change the world, or even set out to change another person. Jesus does that.
    8. My sense of Call is Bigger Than Parish Ministry – A seminary classmate of mine came to a place where she believed her calling had to be such that she could fulfill it in a coma. This means I am free to leave parish ministry at any moment, and free to live each day deciding to stay in it.

  • Pappa Murf

    If I had a dollar every time I was told to not share so much of myself during my sermons…

    I can relate to the pitfalls inherent in “being real” in the church setting; especially from a pastoral position. The image of the pastor as an infallible spiritual superhero has done a great deal of damage to the concept of spiritual leadership, in general. There is a surplus of reasons for this image that spans generations but for modern pastors, the idea of focusing on substance instead of style is so completely foreign to many congregations that the only possible outcome of such a mingling is overwhelmingly negative and destructive to both church and pastor.

    That is why I believe seminaries and pastoral training programs desperately need practical courses on the realities of modern ministry. I’ve lost too many friends and colleagues to “The Three Dees” (Disillusionment, Discouragement, and Depression) due to inadequate preparation for the battlefield they are planning to enter.

  • Katherine “Katy” Fusselman

    I would like to pastor in a church where Jeff Cook and every commenter who added to the conversation so far has posted. Jeff Cook seems to be like Christ’s church that he wanted to reach out to everyone.
    Well, that is what Yavashua Jesus Christ was and is all about. Charles and Frances Hunter put this so simply when they said that since Jesus went to heaven, our hands are now His hands. His job is now our job. We are to speak His words and do His work, because the job has now been passed on to us.
    That job is building the Kingdom. All of you who wrote things here are people I would like to meet!

Jeff served in pastoral ministry for 12 years prior to resigning in 2006 and moving into the mental health sector. Jeff received his master of divinity from Denver Seminary and was ordained in the Christian and Missionary Alliance tradition. Jeff received his masters in counseling from George Fox University and established a successful private practice in Portland, Oregon prior to completing his PhD in counseling from Oregon State University and moving into full-time academia. He now works as Assistant Professor and Clinical Director at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.