The Unique Anguish of Leaving the Ministry

"Leaving the Ministry" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Leaving the Ministry” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

I left the ministry many times:

Once when my contract was discontinued without my knowledge.
Another time when I quit because I felt trapped.
Then another time because I was fired.
Finally, the last time, I quit for good because… well… it’s a long story, but it mostly had to do with the incompatibility of my theology with the church I was pastoring at the time.

There are many reasons why pastors leave the ministry. Most of them valid. I support pastors who are thinking of leaving, are leaving, or who have left the ministry. I do not judge them.

The difference between the first few times leaving the ministry and the last was huge.

The first times I always felt I was still in the game, and it was a matter of time before I’d find another opportunity to serve as a pastor.

But the last time I knew I was leaving for good, and it was devastating and traumatic. It took me years to transition. It required lots of help from coaches, therapy, Lisa, and a few trustworthy friends, including from my online community The Lasting Supper.

The biggest factor in me leaving the ministry was the loss of meaning. The ministry, for most pastors, is packed full of purpose, a sense of meaning, a feeling of destiny. We’re serving God and his people for life, sacrificing our own wellbeing for the wellbeing of others. Our whole life is serving one single purpose, and that is to serve others in the gospel.

I was a pastor in the lineage of Eugene Peterson, probably the greatest pastoral theologian today, who wrote the book that says it all, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Yes! This was me. Like his analogy, I was faithfully planting acorns, patiently clinging to the promise that decades later they may bear fruit in the form of an oak tree in the lives of healthy people and healthy churches.

Then, suddenly, I left. In 2010. Sure, there were all kinds of other issues, like income, friends, community, reputation, being judged, and so on. But the greatest crisis was the sudden loss of meaning, purpose, and destiny.

Now, seven years later, I started Leaving the Ministry to help other pastors transition. I want to provide resources, tools, understanding, support, and community… things I needed and had difficulty finding during my transition.

If you fit this category, join me at Leaving the Ministry so I can travel with you.

Or, if you know a pastor who could use this resource, you can give them a gift membership.


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6 Responses

  1. Dianne Eller says:

    After years of sexual harassment, abuse and even rape, I left the ministry in 2005. I still struggle with the sense of call vs. loss of meaning. I’m too fragile to go back to serve, but would like to think my 21 years of ministry was not in vain.

  2. It wasn’t in vain. Sorry for your experience. Must be quite a story!

  3. Mary Scriver says:

    I think you are simply repeating your old paradigm: being the one who has insight, the one who helps others, the informed one. That’s not a “blame,” but maybe simply shows the pattern is very very deep in you and might be profitable to explore. I left the ministry in 1988. It did not leave me — simply took me outside the institutions and written theologies into a still puzzling and painful place where I sometimes had to make the same hard choices. One has to be careful not to be the most humble person in a humbling world. It can become a point of pride.

  4. Yes, it’s good to acknowledge how our personal makeups contribute to our sense of vocation, even though this does not necessarily nullify our usefulness.

  5. Caryn LeMur says:

    I left the part-time ‘ministry’ at 21 years old. That was 40 years ago. The haunting echo never leaves… but that is ok. The regret is simply part of me. I also complement myself for having served my country as an enlisted and officer… and I complement myself for having ‘served’ the fellow believers many years ago.

    It is so similar. There are many reasons that someone leaves ‘active duty’ and departs the military – children not doing well with a parent gone; a wife no longer wishing to be alone many times; too much culture shock; too much disagreement with the current policies; abuse; and on and on.

    Yet, I think that ‘we who served’ need to periodically hold our own parades, and applaud ourselves for a ‘job well done’.

    I no longer serve in any Christian ministry. I rather just come alongside people as time and happenstance allow, and encourage others when their situation resonates with me.

    I find it humorous that I live the Law of Christ now far more often than way back then.

  6. Thanks for sharing your story Caryn. Ya I think I serve still but in a different capacity.