To my 18-year-old self, the path to success in ministry seemed simple enough.
First, breeze through college level schoolwork. Next, get hired by ACU camps so I could show off my mad youth ministry skills to the men (nope, no women) who could hire me to be an intern. A youth minister’s recommendation following their teens’ life-altering summer with me would be all I’d need to get hired anywhere I wanted, ready to master the politics of a church to build the program I wanted. While I was doing all of these, I’d finish an MDiv and an EdD. Finally, I’d make the trip back to Abilene as Dr. Trey Finley, professor of ministry.
How did I do?
- Be the best student in my class: 4.0 in just about everything. Even Greek!
- Make a good impression at ACU Leadership Camps: two summers with the second one serving in a mentor role and even getting to lead my own high school small group at one session. A 20-year-old working on a level with 20-year youth ministry veterans? Not many soon-to-be great youth ministers get to do that, I said to myself.
- Intern at a prestigious church with a guy I learned a lot from. I spent a summer with a man (Steven Carrizal) whose contemplative demeanor I deeply respected. Later, I was hired as one of two students (you guessed it, both guys) who interned with Robert Oglesby for one full year. Robert was a pioneer in youth ministry, and he taught me that ministry will inevitably be messy.
Youth minister who mastered the politics of church…. Um, no. Left after 3 years following perceived intractable differences in ministry vision between me and elders. It seems being 25, knowing whose buttons I could push, and pushing as hard as I could neither built rapport nor got me what I wanted. Who knew?
It was a painful turn brought on by inexperience but no worries. It’s two steps forward and one step back, I thought. A return to ACU completed my MDiv and sent me off to small groups ministry and a taste of an executive team at an all-too-early age. Despite the professional twists and turns resulting from my immaturity and opportunism, it wasn’t supposed to end with these three words:
…and Trey Finley.
In February 2009, Highland Oaks laid off one third of its staff. The financial crush of 2008, the drop in giving after the sudden departure of our preacher, and a heavy debt load left Highland Oaks in a financially unsustainable place. I was the last one laid off that day. As my friend Jon Mullican sat in my office that afternoon, I expected a recap of how awful the day had been for him and how we’d adjust together going forward. As I expected, he sat down, listed off the names of those laid off, and then completed his list with…”and Trey Finley.” Laid off? That’s something that happens in businesses, not churches. Leaving a church on someone else’s terms was not how it was supposed to go, and it certainly wasn’t how my vocational ministry was supposed to end.
If You're Unsure What's Next
I left the office before Jon could finish his well-crafted comments. At a follow up meeting with him, I forced these words through my verklempt vocal cords: “You cut my legs out from under me, Jon. What am I supposed to do now?”
My identity had been stripped away, leaving me relationally and vocationally exposed for all to see. Everything I had crafted myself to be and everything that was precious to me save my family was gone in an instant. I was filled with shame.
As shameful as that day in February 2009 was to me, it was equally frightening that I had no clear path in front of me. Despite my optimistic outward self-portrayal, I had 9 years of school that would be underappreciated in the business world. My friends, my career, and my professional network were now irrelevant (or so I thought). Despite the professional twists and turns resulting from my immaturity and career opportunism, ministry had become the center of my friendships, the space where I found meaning, and the source of weekly rhythms of shared worship with other Jesus followers. Everything was bound up in ministry, until it wasn’t. I was gripped by fear.
Like good friends do, Jon went to bat for me. He introduced me to other churches looking for ministers with my skills. Similarly, Jason Jones, a friend from my time in Oklahoma, offered to partner with me in coaching church leaders. My unresolved anger short circuited any reasonable possibilities of continuing ministry and it made long-term commitment to plans nearly as difficult. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue working for or with churches at all. I was angry at my circumstances and embittered about church.
But there was no one else. There was no safety net. My university didn’t keep up with my next steps or offer resources to make a spiritually and emotionally healthy transition. Few members from my past churches came calling to express their sympathy. Only the rarest of friends and contacts from those churches checked on me more than once. Even colleagues with whom I’d shared ministry didn’t stay in touch, and our relationships withered away in the months following my layoff.
This is no blame session. I made my own bed of denial, scattered plans, and wishful thinking. Each of these were outward expressions of the unrefined ego that kept me from reaching out to more people to ask for help. I felt completely alone.
I was ashamed. I was afraid. I was angry. I felt completely alone.
In short, I was grieving.
If I could tell my recently laid off self, I’d sit him down and (kindly) set him straight. Here’s what I’d say:
Have a sit.
Starting now, every day, have a sit. Be still. Let whatever emotion you have wash over you. Yell. Then sit some more. Challenge yourself to express without words. If relief comes, that’s wonderful. If it does not, that’s OK, too. Sit anyway. Only in stillness can we embrace our grief.
Stay in touch with contacts and friends in ministry.
You don’t have to know what you need from them. Don’t pretend nothing has happened. Don’t put up a false front of confidence. Don’t stop at one call or cup of coffee. Let them know you’re grieving, and that you can’t grieve alone. Your ego will be wounded in doing so; that’s a painful but necessary experience that you must not short-circuit.
Get a career coach, a therapist, and a spiritual director.
I went 0 for 3 on these. Don’t presume that you know exactly what you’ll do next, nor that the parachute job a friend at church has offered is your best solution. You may be fortunate, but you’ll have not learned enough about yourself to avoid bringing your wounded ego and grief into your next vocation. It’s been said that without doing your work on you, you’ll enter your next job as you left your previous one. That’s too optimistic. You’ll likely end up entering more unhealthy than when you left your previous job.
Be as patient as is financially possible.
Alongside your family, decide how much you can afford to spend to get the professional help you’ll need to make a healthy transition. Be as sacrificial as you can; this is an investment.
Journal daily about an emotion, thought, or action you experienced. If you’re a prolific writer, that’s great. If you’re not, one sentence is all you need do.
I left vocational ministry behind that day. I didn’t complete my grief work, though. Not doing my work may not have cost me financially in the long run. It did open up new opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise materialized. These positive outcomes allowed me to assume that I’d made a transition to something else that fit my skills and gave me energy. But my soul’s reckoning came anyway.
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Whatever you do, know that you’re not alone.