I (Trey) was asked in a Facebook group thread, “What does it mean to leave ministry on your own terms?” It’s a question worth considering. Like any career, and especially in the “gig” economy, it is increasingly rare to move from job to job with no break between paychecks, feeling satisfaction at a job well done, and harboring no ill will towards the previous boss or teammates. Ministry is no exception. But we must remember that vocational ministry is unlike other careers in that your professional, spiritual, and relational circles are overlapping and intertwined.
Just as a ministry without soul care is prone to burnout, an exit or transition from ministry without soul care is perilous. To lose or leave a vocational ministry position, bi-vocational or full time, is to open a gaping hole in the professional, spiritual, and relational lives of a minister.
Before going further, it’s important to note that ministers don’t always have external control over the circumstances of their departure. One could say that sometimes a church leaves its ministers, instead of ministers leaving a church. The inner work to be done when this happens is particularly painful.
To the degree that a minister has control over her or his departure, what does it mean to go out on good terms? Put another way, every minister I know would, when the time comes, prefer to leave a church healthy rather than wounded. Regardless of reasons, what does a healthy exit look like? There are (at least) four markers:
- She would leave willingly, rather than by firing, being pushed out, or feeling trapped.
- She would leave with a formal celebration event.
- She would know what’s next.
- She would leave weary from work well done, but not burned out.
There are few model exits, but there are too few that fit more than one or two of these markers. Twice in my own ministry story, I did not go out on my terms: once by my own doing, a second outside of my control. About that first one…
If You're Unsure What's Next
Growing up is heartening yet inevitably painful. My first ministry position was with students. I had strong support and coaching from a team of parents that were invested in healthy ways. The students and I hit it off almost immediately, beginning with the middle school students who somehow managed to put my small SUV up on blocks and remove the tires in my first week on the job. They almost certainly had help, and somehow that adult has remained anonymous for all these years.
The full-time staff was close and like-minded. All of us had been educated at the same seminary, sharing many of the same teachers and mentors. We each possessed a commitment to a church that was filling souls not just seats. Together we endured hardships together, we made tough but necessary changes, and we said hard things to people we loved. In other words, ministry.
All in all, my first ministry job was a challenging but rewarding three years.
However, my job as student minister ended suddenly in part because 1) I believed ministry was mostly a battle, 2) I lost the battles I thought I should win, and 3) I lost faith that I would win others. Believing that, I preemptively avoided what I assumed would be chronic frustration. Leaving with no plan felt safer than staying longer in order to have a plan. We left with little notice, severing ties and leaving wounds. Of my years in ministry, it is the decision I regret most.
While this decision was not made in a vacuum or without thought, everything about that time was shaped by my unfed soul. I assumed leaving my church would somehow heal my burned-out soul. In doing so, I postponed the inevitable internal reckoning that all departing ministers must sit with and embrace. Following my departure, I experienced what far too many women and men experience when leaving a church:
- There was no closure.
- My marriage needed acute care.
- I had little interest in being involved at a church. Attending was the best I could do.
- My last day there would be my last day in vocational student ministry.
Did I go out on my own accord? Yes. Did I go out on good terms? Not at all.
There are countless ministers with similar unfinished business left over from ministry departures. Some have left ministry behind, stuffing their worst experiences away and taking their skills to a “secular” job. Some left churches completely, disillusioned by their experiences on a church staff. Some have brought those painful experiences with them to their next ministry position.
All have soul tending to be done.
How do we tend to the soul of a minister who has exited or is willing to leave on less than good terms? More to come.
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Whatever you do, know that you’re not alone.