This letter is especially for those of us who have left or are thinking about leaving the ministry.
If this doesn’t include you, you might at least find it interesting because of the special challenges clergy face. Also, I think a lot of this applies to those of us who have left the church, especially if we were very active within it.
I know how difficult it is to leave the ministry. I wrote a post on why it is so difficult. But I’ve done it four times, and I’ve survived.
- The first time, and it came as a surprise to me, my contract wasn’t renewed.
- The second time I was depressed and left cold turkey after I had a dream.
- The third time I was fired.
- The fourth time I could no longer live inside the box so I quit.
Each time I had to find employment right away. It was terrifying, nerve-racking, and depressing. I wish there had been someone who had gone through this before to give me encouragement, but there wasn’t. I was on my own.
Here’s how I felt:
- Ashamed: Many people question why one would leave a secure career, a vocation, after so many years. Many times I wondered if they thought I was a child-molesting ex-priest, the way they looked at me.
- Unemployable: What education did I have? What experience? Theology and ministry. That was it. What good is that in the real world?
- Unprepared: The real world is real. In the church, the system supports the clergy. I was set for life if I kept within the lines. But in the real world I had to fight, compete and win at all costs. I was a virgin with these real-world skills.
- Desperate: I have a wife and three kids. I didn’t just want to find a job, I had to find a job. Quickly! I had five mouths to feed. As we all know, one week, even one day, without income can devastate a family.
I eventually found solutions:
- The first time I went to school full time with student loans and grants while Lisa worked.
- The second time I got a job at a donut shop, then as a door-to-door battery salesman.
- The third time I bought and renovated and flipped a house and worked at a call center.
- The fourth time I taught English as a Second Language at a university.
Now I am self-employed and make all my income online from home.
So I’m going to provide some advice to clergy who are leaving the ministry based on the four reasons I found it difficult above. Advice I never had but can now give!
- Shame: You have no reason to be ashamed. There are lots of good pastors out there and you were probably one of them. Leaving the ministry, I will assume, was for good reasons that reflect your integrity, strength and courage. Even if you were fired! I suspect you are looking for a job because you and the church just no longer got along, not a great fit, and you made the decision or the decision was made for you to go your own way. That, in my opinion and experience, makes for bright new possibilities. Also, being a clergy for many people is a respectable career. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. As well, it’s not like it used to be: one career for life. People are changing careers all the time. Welcome to normal!
- Unemployable: One of the biggest lessons I learned after leaving the ministry the last time was that, in fact, I was very employable. When you are in the church your worldview tends to get constricted. Actually, many clergy are very well trained and experienced in skills the world needs. You just need to know how to re-imagine your education and experience, and how to present yourself. The last time I left the ministry I had a professional help me redo my resume to highlight my education and experience that was marketable in the business world. Here’s what I learned about myself: I knew how to manage volunteers, do a budget, raise funds, collect donations, speak publicly, counsel, coach, resolve conflict, mediate, lead teams, organize children, reach youth, comfort seniors, gather citizens, inspire people, master ceremonies, etcetera. I had no idea! Actually, the tweaking of my resume landed me a job as a facilitator at a university. Something I would’ve never expected. I know other pastors who have gone into selling insurance, real estate, non-profits such as The Heart and Stroke Foundation, charities such as World Vision, emergency, teaching, counseling, coaching, or they’ve used their hobbies such as carpentry to get into renovations, buy and sells, investments, landlords, on and on and on. I also know ex-pastors who have gone back to school to learn a new trade or develop their hobby into a marketable asset. The possibilities are endless.
- Unprepared: In my opinion, clergy can have a very clear picture of the world as it is. However, I had serious problems with money and business and fending for myself. In fact, when I left the ministry the last time, I felt a very personal challenge to learn these arts. They are basic life skills I had avoided. What a learning curve! It’s fun discovering and using the value of money, the quality of business, and the dignity of self in the business world. I’ve learned that money is nothing but an object in the value of exchange. I’ve learned that business is one way all human beings interact and relate. I’ve learned that taking care of myself is an adult responsibility that took me longer than usual to step into but that has been rewarding, dignifying and liberating. We are the captains of our destiny. This isn’t to deny the possibility of being taken care of, for I feel this too. But I also feel I’m a partner in it, that I am a key player and that I am now responsible for myself. I’m enjoying the school of life!
- Desperate: One of the admirable things I learned about myself: I will do anything to support my family. Yes, times were desperate, and I used connections and whatever else I could to land a job, even if it was minimum wage delivering donuts to coffee shops. I clearly remember sweeping the coffee shop parking lot of cigarette butts while people flicked them at me snickering. It was humiliating. But I did it for the paycheck, which I got! I know it is hard to go from respected and revered clergy to humble laborer, but it’s not my pride I was worrying about, but my family. And I provided! I also used these times as a spiritual lesson. I learned that while I was a minister I had a sense of privilege that was unhealthy. I allowed these menial jobs to beat that attitude out of me and to help me learn that I am just another human being along with other human beings on the planet. I let these minimum wage jobs teach me how to be a better person.
In the end, I believe that we are all ministers. I’m not talking religiously necessarily. But that is part of it. What I mean is that at the bottom of it all is loving and serving humanity. We can do this no matter where we are. At each job I made connections with fascinating but normal people and enjoyed interacting with them. It was a lot different than church in some ways but very much the same in others. People are people no matter where we are. It was refreshing relating to people without the complications that church sometimes brings.
It was about learning a new world in a new way with new understanding, experience, and even language.
I know you can do it. I’ve done it four times! I’m nothing special. Seriously! If I can do it, so can you!