Confessions of an Inactive Pastor
Both transitions were a little scary (they would have been much more so if I didn't honestly and confidently believe that God would once again prove his faithfulness). When I stopped accepting a salary to return to making a living as a writer, I had a grand total of one small writing project under contract. When I resigned even my volunteer teaching position, I knew that not everyone would understand or agree with my decision--or even trouble themselves to try to understand it--so I expected some stormy relational seas to be ahead. And that was definitely the case. But looking back now on the past year of transition and adjustment, so much has changed for the better. Not all, but much.
I have a life again. Anyone who has devoted himself or herself to full-time ministry knows that it is easy for the ministry to consume your life until there is little left over. No weekends. Few relationships outside the church. And so on. That's not good. So in many ways, laying down my pastoral and preaching ministry has breathed new life into me. I still work very hard, but I do other things, too. I am able to focus more of my time and attention on family--my wife, children, and grandchildren, and my ninety-two-year-old father. I am starting to spend time with people outside the church--even some outside the faith! I even mow my own lawn and do a little yard work, something I never had time for before.
I am closer to God. Ministry drove me closer to God, no doubt about it. Especially in the loneliest and most stressful times. Even so, leaving my pastoral position drew me even closer. Through those previous eleven years as a church planter and pastor, I had mostly forgotten (as I had in a previous pastoral incarnation) that it was possible to put in a hard day's work without beating myself up about all the things I hadn't accomplished and without being beat up by others who disagreed with the things I had accomplished. I had forgotten what it was like to live and work for God's approval, not man's--something I always struggled to do as a pastor (and, yes, I do see the irony in that). Like Anne Jackson, writing in her book Mad Church Disease, I had forgotten that working at a church, in full-time ministry, could actually interfere with my communion with God--especially, perhaps, for someone with my personality. But like Jackson, I discovered that laying down my pastoral and preaching roles have once again set me free to be instead of being so wrapped up in doing. It set me free to be a child to my Father, to be a husband, father, and grandfather, to be a broken vessel, to be a lover of all.
I am healthier. Okay, I admit, I've gained weight in the last year. But in every other way, I am a healthier man today. I don't take antidepressants any more, and don't rely on regular massages to untie the knots in my neck and shoulders. I hardly worry and stress at all. I sleep well. I laugh more. I even exercise...when I'm not eating. In the first few weeks after my return to a writing ministry, my kids both commented to my wife, "Dad's back."
I'm still enjoying ministry. Since surrendering my pastoral and preaching roles, I have written five books and updated another. The books that have been released so far are already reaching thousands of readers, and with good results, I'm told. I thank God for that. Those are words I could not have written and lives I would not have touched if all had remained unchanged. And the books that are yet to be released, and another under contract right now, will have a huge God-glorifying impact on many, I believe.
I have fewer friends. Not everything is peachy, of course. I have been surprised through these transitions at the way some of my friends have responded. I thought I had always pastored as more or less an open book, and was sincere in my friendships with people. But I've learned that my tendency to think the best of people until long after they give me reason to do otherwise is a dangerous policy, and I've experienced a noticeable reduction in the number of people who care to greet me or talk to me (much less know me) as a non-pastor. Naive, I know. I also know that it's not so much that I have fewer friends these days, than that I've learned how few I really had all along. On the other hand, God turned even that to good, because maybe, like Jesus who "didn’t trust them, because he knew human nature" (John 2:24, NLT), I have a better theology these days, and a sharper focus in my relationships. And I sincerely praise and thank God that, just when (I think) I am most needed as a father and grandfather, I am available--no, more than that, I am anxious and ready to be as much of a blessing as possible to my closest friends (who happen to be my wife, kids, and kids-in-law--no, really!). In fact, it may be, with four grandchildren--and two who have cystic fibrosis--that my availability and commitment to them has only begun.
I'm still finding my way. A year after my last sermon at the church I helped to start, it still feels a bit weird, every Sunday. Maybe I had an unhealthy degree of identification with my role as a pastor and preacher. Or maybe it's because some folks don't know how to relate to me as a non-pastor (I know, for example, that there are some who think I must have been involved in some scandal (I wasn't)). I do heartily enjoy being led in worship on Sundays by my son and daughter-in-law, of whom I am unspeakably proud. But other than that, I'm still figuring out after more than a decade of service as a preacher and pastor to this church how to be just me...and not "Pastor Me." I'm pretty sure it will have been worth it once I get there, but getting there still isn't easy.
That is way more introspection than I am accustomed to. And I'm sure it's way more than anyone reading this blog wanted. In fact, there is probably no one left reading by this point in my post. So why am I still typing? I'm not.