When Ministry Becomes Your Identity

Saying Goodbye to Full-Time Ministry

Saying Goodbye

What is the hardest thing you have ever had to do? For me, it was stepping away from my position in full-time ministry over 9 years ago. I was the youth and young adults pastor at my church, but there was so much more wrapped up in my church role than just a job title. My entire world revolved around the connection I had with my church, and for a long time, I did not think there was anything for me outside of this comfortable church ecosystem.

But how did this come to be?

As a child, my home life was unstable, but my time at church was filled with encouragement and smiles. I survived four divorces growing up. The constant family crises left me feeling insecure and disappointed. On the other hand, going to church gave me the chance to make a difference in the world. It was where I could be told how incredible I was. One place became an increasing source of pain. The other was a wellspring of security, confidence, and recognition.

Creating a False-Self

In my teenage years, I became a leader in the youth group and got a job at the church café. I would continue working there in college and then full-time after graduating until I was 30 years old. People identified me with my church as much as you would pair Starbucks with coffee or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. Except I am not as trendy as coffee or as good at sticking out my tongue and dunking a basketball as Jordan. Everything of significance to me, including my identity, was inside that church bubble. 

It’s a flattering thing to be wanted, but it’s also hypnotic. Serving and working at a church did this for me. I quickly got to a place where I did not want to say no. “What else can I do,” was my attitude. Then one day, I looked up, and I couldn’t say “no” even if I wanted to. 

As I grew in what I thought local church ministry should look like, I was also limited in how I could apply those changes to my current role. I thought being faithful and honoring would open up the opportunity to do things differently down the road. Instead, as I received more responsibility, I was expected to keep doing what I had always done the way I had always done it. And why wouldn’t that be the case? It makes sense that this is the way things would be, but it also helps explain why I had to step away from my job if I genuinely wanted to be the leader God wanted me to be. 

The Harsh Reality of Changing

I needed the space to change, and I could not continue to be faithful to what I was being asked to do as an employee if I knew, ultimately, I would never do things that way if I had a say in it. But this also meant leaving behind the only viable source of income for my family. Without help finding my next place, I would have to work outside of ministry in a position far below my training if I no longer wanted to work at my church.

What started as a process of just wanting to learn a new way of doing ministry became something much more significant for me. I did not realize how wounded and weary I was or how much I gained my identity from my role in full-time ministry. I did not just need to learn some new tips to build on an already strong foundation. How I viewed myself, God, and those around me required a complete overhaul. I needed to believe again. 

In the months after leaving my church job. I began to sell things I could no longer afford. We put a “for sale” sign in our yard. We also sold our luxury car. I am ashamed to say I cried when I parted with my golf clubs. I am not exactly sure what made me tear up after that Craigslist exchange. It could have been I was saying goodbye to the memories I had shared with so many friends while playing golf. It’s possible I was happy for the young guy who was getting a nice Father’s Day present. Maybe it was just my pride. 

The Shiny Tin

Long before I began working on a church staff, I started a process of relating to God, church, and others in an unhealthy way. There were patterns of hurt and shame that went unaddressed. Ultimately though, my desire to succeed and my ability to use accomplishments to cover my weaknesses fueled my cycle of religious performance. I do not blame anyone else for the negative things that took place in my life during this time. I know God was the one in control. Also, if at any point I was willing to let go of my position to more fully pursue healing, my wrong perspectives would not have infected so much of my life. If I did not change then, I would be destined to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

In the book, Where the Red Fern Grows, there is an example that illustrates my situation. The central figure in the story is a young boy who wants to train his dogs for hunting. To teach his pets, he needed to catch a raccoon on his own. Knowing raccoons are curious creatures, he places a piece of shiny tin inside a hole in a log. Then he hammers nails inside the hole with enough room for the raccoon to put its hand into the hole, but not enough to remove it with the piece of tin in his hand. 

The boy continues to check the trap every day until eventually, he finds a raccoon stuck. All the little creature had to do to escape was let go of the tin and pull his hand out. But because he wanted to both escape and keep his prize, he remained trapped until the boy killed him. The next day the boy joyfully explains to his grandfather how he caught his first raccoon. Much to his surprise, the grandfather responds by telling him to never set a trap like that again. It simply wasn’t fair. It was un-sportsman. 

I was a lot like the stuck raccoon. In His goodness, God was allowing me to choose to either hold on to the things I thought I wanted or let go to find the things in Him I really needed. I didn’t need my position, popularity, or special treatment. What I needed most was time away from working in ministry to become a better minister and, honestly, person. I did not like how judgmental and proud I had become. I was frustrated by the fact my fears kept me from being myself. I wanted to be free to pursue the change I knew I needed. 

To let go of that old world would not only mean leaving behind my home, friends, status, identity, church family, and financial security. Making this shift caused me to worry I had brought my family out into a desert with no way out. What I found next was a world much bigger and more welcoming than I could have ever imagined.

You can read what happens next in Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion. It releases on October 4 on Amazon and Kindle. You can pre-order here

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