I was in seminary and had never been a pastor before. But I knew God was preparing me to become one, and my desire was to church plant. So I was overjoyed when a pastor asked me to join him in a new church close to where I lived. This was exactly what I wanted to do and seemed like the perfect opportunity.
But I had no way of knowing the most significant lesson I’d learn through that experience would be from the pastor himself. After several years of ministry, the church plant disbanded and the pastor left the ministry. He and I still kept in touch, but the communication dwindled over time. I found out he wasn’t going to church much anymore, and when I challenged him about that, he cut me out of his life.
I was shocked. We’d been so close. We were together on the battlefield, partners in the gospel, slugging it out in that start-up church. What happened? How did this happen? Were there warning signs along the way? As I look back on that experience, I’ve pulled out three lessons for pastors—warnings you could call them—from a pastor leaving the ministry:
1. Separate your ministry from your identity.
He was told his whole life that he was supposed to be a pastor. It was so clear. “You have all these tremendous gifts and a deep love for people,” they’d say. And he did. It all made sense. That was why God placed him on the planet: to be a pastor.
But when everything came crashing down, he lost more than his church. He lost himself. Everything he’d been preparing for and moving toward his whole life had been stripped from him. In hindsight, there were some warning signs of identity confusion, but those never came to fruition until the church shut down.
So now I encourage pastors to ask themselves, early and often, why am I doing what I do? We’re Christians first and pastors second, if at all. God doesn’t need us in ministry, and we’re not completed or defined by our ministry. Contentment must come from our relationship with Christ, not from the ebbs and flows of vocational ministry.
2. Beware of feeling ‘called’ when your wife is not.
Aspiring pastor, if your wife isn’t ready to go into ministry, neither are you. Ministry is difficult enough with a wife fully on board. But when she’s barely hanging in there, it can signal a disaster waiting to happen. I’ve heard numerous stories of pastors just gritting it out, living in a perpetual state of survival and endurance, because their spouse resents the ministry. That’s not how God designed the ministry to work.
This problem can be difficult to identify, because generally wives want to support their husbands. But pastors need to take the time to talk and pray with their wives and ensure they’re each on the same page.
If the sacrifices of ministry feel more like burdens than opportunities for joy, that’s a serious concern. And if a life of ministry is seen as “holding the family back,” that must be worked through too.
Wives often hesitate to express their concerns because they don’t want to be the reason their husbands don’t follow what they feel is their calling. So the warning, husbands, is to not lay heavy loads of guilt or manipulation on your wife. Don’t make her feel like she must jump on board so you can obey God.
3. Leaders are not immune from going out from us.
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us,” 1 John 2:19 warns us. “But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Now, to be clear, my pastor wasn’t a false teacher. On the contrary, he was a strong expository preacher and proclaimer of the gospel. That’s part of what made all this so difficult to comprehend. And I do still hold out hope and pray that he’s simply in a season of faltering in his faith and will again come back to a church and continue on with the saints. But this verse was all I needed to be reminded that even leaders can walk away. No one is immune from backsliding and falling away.
So the question for pastors: What will you do when ministry doesn’t turn out like you expected? If the church disbands, or the elders fire you, then what? I hope you don’t walk away from the church, the truth, or the faith.
My experience serves as a constant reminder to make sure my (and my wife’s) identity is in Jesus, not a vocation.