The problem was not with the church. The problem was restlessness within. In fact, part of my agony was dealing with the fact that my situation with the congregation was good, but I was feeling spent.
So I left. I worked as an acquisitions director for a major Christian publisher. I met with high profile authors, and looked for new authors. I was also a guest preacher and presenter at churches and conferences. No session meetings, personnel meetings, budget meetings, or facility meetings! And any meetings I did attend, I was a participant, not a leader. The relief!
Several weeks after leaving, I was at a gathering when Don (one of the members from the church I’d just left) said to me, “Doug, you’re living the dream.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You’re doing what everybody would love to do — starting an exciting career at middle age, so you don’t have to keep doing the same ol’ job for 30-40 years. Most people can’t take the risk.”
And it was fantastic — for about eight weeks! Then came Advent. The interim pastor at my former church sought (without my knowledge or request) permission from the session and presbytery to invite our family to come to worship on Christmas Eve. When he called to extend the invitation, I was so overcome by emotion I couldn’t speak. Finally I croaked out, “We would be honored to come. Thank you.”
Emotions that had been simmering just below the surface, but had been building even in the few weeks since stepping out of vocational pastoral ministry, ambushed me. I reviewed my journal entries over this period of time and noticed that I was comparing myself with the Christian leaders and pastors I was working with. I envied the privileges and opportunities they had in ministry. As Christmas approached, I felt like a street urchin, with his nose pressed against the glass of FAO Schwarz toy store. All the children and parents shop happily, while I was outside, lonely and cold.
We attended worship that Christmas Eve. We sat in the back row (now I get it!), and I felt a wave of emotion as the service began. But as it proceeded, two thoughts became clear: First, I was reassured that I had indeed completed my ministry in that congregation. But the second thought was also clear: I knew that I wanted to be back in pastoral ministry. Why? It boiled down to three words. I missed the immediacy, impact, and involvement of the pastorate.
Immediacy is that sense of seeing meaningful things happen almost daily, and especially on Sunday morning. I recalled phone calls, notes, and informal conversations where I had seen God touch lives. I especially missed preaching to the same people week after week. I missed seeing God’s Word connect with our lives. Publishing has a significant lag time between input and result, and is far less predictable. But week after week for years, I had been blessed to see God’s power changing lives. I wanted to be in the middle of that again.
Ministry makes an impact, influencing people’s thoughts and lives. I had taken the privilege of preaching and the influence of the pastorate for granted. One of my Jewish friends in Rotary Club said with his usual frankness, “You were more intimidating when you had a congregation!” He explained that he literally felt a sense of authority and significance that came from me being in my position as a pastor. That did not devalue me as a person, but it did help me understand the impact of my call and position I had minimized. No matter how skeptical we may be about preaching, counseling, leading meetings and serving, we have all seen times when what we say or do makes a difference in how people think and live.
The third aspect of ministry I missed was involvement: the privilege of having accesses to people’s hearts and lives. It’s like people give their pastor a “master key” to their lives. We can call them most anytime and say, “You came to mind, so I prayed for you. I thought I’d call just to see how things are going.” While others may do that with a few people as friends, we as pastors can do that with anyone associated with the congregation! And our people are involved with us. I asked one friend who had become a college chaplain what she missed most about pastoral ministry and she said immediately, “The prayers of the people. People don’t tell me they pray for me daily like they used (to) when I was a pastor.” I, too, missed the expressions of love and support that frequently came my way in ministry.
What had happened to me? My first love had not been lost. But it had been buried under piles of clutter, hurt, and fatigue. The centrifugal forces of ministry had propelled me outward, away from my spiritual center. The time away, however, allowed me to be wooed back by the attractions that had drawn me to ministry in the first place: the love of the triune God, my passion for bringing God’s Word to life to change people’s lives, and my commitment to mobilize God’s people to seek for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. I began to believe that God had called me out in order to call me back into ministry.
When I began to pray and plan for reentry, I faced one major fear: Would leaving the pastorate “disqualify” me or make me “less desirable?” I was thankful to learn that congregations value a person who is candid and honest, especially about their struggles. They were encouraged to learn how God led me on a journey of relief, reassessment, and reengagement to renew my love for the Lord and my commitment to God’s service. Within one year, I was back in pastoral ministry — and thanking God for the amazing privilege — hard as it is! — of being a part of the continuing work of Jesus Christ through this vocational ministry.
Douglas J. Rumford is pastor/ head of staff at Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Santa Ana, Calif.