catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 2 :: 2014.01.24 — 2014.02.06


A time to quit

Quitting for me wasn’t just a weekend fling, a lack of endurance, a fit of boredom or a childish sulk sparked by a temper tantrum. When it came time for me to quit pastoral ministry, it was as if I had quit myself, my goals, my calling and the self-understanding that had identified me since I was 18. When it came time to quit pastoral ministry, it also meant quitting God who I felt had quit me first. It meant quitting church. Quitting the Bible. Quitting prayer. And, without exaggeration, quitting hope.

From the summer of 1985 when I went to Youth Congress in D.C. with my church youth group, I knew I wanted to devote my life to vocational ministry. Probably foreign missions. I would wander shirtless somewhere in a village in the Himalayas. But wherever it was, whatever the cost (oh, and let the cost be high, because I’m ready to suffer for Christ), I was ready.

Love and marriage and four children turned my vision back to the States, at least for now. And seminary. A mediocre student at best through high school and college, suddenly I was on the Dean’s List and graduated seminary cum laude. Friends told me with that seminarian’s dewy-eyed, hushed-tone, clenched-fist sincerity that my preaching was truly a mystical event. I had the gift, they said. And I had to agree. I could feel it. When I preached, I felt God’s pleasure like Eric Liddell in the 1924 Olympics.

My first church position was as an assistant pastor in beautiful North Carolina at a thriving church. We bought a house (big mistake) and I was to appear before the presbytery for licensure and ordination. But due to my liberal view regarding the age of the earth (I think it’s 4.5 billion years old), I was denied ordination, and after only 12 months we were renting a temporary place back in Texas and paying through the nose for buying that house.

My second church was in Texas where I was ordained without even being asked my view of the age of the earth. But the church was actually a failed church plant when I arrived, and it was so anemic that it narrowly voted to close down within seven months, but not without a bitter character assassination directed at me by the segment who had voted to keep the church open.

My third and final church was in Florida, and I was to be the assistant pastor of youth and families. The position was so wonderful — spending lots of time with young people, counseling with parents, teaching, occasional preaching, leading worship; it was perfect, and Tampa was another beautiful location. But (you knew it was coming), after 15 months the church realized they could not afford a second pastor anymore, and I was let go without a severance.

For the next year, my family of six lived with my parents in Tulsa. I applied with around 80 churches looking for my next position, but none would have me. It seems my resume was too scary. One church in Wisconsin was very enthusiastic, and the chairman of the search committee told me if it were up to him, he would call me on the spot. He said my preaching was the best he’d ever heard. I spoke to the whole search committee in a phone conference one evening after my job as a waiter at Steak & Ale. I thought it went well. A few days later the chairman called me to give me the bad news. “So much about you is great,” he said, “but the committee felt from your voice that you didn’t have much joy.”

Not enough joy. That’s what it came down to. But they were right. I had lost my joy. Who could have any joy in that situation? Someone better than I, perhaps. But my wife and I looked at each other and realized that we no longer had a zeal for ministry, no longer felt up to the task of giving love and pastoral care with abandon as we had before. We needed stability; our kids needed stability. My oldest son was in third grade and had already been in five schools.

My wife just wanted a place to make some lasting friendships and raise the kids. But I had been shown the door — by God and by the church. So I quit ministry. Or, ministry quit me. All my gifts, my shining credentials, my boundless potential and my obvious gifts of communication were to be catalogued, ticketed and returned to the vault from whence they came. I was indescribably bitter.

That collapse happened ten years ago. So far, those trials have not been redeemed.  I have no sense that God has “repaid the years that the locust has eaten.” It lies in the past like a charred, steaming wasteland.

But what I can say is that while church ministry and I quit each other, it became clear that God hadn’t quit me. He eventually brought us to that place of stability that we needed, through a series of miraculous provisions. We have lived in the same house ever since, and our children had a great blessing of home, church and school.

How many times have I uttered the question in prayer, “What was that all about?” I have never received an answer. It was clear however that being a pastor was my own youthful, well-intentioned idea that God allowed for a while. But it was in fact an idol.

In the end the quitting was not God quitting me, and it was not me quitting the true God, but me quitting a false god of almost two decades. And, wow, was it hard to let go.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus