I think we can agree that being a pastor is nobler than being a convict. But announce that you are a former pastor and there will be raised eyebrows and whispers as though you had identified yourself as a former inmate. Either will likely elicit the silent response, “I wonder what he did.”
Unless you are 65+ years old and retired from ministry, being a former pastor seems to be an indictment of your character, your faith & perseverance, and/or your obedience to God. Regardless, you didn’t finish the race. You either quit or got disqualified; and both are considered disgraceful.
Been There, Done That
I had served as an assistant pastor in large churches for almost 20 years when I moved to the largest of the churches—a growing mega-church outside Nashville, TN. In retrospect I was ripe for a crash. It was with profound grief that I left the staff and the loving congregation of a church in South Carolina. When we moved to South Carolina I envisioned ministering in the Greenville church until my retirement which was decades removed. The pastor and I were childhood friends. This was going to be great! And it was… for a short while.
As marriage & family therapist coming out of grad school (I had never planned on being a pastor) I have always viewed the system of a church staff as being very similar to the system of a family. Churches and church staffs are either healthy and effective; or they are unhealthy and dysfunctional.
I was struggling to hold on as other associate staff members had either left or were considering it. The senior pastor was steadily losing the respect and trust of the congregation and the associate staff had formed a survivors support group of sorts. But it was a life raft with punctured holes from which hope and perseverance were leaking out. A wise church leader in the state who knew about our drama and dynamics said the pivotal words to me, “Ramon, how long do you think that you can stay healthy in an unhealthy system that isn’t going to change?”
I knew the system was not going to change without a change in leadership. As long as the senior pastor stayed, this is how it would be…or worse. I have very strong convictions about not creating division so I left quietly and graciously. But I left reluctantly and arrived in Tennessee in disguised pain.
The unfinished business of grief, the stress of relocation and starting over, and the demands of a large growing church that measured every kind of growth statistic imaginable were for me the perfect storm that ripped my sails and overturned my boat. When it finally sank I was admitted to the hospital for severe depression and anxiety.
The church was gracious in giving me a 3-month medical leave and I did my best to return. I knew I needed to make this work. Emotionally I wasn’t up to another move. I came back and did my best but apparently my numbers didn’t meet quota and I was invited to find other employment. That’s when I elected to return to my original career as a Christian counselor and have been in private practice here in Franklin since then.
I know what it feels like to leave a church voluntarily but reluctantly; and I know what it feels like to be shown the door, when the offer of a severance package feels like a game show host saying, “Thanks for being on our show; we have some lovely parting gifts for you.” Since then I have met a multitude of assistant pastors, worship leaders, and associate staff members, who have had a similar experience. I’ve talked with senior pastors worn down by unreasonable expectations and criticism until the brake pads are gone and the sound of the heart and the spirit is just metal on metal.
Let’s Be Honest
I don’t have all the answers, but I’m coming out and saying there’s a problem when in Franklin/Brentwood alone I’ve encountered a large multitude of former employees I would call “church staff survivors”—the walking wounded who have been mistreated, manipulated, and in some cases emotionally/verbally abused before being pushed out the door or before jumping out a window to safety.
One lay leader of a large church in Tennessee, in response to the constant enter/exit traffic of pastoral staff, quipped “It’s so common here that we’re adding a new bakery item in our church café—it’s called a “staff turnover”. It’s a farce to say to the community that the church is a great place to worship when it is a toxic place to work; and it is a false message to the visitor that the church is a safe place to heal when there’s a large invisible cemetery out back.