On our last Sunday at one of the first churches we served, I stood crying and saying good-bye to our church family when our Senior Minister’s wife leaned over to me and quietly said, “It will get easier”.
Saying Goodbye was not easy on that day over 18 years ago, and it wasn’t easy any of the other times we have left a church since then. Today, however, it was different. Today we didn’t just leave a ministry — we left ministry. Instead of leaving one ministry to serve at another, this time we are leaving ministry for something we don’t yet know.
I’m sure there are those who wonder why we are leaving and even those who question our decision – especially at this time. My purpose for writing this, however, is not to defend our decision (although I will say that it was not an easy decision to make and was only made after much prayer and conversation) but, rather, to share what I have learned along the way.
(Also, please note that this article is about our family leaving church ministry — I am still personally on staff at a local nonprofit ministry with no plans to leave that at this time.)
Having said that, following are three truths that God has impressed on me through our journey of leaving vocational (specifically church) ministry.
- It is not a sin to leave vocational ministry.
For a long time it was hard for me to even consider leaving church ministry. If God called us into vocational ministry, wouldn’t we be turning our backs on Him if we left? Perhaps that would be a valid argument if we think that vocational ministry is the only ministry there is and the only worthwhile occupation to which God calls His people. But the truth is that we are all called to serve Jesus wherever we are — we are all called to ministry. Just because we are no longer getting paid to “do ministry” at a church does not mean we are no longer “doing ministry”. Colossians 3:23 states, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. It is the Lord Christ you are serving”. Sometimes staying in vocational ministry can actually interfere with the other ministries God has given us – such as the ministry to our own families and children — and it is certainly not a sin to leave vocational ministry in order to do what is best for your family.
- Our identity comes from who we are in Christ, not what we do for Christ.
Ultimately I am not Cheri, a pastor’s wife, I am Cheri, a child of God. That “Child of God” title will never leave me, no matter what my husband’s (or my) vocation is. Furthermore, that “Child of God” title is not dependent on anything I did (or do), but on what Christ did for me. Romans 5:6-8 says, “For at just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast”.
God does not love me less because I am no longer a pastor’s wife. His love for me is not dependent on what I do for Him or what my husband’s occupation is. My identity comes from who I am in Christ, not any title that the world (or the church) may give to me.
- Being on the paid staff at a church is not the “highest calling”.
I think that somehow we have gotten the idea that those who serve in paid positions in the church are at a higher level than everyone else. Growing up in a church (and in ministry) left an impression on me that the greatest accomplishments were found in positions in the church. A senior pastor was at a higher level than a youth pastor and a district superintendent deserved ultimate respect and honor. If someone earned a ministry degree and went on to serve a church, he was worthy of double honor.
Please don’t get me wrong . . . I believe we should respect our leaders and that it is an honor to serve the Lord in church ministry. However, it is also an honor to serve the Lord in a factory, in a grocery store, in a school, or in the home. We need to be careful not to equate someone’s worth with someone’s vocation. We also need to recognize that we are all sinners in need of a Savior and being part of the paid staff at a church does not make one more spiritual. It also doesn’t make one always right when it comes to spiritual matters. We need to support and encourage our ministers as they face unique and difficult challenges, but we also need to recognize that they are regular people only able to serve because of the grace of Jesus Christ. Just like everyone else.
Shortly after we made the decision to leave church ministry, I began to worry about the future. My husband reminded me that God would provide, just as He always has. In my thinking at that time, however, I began to wonder if He really would provide. Would He still provide for us, even if we were no longer in church ministry?
And that was when God showed me the truths I have shared here: It is not a sin to leave vocational ministry, my identity does not depend on what I do for Christ but on who I am in Christ, and being on the paid staff at a church is not the “highest calling”.
I do not know what the future holds for us. I do not know where we will be a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now . . . I don’t even know where we will be next week for church! What I do know, however, is that I am a child of God, continually learning to depend completely on Him.
While leaving has never gotten easier – I cried just as much today as I did 18 years ago – the same God is going with me on this journey and I know I can trust Him with my future, whatever that future might be.
Continuing to serve Him,