Leaving my life as a pastor at the age of 44 was a sudden move, a scary move, and a financially absurd move. It was not, however, an original move. I had done it once before, way back at the beginning.
My last year of college was a whirlwind. I accepted the pastorate of a small rural church late in my junior year. That summer I got married and started working six days a week at a furniture store. When classes resumed in the fall, I was a full-time student, a nearly full-time employee of the Texas Furniture Company, and the pastor of the Naruna Baptist Church. It was a full life.
My agreement with the church was that I would stay through my graduation in May at which time I would be moving away to attend seminary. By February I knew I couldn’t make it. I suddenly felt incapable of preaching one more sermon, much less a dozen more. In shame, I informed the church that I would be resigning several months earlier than they had expected. They were confused. “Why couldn’t I just stay through May like we had talked about?” they wanted to know. I didn’t have an answer. I just knew I was done.
This experience was the great existential crisis of my early adulthood. Since I was 15 I knew I was going to be a preacher. I went to college to study and prepare for that future, and knew that seminary would be the next step. While in college I had met the love of my life and knew that getting married was right for me. It was a life filled with certitude.
Suddenly nothing was certain. I was paralyzed by doubt and fear. Here I was, about to finish college and head to seminary, and the thought of being a pastor terrified me. I had tried it, albeit in a limited fashion, and been overwhelmed by it. If I couldn’t handle being the weekend pastor to a church of 40 good souls, how was I going to manage ministering in a larger setting?
The clearest memory I have of those days was the walk I took across the campus with KaKi. We had been married about eight months and our plans for the future were in place: graduation for both of us, seminary for me, and a teaching job for her. Now, as we walked in front of the library on a brisk winter morning, I was trying to explain what was happening to me. Only I didn’t know. I didn’t know why I couldn’t finish my time at the country church. I didn’t know why the thought of a future as a minister filled me with anxiety. What I do know is that in my moment of terrified confusion KaKi didn’t blame or judge me. Her support on that chilly morning is a gift I still treasure.
Twenty-five years later I have much more compassion and understanding for that confused, scared preacher boy who was me. I know now that I was exhausted from a pace that was unrelenting. I also realize that my first experience of trying on the role of pastor had exposed me in ways I was not prepared to handle. I didn’t feel good enough, holy enough, or strong enough to be a spiritual guide for others. I hadn’t yet learned the truth that ministering to people is mostly about showing up and listening. It would be years before I grasped the fact that it was okay for me not to have all the answers. It would be even longer before I understood that my parishioners didn’t want answers anyway. They wanted what we all want, what we all need, what I got from KaKi on that cold morning in front of the school library: a minister who loved them for who they were; a minister who cared for them when they were hurting; a minister who tried to tell and live the truth.
The first time I “left the ministry” I was young, confused, and the departure would be temporary. The next leaving came in the middle of my life in a moment of absolute clarity. Same result, but it feels completely different.
- ► 2012 (12)
- ► 2011 (12)