From the fall of 1997 to the fall of 2007, my career trajectory involved full time ministry. Whether it was as a Youth Pastor, a Camping Ministry or the possibility of Overseas Ministry, Full Time Ministry was where I felt I needed to be. Maybe part of it was because, whenever I heard people talk about full time ministry, they talked about it with a seemingly radiant glow. They described it as something far superior than the average job.
Now, I don’t want to paint the experience as horrible, soul crushing or even dangerous for one’s faith in any way. There was many valuable lesions I learned, many great friends I made, and much good, both in my life and other people’s lives came from full time ministry. I also know, that for some, they can’t relate to my experiences because they haven’t experiences some of the negatives associated with full time ministry. And if that’s your case, let me just say “Thank God EVERY DAY for THAT ministry that has THAT type of safe atmosphere!”
Unfortunately, many are not like that. I could go through the statistics and issues that pertain to those in ministry, but that would take two or three blog posts. If you are interested, you can find some here,here, and here. It might be easier to say that ministry can be a beautiful thing, but can equally be an unrelenting, unforgiving master that treats you like a whore. And I have seen, experienced and talked to others in ministry that share the same experience.
And though I am not against going back into ministry, I have to say there are some great things that have come by not being in full time ministry. They are:
- I have learned that ALL WORK is good and honorable and is part of God working in this world.
Spend any time in a Christian college or community, you will get the idea that full time ministry is somehow a step above other work. A regular, secular job, no matter how much it impacted people’s lives or a community (and even if you like the job you had), was seen as that thing you trudged through. And if you were a volunteer at a church (or depending on the church, did door-to-door evangelism), then that’s where the REAL impactful work began. I even remember, as part of a Christian Camping Ministry, some of the counselors would speak disparagingly of their friends who worked at something other than “Christian work”.
When I moved back to Quebec and started working with the local School Board as a Handicapped Student Attendant, I realized that this was important. It was, in fact, ministry. I may not have the same freedom to pass out tracks (which I don’t like doing anymore) or have Bible studies during the camp day (which definitely isn’t bad), but I am giving a visible, tangible witness to the kids and people I work with (certainly not a perfect or flawless witness, but let’s be honest, no person, whether in or out of ministry is a perfect witness).
2) I can be a friend with someone without the suspicion that I will be doling out Jesus like a Door-to Door Salesman
In Ministry (especially if you are a pastor) can be incredibly lonely. Part of that is because of the position. If you are a parishioner, you see the pastor as the man of God, who Shepherds the flock. The counselor. The guy who will gut up in the middle of the night when there is a tragedy. For some in the church, he’s the guy you try to take down because you don’t like what he preaches about or disagree with the direction he thinks the church should be headed (or you are a mean spirited jerk). In the rest of the community, the Pastor is the Holy guy who you can’t cuss, drink or smoke in front of. Or (for some) the guy you can try to trip up with theological debates. In either case, it is tough to be vulnerable, open and honest when this is the typical mindset. One writer said “We say we’re transparent-we are actually opaque”. And that says nothing about the doubts, questions and insecurities that come up within the human experience. A regular Christian can (if they are in a safe church) can wrestle with the doubts, fears, insecurities and questions that we all have. Someone in full time ministry rarely has that option.
I found that freeing. I don’t have to be opaque. I can actually be transparent.
3) I can be transparent because I don’t have to Worry about the things those in Ministry have to worry about
Whenever I was speaking at churches, preparing devotionals and Bible studies or writing letters to my supporters, I always had to be careful with what I said and wrote. Now that’s not just because I tend to say things without thinking (which I am getting better at, btw), but because, in the back of my head, I had to consider if what I said or what I wrote would have a negative impact on the ministry I worked for, and if what I said would affect my financial support. I wish that this was just a problem I had, but I found it lurks in the minds of most who are in ministry. Most in ministry do consider the number of people attending a church. Most spend lots of time simply trying to raise the money to keep that ministry or church operating. Many do, at some level, take the loss of a member to another church a tiny bit personal. I remember once in a prayer letter, I wanted to write (because I served at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities where we gave physical care to the guests) “Whipping a rear end is just as much worship as sing hymns at church”. The Head of the ministry at the time encouraged me to not write that. And before anyone gets angry or judges the man (who I love and respect), he had no choice. He had to make sure that people who were financially supporting the ministry wouldn’t be offended, because those finances were NEEDED to continue the work. And this ministry I worked for had a conscious. Far too many ministries and churches will bend over backwards to keep donors happy, even if it means censorship and diluting their message.
Even as pastors or missionaries, they have the realization that they have a family to provide for. Many who get into full time ministry only have a seminary or Bible college education. So leaving that church or ministry, for whatever reason, when all you have is a seminary education (sometimes from a non-accredited college) and have to put food on the table is difficult decision. It’s not like knowing the difference between pre-, post-, and all-millennialism is a sought after skill.
And it’s not just an issue of wording things so they would not be offensive. Anyone who works with people understands that humans are complex beings. Even the seemingly well-adjusted have issues (in the Bible that’s called their sin nature). For every step forward there seems to be two steps back. Those in ministry (in most cases) seek to be in people’s lives for the long haul, the ups and downs, the victories and setbacks as they come. Some of the smallest victories those that I worked with were great achievements. However, that person or church giving money may not understand that. I would come to writing a monthly prayer letter, and not have much to write about. Not because I didn’t do my job or not much happened, but because what I thought was amazing growth coming from hard fought battles would seem insignificant to those supporting me.
4) You can Wrestle with The Bible, Theology and your Beliefs without getting nervous.
In the past twenty years, many of the beliefs I had at Bible School and at the start of ministry I simply don’t have anymore. It’s not that I have become a Liberal or an atheist or anything like that. I just see the Bible, theology and such differently. I now have no uneasiness over believing abortion is wrong and yet stating that attack “sting” videos from partisan groups and calls to overturn Roe v. Wade is unwise and won’t lower abortions. I can now critique the church and point out ways in which it’s failing. Could I have done that in full time ministry? Not without serious consequences. Not only do those in full time ministry have to deal with the financial considerations, but their denominational and theological ties as well. They can be the “guardians of truth” at times, and can be pretty unsympathetic if you don’t “toe the line” as it were.
And think of the culture of today. If you put a sermon online, write a book or write a blog, you are inadvertently going to get someone who is going to call what you say heretical. It may be something as simple as saying “Not everything politically conservative is right or Biblical” or “We need to love people”, or even “I use the NIV Bible”.
For a guy who has a blog called “Tony The Faithful Questioner”, this can be difficult.
Now, being outside of full time ministry, I don’t have to sacrifice my conscious or what I believe. When I preach at church, I can say something like “There is a place in the church for the gay Christian” and not be concerned about losing my job. Worst case scenario, they never ask me to preach again.
5) You don’t have to worry about physical or spiritual burnout
I vividly remember one summer where I worked easily 70hr+ a week. There was a ton of drama that summer. By the end of the summer, I was ready to quit. I remember, the week after closing camp up, I would sit in the Rec hall and, while I was supposed to clean up the building and close it for winter, just sitting, not having the physical or spiritual energy to do anything. This lasted for over a month. I was spiritually, physically and emotionally burnt out. That experience, I can honestly say, was HELL.
I have noticed (though it is changing, thankfully) that when you are in full time ministry, you are not only encouraged, but can be told it is spiritual to burn out. When you work, you are working for the Lord, and He will give you the strength and energy to push through. If this is what the Bible teaches, then God must have made a mistake, because He DID NOT create our bodies, minds or souls to withstand it.
In Bible College, one of my professors told me “Sometimes you need to close the blinds and let the world go to hell, because you can’t give what you don’t have”. Unfortunately, way too many in full time ministry are encouraged in the burnout mindset.
Now, being out of full time ministry, I don’t have the pressure to work till I drop. And, funny thing, by picking and choosing, by saying no sometimes, I am healthier and more productive when I do minister.
Again, I would never say no to be back in full-time ministry forever. But being out of full time ministry has not only given me the realization that ministry is more than just a vocation or position, but a mindset. Ministry isn’t something you do but something you live. It has also, if I do ever go back full time, tons of perspective of where would be a good fit. But I have to say, in retrospect, being out is quite liberating. I can minister without all the trappings.