When You’re Ready to Transition Out of Vocational Pastoral Ministry

by | May 26, 2023 | Articles About Leadership

In April 2021, my wife and I stepped down as pastors of the church we’d started planting a decade earlier. It was one of the hardest decisions we’d ever made as a couple. But looking back, we can see that it was a necessary ending.

And what do I mean by a “necessary ending”? Well, the phrase isn’t mine. It’s from the title of a book by Henry Cloud on the subject of making hard transitions. During a particularly difficult period of wrestling with what to do, my trusted coach and mentor recommended that I read this book. Perhaps he was more insightful than I’d realized because our decision to step aside came not long after that.

Henry Cloud says in the introduction of his book:

Endings are a part of every aspect of life. When done well, the seasons of life are negotiated, and the proper endings lead to the end of pain, greater growth, personal and business goals reached, and better lives. Endings bring hope.

When done poorly, bad outcomes happen, good opportunities are lost, and misery either remains or is repeated. So let’s get empowered to choose the necessary endings, execute them well, and get to the better results we all desire.

~ Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings

There are moments when leaders need to take a break from vocational pastoral ministry, but we’ve built a culture that fills the decision with shame. It’s our vocabulary, in particular, that ushers in a wave of guilt over the matter of stepping aside.

We describe any move away from vocational pastoral ministry as a “walking away” from the church and unfaithfulness to a particular calling. Without realizing it, we pump shame into the atmosphere of those trying to continue to minister when they are unhealthy and exhausted.

We’re living in the midst of the “Great Resignation,” which was spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic, but was already well underway prior to the year 2020 and all of the turmoil that it brought. A lot of transitions are happening, so it’s inevitable there will be many transitions within and out of vocational ministry as well.

Evangelicals usually define vocational ministry as a special calling, separated from all others by a special kind of divine initiative. But the truth is, leaders in ministry positions are no exception to all of the factors pushing people to reconsider how they are investing their lives. And further, the idea of “vocation” or “calling” in scripture has less to do with a job title and more to do with the way in which a person is wired by God to touch the world around them.

When a ministry leader decides that it’s time for a transition, we should honor that and withhold any judgment about whether or not they are in or outside “the will of God.” I’m always happy to share wisdom with people seeking advice, but I always preface my advice with, “I can’t know God’s will for your life any better than you, but here’s something to think about…”

Most transitions aren’t scandalous, but our culture of breaking news, hot takes, and celebrity gossip teaches us to look for a scandal underneath every announcement of a change.

Sometimes doors open that we weren’t expecting. Or your entrepreneurial spirit is stirred to pursue some new adventure. Or you’re tired and weary and need a season of recovery. Or you realize it’s time for someone else to step into your role to carry the baton forward. And it’s okay.

It’s possible that you’re reading this article as one who has made a transition out of vocational church leadership, or you’re on the edge of a decision to step aside either short-term or long-term. If so, I have several words for you.

  • God loves you and likes you no matter what you decide to do. He is pleased that you are his child and his approval of you is based on grace and the gospel, not on your performance in any professional role.
  • Your mental, emotional, spiritually, and even your physical health matter greatly to God. It’s okay to take a break or make a change if you’re not able to cope with the pressure of ministry in a healthy way.
  • Jesus’ church will live on. Your role is important and your service has mattered, but the survival of the church depends upon only one person – the risen Lord Jesus. It’s because of him that the gates of hell don’t stand a chance against the movement he started.
  • Some people won’t understand. You must let go of your need to convince everyone of the purity of your motives. Some may even try to make your departure a scandal where there is none. The sooner you release your need to control the narrative for everyone else, the better.
  • There are a thousand ways to represent the gospel. The church needs great leaders. So do all of the circles and spaces in which people work and live. The kingdom grows subversively, popping up in all kinds of unexpected places.

When I served as a Pastor on staff at Saddleback Church, one of the things I appreciated was the way we would welcome leaders from the business world into ministry. They would bring their organizational leadership giftedness to the church and learn to shepherd people. We also blessed the pathway of those moving from ministry over to the business world as they carried their pastoral skillsets into other circles of influence.

If you’re sensing that it might be time to make a transition, talk to your mentors, coaches, family, and friends. Pray for God’s leading and blessing. And know that you are deeply loved and valued and no decision you ever make about your ministry leadership role will ever diminish that!

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward
  • Great product!
  • Hardcover Book
  • Cloud, Henry (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 238 Pages - 01/18/2011 (Publication Date) - Harper Business (Publisher)

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