During this pandemic, many people, clergy included, have decided to resign from their jobs. Headlines about “The Great Resignation” may overstate the case—some people are just retiring or moving on to better jobs. But many ministers undoubtedly are wondering right now whether they should find another way to spend their lives.
Many clergy who have told me they are thinking about quitting seem burned out. Resigning—turning the ministry off like a light switch—seems tempting in a time like this. But rather than a light switch, a better metaphor might be a dimmer.
We may need to “turn down” some activities and “turn up” other activities to find a new equilibrium. Rather than turn the ministry completely off, on reflection we might find ways to create “mood lighting” for our lives.
These days the joys of ministry—especially the meaningful connections with people at its heart—feel diminished. About 38 percent of Protestant senior pastors surveyed by Barna Research have considered leaving ministry.
I get it. Preaching to empty sanctuaries or flickering computer screens, meeting on Zoom, and spending hours recording and re-recording—this is not ministry as most of imagined it would be.
The existential psychologist Rollo May said that “Real human freedom is our willingness to pause between the events in our lives and the response we choose.” Now may be a time to pause and listen—and perhaps to finally hear the inner voices we have set aside.
We might resign, not our job or ministry, but from the story we have told ourselves about how we carry out our calling.
Edward P. Wimberly, in his book, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religious Caregivers, has explored some of the stories—he calls them “myths”—that can limit a person’s ministry or life:
- The Myth of Self-Sufficiency
- The Myth of Sacrificing Joy
- The Myth of Pleasing at All Costs
- The Myth of Over-Functioning
- The Myth of Under-Functioning (i.e., not being able to offer your gifts)
Each of these myths can be an undertow in ministry, draining energy and leading into isolation, joylessness, burnout, and diminished passion.
We cannot dispel the power of these myths simply by naming them. Often, as Wimberly points out, the myths have deep roots in our personal and family histories. Sometimes these myths have us rather than our having them.
Often a myth that is a problem now once served us well. For example, the “Myth of Self-Sufficiency” may have allowed us to overcome obstacles, accomplish what we thought was impossible, or find independence. But if we can’t recalibrate (there’s the “dimmer switch” again), we risk becoming drained, demotivated, and despairing.
Periodically, we each need to reexamine our own ministry and even the profession itself, since many of these myths are embedded in the expectations placed on ministers by colleagues and congregations. If our professional colleagues reinforce the Myth of Self-Sufficiency, we may fail to reach out for support when we need to. As a result, we lack the support network that could serve us in times of uncertainty and stress.
Pause and Reexamine
If we take the inclination to resign as a sign that it is time to take a pause, it can lead us reflect on what must shift in our ministry or life. From this place of pause, we can ask ourselves some different questions, such as:
- What are the unexamined myths that underlie how I approach ministry?
- Do any of these in Wimberly’s list have more power over me than I would like?
- How have these myths served me in the past?
- How do they not serve me well today?
Resigning does not have to be an on-off switch. We can let go of what no longer serves us or the ministry profession. We can invest more time and energy in aspects of the work that feed us. We can recalibrate. We can—in a sense—repent.
Why Not Repent?
For some who have grown up in a tradition focused on sin and confession, the word repent carries a sting of guilt, shame, or unworthiness. Anne Lamott offers an alternative perspective:
Repent just means to change direction—and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that.
Lamott came to church relatively late in life—after having a child as a single mother, after dealing with alcoholism and aimlessness. She realized she needed to change direction. It happens that her view of repentance as changing direction is similar to Judaism’s understanding. The Hebrew word “teshuvah,” which is often translated as repentance, literally means “turning” or “turning around.”
To repent or change direction is an ordinary, necessary movement within any human life—including lives in ministry. Sometimes, as Lamott declares, “Repentance is a blessing.” Turning frees us, as Lamott advises, to “Pick a new direction and aim for that.”
Lawrence Peers is dedicated to serving and coaching leaders and teams from a comprehensive and integral perspective. His focus is on helping leaders be a better observer of their own leadership and of the organizations they serve in order to design skillful and reflective leadership responses. He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC), certified Leadership Circle ® coach and Immunity to Change® and Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator and a Strozzi Institute Associate. He was a former director of the Pastoral Excellence Network and continues to provide training to clergy coaches and mentors. He is an adjunct professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary and Hartford International University for Religion and Peace focusing on adaptive leadership, conflict transformation and spiritually-grounded leadership.