I received my calling—to preach God’s Word—when I was 13. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the call was so formidable that it became more than the voice of God concerning my future. It became me, and I became it. It was not intentional and probably was not healthy, but the call formed my identity. Pastoring was not just something I did, it was who I was. As a result, when I left my last pastorate over three decades later, at the same time ending my pastoral career, I felt lost, yet at the same time relieved. The morning after my last Sunday I looked in the mirror and was shocked at my appearance. I looked tired and weak, older than my years. But as I stood there, God seemed to be there, saying, “Don’t worry. Your best days are ahead of you.” That day I began a journey that would lead me to a new and healthier understanding of God’s intent for my life, one that others may find has applications to their own lives.
My departure from pastoral ministry was the culmination of a journey that had started several years earlier. After pastoring a congregation in Florida for nearly 10 years, I began losing confidence in what I believed and interest in what I was doing. I wasn’t sure what was causing the change, but I knew I was in transition. The shift had characteristics of a change I had experienced nearly 25 years earlier, while attending a denominational college.
I had been raised in a congregation united in its legalism and while I have never doubted the pastor’s or the congregation’s love for me, I later realized that a distorted view of grace and salvation had been embedded in my faith system. Holy behavior, I had been taught, was the key to enjoying God’s favor. Unfortunately, sometimes I wasn’t very holy.
Leaving home and the church in which I had been raised to attend college was a shock to my belief structure. I soon encountered people who did not adhere to my strict code of behavior but seemed to love God even more than I did. I vacillated from believing that many of them were phonies to wondering if I had been wrong.
Fortunately, some religion professors gently guided me out of legalism and into an understanding of God’s love as all-encompassing and inviting. It was a liberating journey, but it required me to discard some of the childhood beliefs I had considered essential to my own salvation. It was a risky time, but the dissonance was more than I could stand.
Now, after pastoring five churches, I again was seeing what I believed was a better way. I was feeling trapped by a system that seemed to measure a pastor’s success by his or her performance and status. More and more I was feeling the need to abandon my exclusive and private religion and broaden my ministry focus to include the community at large. I was increasingly being influenced by the words of Christ to feed the hungry and welcome the abandoned.
I wasn’t sure how to maneuver through the change, but I began to take steps to align my ministry with my faith. I started a journey I hoped would lead to wholeness and a renewed passion for God and the church.
At the peak of my discontent, my alma mater announced it would be offering off-campus classes toward a master’s in religion. Joining the program became an enjoyable escape from my growing dissatisfaction with ministry. Over the long run, however, it actually heightened my disillusionment. Studies of church history and the Scriptures widened the gap between my evolving faith and expected pastoral duties.
After finishing my master’s and serving my tenth year as the pastor of the Florida church, I accepted an invitation to pastor a congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was hoping a new start might give me an opportunity to redefine my role as a pastor. I wanted to lead a healthy church into a broader understanding of a congregation’s responsibility in bringing redemption to the community.
Within a few weeks of moving to Charlotte, I began introducing new forms of evangelism to the congregation’s lay leaders. My sermons often accentuated the importance of treating friends and family as whole persons who cannot be dissected into needy parts and un-needy parts. I soon sensed the church was mulling in their minds the new “angle” to the gospel I was preaching. I knew I was putting myself in jeopardy, but it was a risk I was willing to take. The change I hoped for never occurred, however. The congregation’s curiosity about my call for involvement in the community’s social woes soon turned to resistance. Further, I was too impatient and too naïve about leadership. My new start in a new place wasn’t working.
I continued the education track by entering a doctor of ministry program. Again, attending classes and pursuing my studies brought temporary relief, but I was not able to uncover any long-term solutions to my dilemma. One day in class I admitted to members of my cohort that I believed I was on a path that would soon lead me out of pastoral ministry. I knew I was running out of ideas and that my unchecked disillusionment probably would make me ineffective in the denomination that had educated and ordained me.
In Charlotte, my wife and I often had conversations focused on my discontent with the church and the restraints I was feeling as a result of congregational and denominational expectations. “There has to be more to it than this,” I would say. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing what I am doing.”
I continued pastoring, but I became more agitated and less effective. I stayed in conflict with lay leaders. Tension grew and I didn’t know what to do. I realized I had lost my way.
Then one Sunday morning before worship services, my office phone rang. The caller was a middle judicatory leader asking me to visit a large church in his area that wanted to consider me to be their pastor. Within a month I was offered the position of senior pastor at Westside Church of the Nazarene, a 1200-member church in Indianapolis, Indiana. I immediately accepted and moved for the second time in two years. I was hoping that a large church in which my primary function was to preach would relieve me from the inner tension I was feeling.
It soon became clear that I had made a mistake. It was difficult for me to manage a large staff. I did not take the time to learn the church’s ethos, formed partially by a series of effective and strong pastors. Attendance and donation levels began to slide. Even my preaching, which I had been told was my “specialty,” became generally ineffective. Several members commented that my sermons should be more forceful and decisive.
I was running out of ideas. I had finished my doctoral program and had pastored three churches in less than three years. My disillusionment continued to grow. I became desperate and withdrawn. I isolated myself from my friends and my responsibilities.
The Westside church was only a few miles from where I had grown up. Nearby were places where I had experienced God and formed my childhood faith and my call. I began to wonder if I might recover some of my early ministry passion by visiting those places.
One Sunday morning I drove to the church I had attended as a child. It was early and no one was there. I climbed the steps to the small front porch and, cupping my hands to lessen the glare, placed my face against the glass of the front doors. The wooden doors leading to the small sanctuary were open, and I could see the center aisle and the ends of the pews. I wondered if they were the same oaken pews on which I had often fallen asleep during long Sunday night evangelistic services. I then focused several minutes on the wooden prayer bench between the pulpit and front rows, wondering how many times I had knelt there as a boy, crying and asking God to forgive me. I relived the childhood feelings of sinfulness and guilt over my youthful inability to live up to the standard of holy living that I was told the Bible demanded.
As I drove home that morning I realized the visit to the little church was more taunting than inspiring. The memories of my childhood frustration from not being able to enjoy and know God’s love and approval began to haunt me again.
A few days later, I visited the campgrounds where I had spent many summers as a teenager. As I drove the oval road that circled the dorms and open-sided tabernacle, I remembered the intensity of the sermons preached during the annual two-week camp meetings. I recalled my fascination with the itinerant evangelists who had preached those sermons and how they had piqued my own passion for preaching.
On another afternoon, I drove to the country church where, at age 16, I had preached my first revival meeting. Seeing the red cinderblock building triggered memories of having believed what I was doing— preaching—was God’s call. As I sat in my car in the church’s grass parking lot, I prayed for God to restore my passion and my confidence in the Word of God and its power to change lives.
Regardless of what I did, however, I was not able to recapture what I had lost. I was not even sure what was missing. More education and moving to pastor other churches had only aggravated my frustration. Returning to some of my own personal sacred places had failed to spark any zeal or hope. I knew I should not be pastoring.
One Sunday in March, my wife and I rushed home after church. Criticism of my leadership had begun several months earlier, and the tension that morning between me and some of the congregation had been almost unbearable. We sat silently in the car after turning off the engine and closing the automatic garage door behind us. I began to cry.
Finally, my wife spoke. “Just resign, Michael. We will make it somehow.”
It was the permission I needed. I wrote my resignation that afternoon and presented it to the church board later that week. My critics in the congregation would have their wish; I would not “ruin” their church, as some had predicted.
The trauma of leaving the pastorate was acute. There were financial concerns, feelings of abandonment and betrayal to work through, and a strong need to face the event that had shaped my life— my call—and what I would do about it now.
For two years I didn’t do much. I read some, took daily naps, and watched too much television. I did organize and teach some evening Bible studies, but I soon received a letter from denominational leadership stating that if I did not stop I would be asked to turn in my ordination credentials.
We continued to live two miles from the church, and I tried to avoid anyone who might know me. I would scan the faces at restaurants and refuse to be seated near anyone who knew me. Trips to the grocery store were scheduled for Sunday mornings when I knew any Westsiders would be in church.
One evening my wife surprised me with a birthday party. At first I was angry when I walked into the house and a living room of people shouted “happy birthday,” but as the party continued I began to enjoy myself. These were my friends and I was laughing. I began to believe that maybe there was life after pastoring and my best days really were ahead of me.
Another pivotal point came as the result of a phone call from my friend Doug. He offered to pay for me to join a program called Breakthrough, described in promotional literature as “a training experience in spiritual formation and personal effectiveness.” Doug explained that he had participated in the program and he thought it might benefit me.
I researched Breakthrough before accepting Doug’s offer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved in any group event that might push me into a false sense of well-being. I discovered that Breakthrough was a series of four three-day meetings designed to help participants explore and evaluate their past and its impact. It included a strong emphasis on forgiveness. I decided to attend.
I presumed that it would be Westside I would need to forgive during the Breakthrough program. They, after all, had destroyed not only my career but also my identity— or at least so I thought. I soon realized, however, that my forgiveness needed to be extended not to Westside but to my childhood pastor, the man whose twisted view of the Gospel had left me unsure and judgmental.
As I walked one Sunday morning from my hotel room to the final Breakthrough session, I was grateful for Doug’s offer. I felt I had a clean slate and was now ready to use my past as a springboard for building a brighter future. That final session ended with a symbolic release of any grudges. As the 52 members of the group stood in a circle, we were asked to close our eyes and extend our arms in front of us. Then, as we opened our fists and turned our palms down, we were to express our forgiveness of anyone who might have offended us. I spoke my forgiveness to my childhood pastor, wishing he was alive so I could tell him in person.
When we were instructed to open our eyes, I was surprised to see Doug standing in front of me. He was smiling. He embraced me and told me he loved me. Later I learned he had driven 250 miles one-way just for that moment. I was moved by his kindness and confidence in me.
I now was ready to start again. I didn’t know how or where, but I knew my Monday morning words from God, “Your best days are ahead of you,” were going to come true. I was not ready, however, for where that new start would begin.
A few months later, my father, visiting from Florida, asked if we could drive the 30 miles to see “509.” That was the street number of the house that was my childhood home until I left for college. My brother, who also was visiting, joined us. I parked in the driveway of 509, and the three of us took turns telling family stories. Suddenly my brother announced that he was going to try and see the inside the house. I watched as he knocked on the door and talked to the woman who now was the owner. He soon turned and waved for my father and me to join him. She had agreed to give us a tour of 509.
Not many changes had been made since my parents had sold the house 20 years before, but we agreed that the rooms seemed smaller than we remembered. In my mind, however, there was one room in the house that was larger than ever. It was the bathroom, the place I had been called to preach. As we passed it, I told the others I would join them in a moment. Here, at 13, while reaching out to turn on the bathtub faucet, I had suddenly had an awareness of God’s presence. As I knelt I had sensed God calling me to preach and had answered “yes.” Now, so many years later, I closed the bathroom door and knelt again by the bathtub. “God, it is here I received my call to preach over 30 years ago,” I prayed. “It hasn’t worked out like I thought, but I want you to know that my ‘yes’ then is good even now. My answer is still ‘yes.’ I will do your will.”
Within a few months of my renewed commitment at 509, I formed the Pastors Institute (TPI), a nonprofit organization with the stated purpose to “partner with and provide resources for pastors and their families in order to enable them to fulfill their calling.” I was not sure what shape my vision would take, but I knew I did not want others to go through alone what I had experienced. Our initial focus was on those who prematurely leave pastoral ministry. We began by gathering small groups of former pastors for a two-day event we called Transition Point. I soon realized from hearing their stories that my experiences were not unique.
TPI’s focus on the attrition of pastors resulted in our receiving a grant in 2004 from the Louisville Institute, a Lilly Endowment program for the study of American religion. The project, “Murmurs from the Outside: What Former Pastors are Saying to the Church,” was designed to hear what exited pastors might say to the church and its institutions about pastoral education and support.
The two-year project
focused on six pastor-attrition studies conducted in the United States during the last decade, including research by the J.M. Ormond Center at Duke University’s Divinity School, Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research, and Christianity Today International.
A final 56-page comparative report, giving a collective voice to thousands of former pastors, included a narrative in which former pastors detailed the circumstances involved in their exit from career ministry. Most of the cited causes were predictable. Study participants told of being unprepared to pastor in a rapidly changing culture. They admitted to lacking people skills, including the ability to resolve conflict. They expressed having felt lonely and unsupported. Afraid they would shatter a presumed ideal, they reported having been unwilling to be open and authentic. And they admitted to not having given priority to matters of self-care and self-discipline.
But one strand in the stream of causes summarized in the report was especially poignant for me. It was the following excerpt, which appeared under the heading “We Lost Our Way”:
This may be the most important thing we need to tell you, but it also is the most difficult. Our ministry began with a call—for some mystical, for others an awareness formed by time and circumstances. We felt we were affirmed, encouraged, educated, and empowered by the church and its institutions. However, we were not led into times of evaluating and understanding our call. We did not realize that our call should not only be validated and reaffirmed but also continually redefined. It was what it was, a trophy on the shelf, and that seemed good enough for us, our families, and the church.
As I was typing this section of the report, I recognized my own experience. I had lost my way. The ambivalence of pastoring had overwhelmed me. I had been rushing to nowhere. I had lost my imagination for the Kingdom. The report’s narrative not only described the process of my exit from pastoral ministry, it also gave a clue as to why it had happened. I had been betrayed by the event that had resulted in my entering the ministry in the first place—my call, the life-forming experience I had had by a bathtub.
My call initially served as my ticket into pastoral ministry. Ordaining boards studied it carefully and declared it valid. My answers to their questions seemed to satisfy them, and I was ordained after meeting the requirements of experience and education.
After being ordained, however, my call evolved into a symbol of a past peak experience in which I was chosen from among others to fill a highlighted place in the church. It became a trophy on the shelf. Its value became limited mostly to being a source of inspiration. I often would glance at the trophy, and by reliving my childhood call I would be infused with courage and staying power.
I still strongly believe that God chose me to be a servant of the church, but I now realize that I distorted my call and misread its meaning. I had allowed the church’s common expectations of the pastor to shape my call into becoming a silent trophy on the shelf. Much of what I had been doing had been a subconscious effort to bring it back to life, to find a “speaking call,” one that was guiding me in the here and now.
In 2005, I submitted a proposal to a global corporation to underwrite a project that would develop a process through which pastors might hear their call speak again.
The proposal included the following text:
A pastor’s initial call often becomes a “trophy on the shelf,” shaped by the expectations of others. Pastors often describe their call as a past event serving mostly as being an entry point into pastoral ministry. As a result, over time there may be a loss of imagination and creativity. Pastoring may become only a career, and the urgency to learn and to grow is lost.
>What would be the result if pastors went back and listened to their call? What if they rehearsed it and described it more in terms of a narrative rather than an event? Then, what if that initial call was nurtured into life and it began to speak again?
I believe if pastors will let their call speak they will experience a freshness of ministry, a new imagination, and a humbling excitement. New life will be formed both in pastors and their congregations.
The proposal was approved, and the project, “Let Your Call Speak: A New Model for Pastoral Development,” was designed over the next two years with the help of educators, church leaders, and social scientists.
One of the components of the project included a review of the call phenomenon in the Scriptures. I was interested particularly in the call of Simon Peter. The four Gospels reference Jesus’ initial interruption of Simon’s chosen career as a fisherman. “Come, follow me,” Jesus told him and his brother Andrew at the Sea of Galilee. “I will make you fishers of men.”
John’s Gospel also highlights Christ’s post-resurrection visit with Peter after he had decided to return to fishing. Again, at the Sea of Galilee, Peter’s routine was interrupted, and his future was redirected with the repeated command, “Follow me.”
The early church saw value in the discussion between Christ and Peter, yet the story raises a lot of questions: Had the events of Christ’s suffering and death resulted in Peter losing his way? Was there significance to Peter’s return to his fishing career? When Christ asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, is this intended to balance out Peter’s three denials at the trial? I don’t know.
What does seem clear is that Peter’s calling was to care for the sheep. He was to be a servant who fed and protected the weak. His was not a performance- based call but a calling to a life of service that could only be fulfilled in community.
His calling was to be shaped by circumstances over which he would have no control. There would be no holy shrines on mountains of transfiguration. The most holy places would be where God led him. Christ’s re-visit accentuates that there would be no trophy on the shelf. The cross was to be Peter’s mark.
I remember when Christ re-visited me. I hesitate to mention it because I do not want to construct another trophy to be placed on a shelf. I just want you to know it happened. I was driving home from a meeting in which I had been a consultant for pastoral development. Though less dramatic than my childhood bathtub experience, I realized my call had come alive and was speaking to me. It did not suggest that my childhood call had not happened or that it was not of God. It only told me that it had more to say and asked if I was ready to listen.
“Yes,” I answered, I was prepared to hear what it said.
My call spoke clearly during the next few months, and what it said was different from my call to pastor at age 13. I was to hear a calling that was ongoing, continuous, and dynamic. It was not in a form I could ever go back and try to recapture. Its life was not in the past but in the future. I was not being called to something, such as a career, but into something—a relationship. This was a calling that could never be private or even personal; I knew it was only a part of a collective mission shared by others. This call, rather than a set-in-stone template, would be continually reformed. Current family, congregational, or cultural situations would have to be included in the interpretation and fulfillment of my call. I understand now that my purpose is not in being able to replicate an imagined past based on ideal ministry models but in serving those God has placed around me. The template for my ministry should be the life modeled by Jesus Christ.