Friday, November 14, 2008


I have often been asked if The Runaway Pastor is a true story, or if it is based upon one. It is based on many true stories.

Many men and women are cut out perfectly for the role of pastoral ministry in this day when "bigger, means better." They are often blessed with the multiple talents of organization, leadership, management, motivation, and institutional development; as well as being gifted with sympathy, the abilities to teach and preach and to make their faith real to "outsiders". These are wonderful people--and rare.

I spend a lot of time thinking these days of smaller, sustainable, organic house churches as a preferable model for some leaders. I am more and more convinced that much of what our success-models have pushed us into, is a lovely and large cruise ship with little ability to maneuver in the post-modern waters of our times. On the other hand, the smaller congregations seem quite adept at relational, conversational, servant-oriented ministry that is so effective in these days.

And don't get me wrong, churches are usually good places with good people. The runaway thing is typically not an issue of some ogre institution chewing up, and spitting out its leaders. No, ministry has simply become a very broad and demanding job emotionally, mentally and physically. And the greater the desire to love a congregation (that for some of us means always pleasing), and to lead a congregation to mega-greatness, the greater the tendency to burn-out.

Some pastors are strong in the leadership/management skill sets, and weak in the caring ones. And others, like Trent in The Runaway Pastor, are the other way around. Churches can be filled with wonderful people, but the institution itself demands a very highly gifted and well rounded person to carry-off the gig. Many find themselves incapable, or tired trying to keep up. That, in my opinion, is where the runaways come from.

I can remember like yesterday, conversations with middle-aged and broken pastors, when I was first starting in ministry. I would often come away from such conversations thinking: "I'll never be like that." Or, "Why are they so negative?" It is true that many pastors never run from their ministry, but wish they could. When they signed-up for ministry, they believed they could spend a lifetime caring for others, teaching and speaking about faith. Their spiritual gifts and their training equipped them for this. However, once in the roles of ministry, they found different expectations, and overwhelming stresses.

And the stigma of having a "calling," is a difficult one to break out of. When I was called to serve as a missionary, and signed a career contract, coming home was the most humiliating step I ever took. (It also, however, saved my family.) We left the US as heroes, and returned perceived as embarrassments to the church. Before leaving, I spoke in large churches, three of our university chapels and many district church gatherings. But after returning, we were not even included in the introductions of "former missionaries" at our own district's meetings. (Like Trent, The Runaway Pastor at Baylor's Bend, I understand now that my [cross-cultural and] people-loving skill sets were strong; however my organizational and institutional motivations and abilities were inadequate.)

Many in the church push young people to profess a "calling," and if they ever testify to such a calling, the mold is cast. I remember my boyhood pastors telling me, "If you can do anything else, and know that God would still love you, do it." But once I said I was called, and after leaving for college to study, even my most sincere doubts of such a calling had to be squelched. From early days in college, and throughout my ministry, the only respectable path has been to keep on plugging.

Today, many pastors quit in their early years of ministry, or even before beginning a pastoral career. (There is probably less of a stigma than there used to be, and a deeper belief in God's grace.) A common statistic now is that half of those who do study for ministry, get out during their first 10 years. I know several young men who went to a denominational school to study for pastoral ministry less than ten years ago. Of the group who took the four year course, none of them are pursuing the job of pastor now. One of them--a recent seminary grad--told a family member that his seminary years and college studies were largely wasted. He's getting out now. Others have diverted into such caring ministries as hospital chaplaincies.

Multiple pastors have told me they spend time dreaming of what else they could do to earn a living. There are web sites for pastors looking for a new start. That is another part of the "trapped" feeling. Training in Greek and Hebrew, hermeneutics, preaching, etc. does little for a resume in the "real world." Pastors have told me of scheming to commit enough of a crime to get kicked out of their church, without going to jail or losing their family. Others have told me they wish they could get in the car and drive as far away as their savings could take them. Others have told me they wish they could die, or become debilitated.

And then there are those who do find a way out. Some, with great wisdom realize their skill sets are welcomed in varying 501C3s, the teaching community, or other professional career paths. Unfortunately, affairs, internet pornography, or complete emotional breakdowns have taken many. And perhaps, the leading way out is actually more of a switching of the channel: Some change congregations and home towns once every two, four or six years....

1 comment:

Zee said...

i once wished i could be a pastor. going to a "Christian" (not really so, even though the name says it) university taught me that i won't cut out for it... when there are so many things to think about and explain... for me it's enough to rely on the fact that i do not NEED to know everything to be saved, but there are a lot of people who NEED to understand how everything works and the words sometimes fall flat, no matter how "ingenious" they sound when you first hear them in seminary / university / college / Church / wherever.

dealing with a lot of people AND your own inquiries / doubts is tough and realizing that fact made me admire the pastors who are good at it (i have a lot of examples, starting with mom)... however, who knows what might happen in the future? maybe my short eunc training will be used for something besides my own thirst for knowledge :) God's sense of humor is odd sometimes.