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July, 2011
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What's Next? When you are considering a change in location, vocation or both

by Dr. Bill Wilson with Dr. Chris Gambill

It is a regular conversation most ministers have internally. “Should I leave?” Some days it is a question of leaving a specific church; some days it is a question of leaving the ministry for another vocation. Always, it is a complicated, emotional and powerful conversation. I almost left vocational ministry once. I decided to stay and I have not regretted that decision. But I remember the intense discomfort and feelings of anxiety about the future that accompanied that season of my life.  Thoughts of leaving are not uncommon for ministers, especially during a rough patch. How do you make such a big decision?

My friend Chip Bishop made a successful change from church pastor to stockbroker a decade ago. He calls his reasons for leaving after 20 years in full-time ministry “complex.” They relate primarily to denominational issues and family time. Surprisingly, Chip is still a member of the church he once pastored. “I was going toward something,” he said, “There was no sense of running away.” In his current position, Chip uses skills gained as a pastor and even visits clients in the hospital. The decision to change was one he processed for three long years. It was a slow, thoughtful process. He has no regrets.

If you are considering a transition to another church or area of ministry or a move out of vocational ministry, my advice is to take it slow. Transitions are rarely easy and good transitions seldom result when we are reactive. Being proactive about any move will require vast amounts of emotional, spiritual and physical energy.

As clergy, we often have 20/20 vision about others’ career decisions and 20/200 vision about our own. Anyone considering a change in location or vocation, should take a good look in three directions: “upward” for God’s call, inward at your own gifts and abilities, and outward toward other career prospects. There are numerous tools and approaches to discerning God’s will. Mystery and realism should both be a part of the multi-modal process.

Looking Up – Revisiting Call

Passion is a key part of call. Sometimes clergy, caught in the day-to-day humdrum, can forget what attracted them to ministry in the first place. Money and status can put blinders on passion. If wealth, logistics or proximity to family drive the vocational discussion, chances are you are moving away from your call. While these factors are important, your call to ministry is more than these drivers.

When considering a transition of any sort - especially a career change - a personal coach is invaluable. A trained coach can guide you through the process of revisiting your passion and discovering ways to serve that draw on personal strengths. Call is dynamic and contextual; it is likely to shift during your life journey. Once you articulate your God-given mission for your life, all other decisions can be filtered through that vision.

Looking Inward - Getting Reacquainted with Yourself

Self-understanding, as well as faithfulness, is part of discerning God’s call. An objective friend or trained coach can be invaluable for helping you understand your abilities. There are numerous assessment tools to help you discover or rediscover your strengths and weaknesses. Talking with people who know you in various ways - not just ministry peers, but friends and family outside ministry - is helpful as well. If such feedback supports your sense of God’s call, that is an indication that you are on the right track.

Besides assessing personal abilities, it is useful to answer questions about your life outside of work. If you are feeling a need for change, ask yourself what else is happening that might influence your thoughts and emotions. Are you depressed? What losses have occurred in your circle of friends and family over the last year? How does your age impact the way you see your ministry? Has your ministry changed in a way that causes more anxiety and stress than it did when you entered this field? Life is complicated. Sometimes seeking personal therapy is a helpful alternative to moving.

Looking Outward - Discovering Possibilities

Before making any change, it is wise to take a hard look at that more attractive church or career. It is our cultural tradition to move toward more money and power, but that is not always a good indicator of fit. Many a minister has arrived at a bigger and better-paying position only to discover that the difficult issues that plagued them previously have also made the trip.

One thing I sometimes see in clergy is mid-career angst based on changing church size or church context. Growth, decline, turnaround or maintenance describe scenarios that may or may not still engage your strengths and abilities.

Making a good decision requires assessing the situation realistically. You need to ask good questions like, why is this attractive to me? Why now? Is this one of those predictable ministerial crisis seasons (year 2, 7, 11, etc.) that may reward me if I buckle down and endure? Is there more to learn in this position? What do I want to experience somewhere else that I cannot get here?

It is also helpful to do a force field analysis by listing the attractive as well as debilitating parts of your job. Can the debilitating things be changed? Is it just one staff member who is making things tough? It is too many committee meetings? Will the debt issue be resolved over time?

Another key question: is this about moving toward something or moving away from something? Unless it is an unhealthy situation for you or your family and there are congregational problems that cannot be solved, moving away may be a mistake. Cutting and running usually leaves regrets.

Part of the process of looking outward when considering a career change is asking someone in that vocation what it is like. Ask what energizes them about the job. What drains them? Try to get first hand experience before you make a transition. If you are considering moving to another church or ministry, look closely there, too. No church is as solid as it may appear. It is easy to fall victim to “the grass is greener” thinking.

When It’s Time to Go

After considering all those questions - preferably with someone who can be objective and honest with you - it may be time for a change. Sometimes change is better for a minister and for the church. If an environment is toxic for you and your family, with no relief in sight, it is time to leave. Unrelenting misery and call do not go together! This is where a coach or trusted friend can see clearly what you may not.

Other times, while the environment may not be toxic, God is simply calling you to serve in another field. By asking the right questions, looking upward, inward and outward, like Chip, you may discern that God is calling you to minister elsewhere.

One final word: when it is time to go, it is important to leave well. Your leaving in a healthy way enables the congregation to welcome your successor, and allows you needed closure to this chapter in your life. I wish that congregations and clergy would do needed exit interviews and come to a place of blessing one another. Far too often, we give in to the temptation to say hurtful things to or about one another. We do harm to the kingdom when we allow such impulses to drive our behavior. Healthy closure requires genuine effort and maturity.

Remember, ministry is life-long and important, whether in a paid capacity or not. Thank God daily for the divine call upon your life. Then strive to be a reconciling and redemptive presence, even in transition.