It’s been 46 days since the time ran out on my senior pastor clock after thirty years. Add 5 years before that to being on staff as a youth intern and youth pastor, and I’ve spent most of my life as a staff leader in a church. Last week I sat in on a History of Philosophy and Christian Thought class at the seminary where I’m an adjunct, and we spent a good bit of time, as you can imagine, on Augustine…or “Ogustin”… as our wonderful British prof intones it. In the spirit of The Confessions I’ve got some confessions to make!
I love the church, I love the Word, I love to preach the Gospel, but it was time. I sometimes feel enough guilt from leaving to sink a Battleship (well, enough to tie my stomach in knots anyway). The tsunami hits when I least expect it. Whenever you leave a church after 26 years, you know, there are major ramifications. I’m not the Messiah but I think about the family who just lost their son (how are they?!) and the man who rededicated his life to Christ (is he still coming to church?) and the bills that need to be paid (we gonna make it?) and my sense of responsibility can be overwhelming; not always, but at times. But it was time. I knew it. My wife knew it. Jesus made it clear. It was time for the church I helped start and love to have new vision and new leadership. Sometimes change leads to transition (you’re fired) and sometimes transition leads to change (calling). It was the latter for me. The Lord was calling me to focus on my life’s call of reaching and developing men. Convergence is what J. Robert Clinton calls it. I’m profoundly thankful for this opportunity, and that Steve Brown is still my mentor! Time to take the next step of risk and faith even though guilt still dogs me.
I get ticked when people say: “How is it being retired?” Retired?! What, are you crazy? I’m not retired. I don’t even play golf! I’ m pioneering a new Key Life Network position and I don’t even know if I’m going to make it happen (any more than I knew if the church would survive past a couple of years) or if this thing will work! Retired! I’m starting over. I don’t say it in a mean way to people, “I’m not retired.” Look, I’ve been a pastor for a long time and I know how to say things nicely even when I’m angry. But I’m thinking: “They’re happy for me but I feel dissed.” Awareness sets in. I feel dissed because my identity is in my work and my manhood is at stake because others think I’m sitting around just doing nothing. So I confess that this is a good time for me in the sense that the Father is reworking my identity again. He’s been working on it for years, but it never ends. The idol of achieved identity has roots so deep it won’t go away until the Second Coming or my Home going. So I have many opportunities lately to sit back and say, “I’m His Son, and I didn’t have anything to do with it, and I’m so glad.” Waves of grace wash me clean. I was saved to serve, sure. But that view hurts me (and a lot of us guys), because the applause of people is so attractive and so addictive that it out shouts God’s “I love you son.” Well, He’s shouting and I’m listening and my anger melts, some. A lot.
The ministry is hard. Being a pastor is really hard work. And I still, after over a month, feel a bit numb. Jump on the latest Pooped Pastor forum and you’ll see that one brother told everyone about an online test they could take to see if they were burned out. Everyone it seemed scored high. You could smell the smoke, guys, right on line. Looking over on my bookshelf I yanked down London & Wiseman’s 1993 epic thriller Pastors At Risk, Help for Pastors, Hope for the Church. Chapter 1: Why Is Ministry So Tough Today? Today? It’s always been tough. I like what they said back before the turn of the century and I think a lot of it still hits today. Here are some hazards in ministry:
- Disastrous Personal Problems
- Church Member Migration
- Electronic Technology Shapes Preferences
- People Are More Distracted
- Consumer Mentality
- Suffocating Expectations
- Decimated Absolutes
- Money Struggles
- Dwindling Public Confidence
- Dysfunctional People
- Defection Spirals
- Infidelity Escalates
- Leadership Crises
- Lonely in a Crowd
And some more confeesions for good measure
We probably can think of more. Was I burned out? Now I would hate to admit that because of my previous confession. Uh, but one authority said burnout is lost energy, lost enthusiasm, lost confidence. Man I can put all three of those on really well: energy, enthusiasm and confidence. For a time. Ok, if I wasn’t burned out I could see it from where I stood. That’s about as vulnerable as I can be right now. I never want to be a whiner. On my jogging wrist band (with my wife’s phone number on it, in case I cardiac out while running) I have engraved… “Alwinson’s Never Give Up.” Well my son put that on it for me but it’s a family value. Burn out is an occupational hazard for us in ministry. I love you guys and worry about what the ministry does to us and the clichés don’t satisfy. We need you! I have friends and strategies that I think the Lord used to keep me from the edge, grace being number 1. (Will Willimon’s little book Clergy and Laity Burnout helped, along with How To Beat Burnout by the guys at the Minirth-Meier Clinic. You might have better resources. Use them!)
Jesus is what I need. The other day I was feeling like I was in no man’s land. That happens by the way in transitions. William Bridges wrote a great book Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes. He’s a pagan but all truth is God’s truth and he’s got some of it. Bridge’s says we need to grasp that there is an ending, a neutral zone (no man’s land) and a new beginning. Even though I’m working hard on my new calling, I still feel at times like I’m wandering in no man’s land and reaching for power and grounding. It will happen often I’m sure in the days to come. The Holy Spirit yanked my mind to John 15:1-5… “I am the true Vine” Jesus said, “and My Father is the Vinedresser.” Ah… yes He is. Jesus is my source. Our source. This passage brought me back to where life is found. Not in titles. Not in money. Not in books written. Not in accolades. Life is in Him and from Him. Isn’t it amazing how when you’re already “in Christ” and you turn to Christ the reconnection can happen almost immediately? The Vine can connect immediately into our hearts. Jesus is what I need, and what you need and when He’s all you’ve got you know He’s all you need.
Those are some confessions. The ones I can be honest about right now. I’m probably not as vulnerable as I should be, but His grace has enabled me to not play games about what’s above. Plus, I’m not a pastor anymore.
Praying for you… we need you in the fight!
Strength and Courage,