"Some were called and some were sent; and some just got up and went!" A hard-nosed, angry woman, member of a local congregation whose long-term pastor had run off the tracks and was forcibly removed from ordained ministry, used those old lines to spout her opinion of my predecessor. My call was to help the congregation find recovery and a vision for a new day.
Regrettably, that departing pastor was not alone—or a rarity. Recent reports indicate an average of 1,500 pastors quit the ministry every month, some forcibly because of ministry malfeasance and others because they have come to the end of their ropes and cannot carry on any more.
I just spoke with three of them in the past 12 days. All three are gifted preachers, and from all reports are caring pastors. I am saddened that they will no longer be counted among us. What is equally startling is that the report about pastors leaving ministry also says about 50 percent of pastors serving American congregations are so discouraged in ministry that they would quit if they could afford to do so. It is a shallow, cheap shot to dismissively respond to this phenomenon by saying these pastors must not have been called.
In my 40 years of pastoral ministry, I have met a few pastors whose ways made me wonder if they really wanted, or needed, to be in ministry. Jesus said, "You will recognize them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). It seems safe to assume that where the fruit is lacking is a good indicator of a lack of heavenly call. Some of those whose fruit seems absent or poisoned are still placed in congregations; in a few of those cases, that scares me. Experience as a pastor and now a seminary professor makes me all too aware that some people seem to miss their calling. A pastor leaving the ministry is not always a terrible thing. Sometimes, it is a good thing; some pastors need to tough it out.
Let's face it: Pastoral ministry is not for wimps! Read Paul's words in the New Testament pastoral epistles; but before you go there, consider the strangest blessing in all of holy writ, which seems to be laser-targeted toward pastors: "Blessed are you," Jesus said, "when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5:11-12).
Did you catch that "prophets who were before you" phrase? Whoever said pastoral ministry is always fun and easy was either smoking something funny or just flat out lying! Maybe they just don't know much about what it means to be called.
That "prophets who were before you" phrase also reminds us that prophet persecution preceded Jesus' ministry. I am remembering Elijah, whom Ahab called Israel's trouble-maker (see 1 Kings 18:17); but there were others who because of their faithful proclamation suffered, and some left or at least wished they could.
Paul, recalling Elijah's experience, wrote, "God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appealed to God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have demolished Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.' But what is God's reply to him? ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.' So, too, at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace" (Rom. 11:2-5).
So before you quit: Remember you are not the first, and you are not alone! The same God who was there for Elijah's dark moment is here always for you and yours.
I posed these three vital questions to the young pastors who said they were considering throwing in the towel at their tough place: First, "Are your hands clean?" Second, "Is your heart pure?" Third, "Is your Savior sufficient to see you through this?"
If your answer is not in the affirmative to any of these, then do what you must to make it right. If your answer is yes, then ask yourself, "Am I following my calling?" I know about this because I am one who once tried to quit and could not find the heart peace to walk away. I learned that sometimes the devil sends some folks after you because you are giving him a hard time. If that is what it is, stand tall in Jesus and keep on truckin' for Him!
Two of my three questions, you probably guessed, are taken from Psalm 24:
"Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (Ps. 24:3-5).