Over the years I have watched a number of colleagues lose their pastorates for various reasons. This can be a very discouraging turn of events to say the least. What do you do when you’ve spent four years in college, three or four years in seminary, spent ten years in the pastorate and then inexplicably lose your call? Does this mean you should change vocations? Do you search for another call? What should you do while you wait for your next opportunity to serve?
The first thing we should note is that this type of circumstance calls for wisdom. There is no perfect universal set path in these circumstances. Nevertheless, when you lose your call you have to ask some brutal and direct questions and be prepared to answer them honestly. Why do you think you lost your call in the first place? Sometimes the answer is very easy to find. In one case, I know of a minister who had to leave his church because one of his children was caught in grievous sin. While the minister took every step to discipline the teenage child, the church nevertheless could not look past this event and determined it was in the church’s best interest if he sought another call. In another case, I know of a pastor who’s church slowly but surely withered away. There was practically no one left, it became financially incapable of sustaining the pastor’s salary and rent, and the presbytery therefore had to close the church. This type of scenario calls for serious soul-searching. Did the church die because the community soil was dry and hard, impervious to your efforts to evangelize? In other words, did God see fit to use your preaching as an instrument of judgment? Or, were you unwilling to go out and knock on doors, distribute church brochures, and invite people to church? Go back and listen to sermons and ask whether you preached the gospel—whether you truly fed the sheep. Did you berate the congregation? Ask trusted colleagues who you know will be brutally honest to evaluate some of your sermons to determine whether the fault lies with you. Even if the fault lies with you, this doesn’t automatically mean that you should change vocations. Rather, you need to determine the cause of your loss of a call to ensure you don’t repeat the same errors in the future.
If you prayerfully conclude that God still wants you to serve in the pastorate, then by all means pursue your next call. But again, do so in consultation with elders, colleagues, friends, and family. Listen to their counsel. Sometimes, only God knows why he takes away one call and gives you another. Jonathan Edwards was fired from his first pastorate and went on to an immensely fruitful pastorate in his second call. Just because you get fired doesn’t mean you’re unfit for ministry. It just may mean that the Lord wants you to serve in a different congregation. Remember, you may be unjustly fired, but in such circumstances the Lord uses these events to conform you further to Christ’s image. Sometimes life’s greatest failures are an excellent classroom for our sanctification and better equip us for more effective pastoral ministry.
But in the event you get benched, there are two important things to beware. The first is bitterness of heart and the second is practical needs. If you lose your call you can easily have the root of bitterness grow in your heart. You can come to resent your former church or even other churches that decline to call you. You can begin to blame others for your circumstances rather than search your heart for your own sins and humbly accept God’s providence. Remember that God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. You may have been unjustly fired and unfairly treated, but in the words of the Westminster Confession, “God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass” (III.i). In other words, God ultimately stands behind the events of your life. John Calvin once commented that he believed that he was being crushed by the events in his life, but he nevertheless rejoiced that he was being crushed by God’s hand. Calvin recognized that every moment in his life was a chisel in the savior’s hands to chip away the sin in his life to reveal Christ in him.
Second, in the midst of your down time there is the very real need of providing for your family. Sometimes you can get a severance package from your church that will cover the employment gap between your former and future pastorate. In such circumstances rejoice. But if you see your severance package is soon expended or you’re having trouble making ends meet, then you should seriously consider getting temporary or even semi-permanent employment. Just because you take such a path does not mean that you’ve given up on the pastorate but rather you’re being responsible to provide for your family, which is a God-honoring thing. Again, taking such steps calls for wisdom and can be discouraging. But God uses everything in our lives for our greater conformity to Christ’s image.
In next week’s post, I address the topic of hanging up your cleats. In other words, what should you do if you realize it’s time to seek a secular vocation?