Why I Left Ministry (Temporarily) to Learn More about It
During my time at SBTS, I’ve realized that I needed to leave ministry temporarily and give myself to studying the things of God full-time
I’ll never forget the evening I received that phone call. “I just talked with my son, and he told me he thought about committing suicide last night. I’m not sure what to do.” In my years of ministry, there had been many calls and conversations that left me struggling for a way to respond, but on that night, I was completely lost for words.
We planned a meeting for the next day and I got permission to seek help. After I got off the phone, I called a family member who was a counselor along with another member of our church to seek out the best plan of action, while scouring any books that I thought would give insight. This moment provided me with a stark picture of just how much the souls, and sometimes lives, of those to whom we minster need proper care I was woefully unprepared to give.
After five and half years of para-church and local church ministry experience, I left the ministry to attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There were several times throughout my ministry where I had come to understand I was insufficiently trained for the task at hand, and though it is the job of the local church to raise up new pastors, the training afforded by faithful seminaries like Southern was an important and necessary step.
No, seminary isn’t a biblical requirement, and there are certainly plenty of things it can’t teach, but it has sharpened and deepened the gifts the Lord has entrusted to me in profound ways. During my time at SBTS, I’ve realized that I needed to leave ministry temporarily and give myself to studying the things of God full-time for four reasons:
1. To better love my Lord
Having been raised in the church and working in some form of ministry since 18, I was very comfortable around the things of God. The problem was that this familiarity often bred a cold attitude toward the gospel. My entire adult life had been spent working in ministry, so my faith sometimes felt like an aspect of my job.
This frightening reality became even more apparent after I arrived at seminary. A few months in, a near identity crisis confronted me. “Who am I without my ministry?” Far too often my work for Christ stemmed not in response to his sacrificial love for me, but from how I have performed the work; the sin of pride revealed itself in my answer to this question.
The question every minister and seminary student must ask is: “Would I still follow Jesus if I wasn’t paid to?” When no one cares what theological truth we’ve uncovered or no one will hear about the deep study time we had in the Word, are we still burdened to pursue Christ? The pastor will always be tempted to seek approval from others and structure his ministry around the fear of man, but this abandons our first love (Gal. 1:10).
Is our relationship with the Lord of highest priority, or just the facade of it?
2. To better understand the gospel
This conviction came as I wrestled through a theological question. I’d been taking some online classes and tried to seek counsel from professors but couldn’t quite get the help I was looking for. One night, after studying the topic for some time, I said to my wife in an exasperated tone, “If we were on campus, I could just sit down in a professor’s office and ask him.” She responded, “Then maybe we should go.”
I always delighted in the questions my students asked, but there were also questions that came and I had to say to myself, “I’ve never even thought of that question before!” Pastors are by no means called to simply be “Bible encyclopedias,” ready to answer every question at any given moment, no one can adequately shepherd the flock if they aren’t well versed in Scripture. When given the option between a well-studied surgeon or one who is well-meaning but can’t answer all your questions about surgery, who would you choose?
There will always be questions we can’t answer—God is, after all, incomprehensible. But to be cavalier about our responsibility to know the truth we communicate is dangerous at best and leads to false teaching at worst. You’ll encounter church members who’ve been led away by false beliefs that have been held for years and it will take compassion and clear theology to bring them into the light. Pastors and churches are much stronger when church leaders know theology well.
3. To better love my church
This conviction is inseparably linked to the others. If we don’t love the Lord well or understand the gospel clearly, we’re not truly loving the church body. Some churches will be more difficult than others—each body is unique—but the command to love the church sacrificially as a family remains (Phil. 1:27-2:4). There’s no doubt this task requires effort (just like any family), but the gospel becomes clear and powerful when people who normally never interact love and care for one another!
Loving my daughter well means protecting her from danger, disciplining her disobedience, and modeling the gospel for her in word and deed. The same is true in the church body. Pastors must protect members from theological and moral dangers on all sides, especially in our divided and confusing world. Leaders must also have the courage to lovingly discipline those in unrepentant sin.
The pastor is to be a living Illustration of the gospel in both word and deed. We’re not fundamentally called to be celebrities, published authors, “successful” speakers or traffickers of pithy slogans. Our primary task is to be faithful heralds of the gospel to the people God has brought to us.
What legacy will we leave behind for our churches?
I’m now learning to love church more deeply because I’m being reminded of what it’s like to be a non-clergy church member. A pastor must never forget that he too is a church member. I now serve in a local church not because I am paid to, but simply because I love the church. I’m being reminded afresh of what it means to trust the elders to make the best choices for the church even though I don’t know all the details. If a pastor is in ministry simply for a paycheck, he never belonged in the first place (Matt. 6:23; 1 Tim. 3:3).
4. To love my family well
It’s easy for a pastor to overlook the fact that ministry affects their families profoundly. Scripture anticipates the deep connection between the family and church leadership (1 Tim. 3:2,4). There were many days my wife saw the tension I brought home from church struggles, and it weighed heavily on her as well.
Unlike other jobs, there’s no “clocking out” in ministry. You may go home, or you may be on your day off, but the struggles of people’s lives don’t wait on convenient appointments. People die in the middle of the night, they need counsel on Saturdays, or because of work they can only meet in the evenings. Men in ministry or pursuing it must take care to not just expect their families to “get with the program” while ministry happens. Our wives and children need to be led at home, but they also need shepherding though all the pressure of being in a ministry family.
It can be all too easy to spend ourselves in the work of ministry and forsake the responsibilities we have at home to love our families well. There’s no excuse for abandoning the work that needs done at the church, but there is equally none for leaving our families behind as we press on. This balance must be sought, and seminary helps shed realistic light on this dilemma. Professors at any healthy seminary will be (or have been) pastors themselves and can prepare students for both the work of ministry and the cost it brings to the home.
Temporary but Necessary
God doesn’t call all of us to leave our place of ministry for seminary. Many seminarians also work in full-time or part-time ministry roles as they should. But the Lord did call me to temporarily step aside from vocational ministry to focus on theological studies and spiritual growth.
Lord willing, I’ll return to vocational ministry in the near future, and I believe the seminary training I’ve been privileged to receive will make me a more skilled and faithful instrument in his hands, better able to proclaim his Word for his glory until he returns (2 Cor. 2:16-17).