This is the journey I’ve been watching my husband try to figure out for the past (almost) three years. What do you do after being a pastor? My husband grew up heavily involved in the United Methodist Church (literally – his dad is a pastor); he did campus ministry while getting a Bachelors in Chemistry then, feeling called to ministry, spent time between undergrad and graduate school doing mission trips and paperwork to prepare for seminary; and spent three years in graduate school preparing to be a pastor. That’s a lifetime of preparation. He was a pastor. And then he wasn’t. And then there was – what?
Here’s what I learned from watching my husband figure out what you do after being a pastor, in roughly chronological order. Clearly I’m writing this as a former pastor’s spouse, but considering I’ve had a front row seat to this I feel pretty qualified to share it – with my husband’s permission, thanks honey.
You disappoint people. There were people in the church who really liked you and your preaching and your presence. They’re hurt and disappointed you aren’t going to be a pastor any more, but more specifically that you aren’t going to be their pastor anymore. They feel betrayed and confused and surprised. You end up listening to that and bearing that burden with them, because you feel betrayed and confused and surprised by all this, too. You say “I don’t know” a lot when people ask what you’re going to do. Pastors are expected to have answers, but you’re becoming not-a-pastor.
You see people celebrate you leaving. There were people who didn’t like you or your preaching or your presence. You forgot to call or visit, you preached something they didn’t like, you didn’t support their ministry as much as you could have. They aren’t going to miss you. You see them post passive-aggressive comments on social media about how the new pastor is such a good change or a breath of fresh air after a long time. You unfriend them. Bless their hearts. (Sorry, that’s the Southern coming out in me). Let’s try again – bless them, Lord.
You lose your community. You don’t just leave your job, you leave your house, probably your city, your friends, and the people you saw on a regular basis. It’s a unique kind of loss. You know you chose it, but it’s still tough. People you’re still friends with don’t quite know what to talk about with you. God feels far away or non-existent. You can’t go to church for a while. Maybe a long while. A really long while.
You find a place you can be anonymous. After years of everyone knowing who you are and where to find you and what you cooked for dinner, anonymous is good. Anonymous is freeing. And then it’s really lonely because you aren’t ready for a church community yet, and that’s where you used to find community, and when you do meet people they ask you what you “do” – how do you explain that you’re figuring that out since you used to be a pastor, and now you aren’t?
You watch people you love get angry on behalf of you. I was so, so angry at the UMC about how they treated my husband. So angry. I think it helped my husband to know there were people in solidarity with him, but it didn’t change anything. The church still hurt us. He was still not-a-pastor.
You watch people judge you. Family, friends, casual acquaintances. I’m guessing they mean well but don’t know how to deal with you as not-a-pastor. They share unhelpful things about how “real” pastors are called for life, or maybe you just didn’t try hard enough to fit in, or why don’t you just go back to being a pastor if you’re having such a hard time finding a job? or everyone leaves a job – just get over it. Not-a-pastor is a lonely road. I don’t know if you can understand it unless you’ve tried it.
You envy your friends who are having a great time being pastors. Maybe envy isn’t the right word. But all the status updates about people who have become ordained elders (church bureaucracy details – don’t ask unless you really want to know) and how of course they were going to succeed at this and look what an amazing time it is in life – it hurts. I learned to stay off social media during certain times of the year because it was just too painful. The United Methodist church bureaucracy and politics work for some people. And decimates others.
Your spouse/family/friends push you to get counseling. And meds. A ridiculously high number of pastors face mental health challenges as a result of their career and need support. This seemed even more true for my husband after he was not-a-pastor. Eventually the right medications and counseling start helping. You begin to feel more like yourself again – first for a bit of the day, then for maybe whole days here and there, and then for weeks and months and even years. Healing happens.
You flounder. You try applying for some jobs that you would have been qualified for *before* you were a pastor. You look at your network of people and realize they’re pretty much all connected to the church. You try avoiding the question of what you do as not-a-pastor (video games are good for this). You don’t know what you’re doing, but Link and Minecraft don’t judge.
You start over. One day, you pick something. For my husband it was a hobby (computer programming) that became an opportunity for training. It took a while to get here – first he considered a new degree (mechanical engineering), then maybe working in IT, but he decided on web development. He’s almost done with Viking Code Academy, and the only time I’ve been more proud of him is when he made the tough choice to become not-a-pastor. He’s worked 12 hours a day for almost four months and he enjoys it. I hope a good career and brighter days are around the corner.
That’s what I know about how you go from being a pastor to not-a-pastor. I almost wish I could tell you that there was something incredibly dramatic led to my husband deciding to no longer be a pastor, but there wasn’t. He was treated terribly by people in power. He had no support system. We were incredibly unhappy. When he first became a pastor we used to pray that we would be a blessing wherever we were – by the end of it we just started praying that we would survive until he could be not-a-pastor. Others go through much worse, especially our LGBT brothers and sisters. This has been my husband’s journey, from my perspective, and it’s freeing to finally write about what it was like to watch it and share it. Peace.