I was in the middle of my seminary education when Barbara Brown Taylor left parish ministry. She had just released her book Leaving Church, and people had all kinds of opinions about it. I heard people talk about her vocational change as a loss of faith. I heard others lament yet one more good pastor walking away from the life of the church. Many of my classmates grieved, and others vowed they would never read this book of hers as though the words within it might somehow poison their view of the church and persuade them to abandon God’s call, too.
I had never read any of Barbara Brown Taylor’s other books. Even though I had grown up in the church all my life, and even though I was two years into my seminary education, I had never closely identified myself enough with pastoring to have read very many books about it. I felt like a fly on the wall of a grander conversation about what pastoral calling really is, how long it lasts, and what it means when someone walks away.
Since that time, I have had many friends leave pastoral ministry. Some were pushed out of their churches. Others left because they no longer felt like they fit pastoral ministry. Some left because they no longer identified as Christians. Others were surprised as they found new gifts and interests emerging, and they left parish ministry to explore these new interests.
Each time I watched a friend leave pastoral ministry, I observed the same reaction that I saw in seminary all those years ago when Barbara Brown Taylor released Leaving Church. People thought they understood the deeper reasons. They made grand pronouncements about either ministry itself, or the person leaving pastoring behind. People had so many opinions.
So. Many. Opinions.
And I felt like a sponge absorbing all these opinions, and not really knowing how I felt about it myself. I felt tremendous empathy for those moving away from traditional, vocational ministry, and I wondered about all of the opinions. Were these opinions rooted in truth, experience, or maybe even in fear?
Today, as I sit down to write this piece, another piece written by a pastor leaving ministry is going viral on social media. Once again, people have so many opinions. I have opinions too (as evidenced by the fact that I’m writing a piece in response). But mostly, I find myself wondering about the way these kinds of announcements create a wake behind them.
Every week, I co-lead a hybrid Bible study. Right now, our class is working through the book of Acts. As we read the stories together and wonder about them, I find myself perplexed and amazed by the way the Spirit is portrayed in the book of Acts. I challenged the members of our Bible study group to pay close attention to the Spirit and to notice the way the Spirit is not confined to act one way or another in any and all situations.
We most recently studied the story of the Ethiopian eununch–a strange story in which the Spirit sends Philip out to a wilderness road, where he encounters a eunuch from Ethiopia reading Isaiah in his chariot. At the Spirit’s urging, Philip runs to the chariot, climbs in, and rides with the eunuch. As the two converse, the eunuch asks to be baptized.
He asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (emphasis mine)
If Philip wanted to get real about it, there was a lot to prevent the eunuch from being baptized. He was a eunuch, and Deuteronomy 23:1 made it clear that eunuchs were not permitted to be part of the assembly. And yet, the Spirit had called Philip to a wilderness road where he would encounter this man who was grappling with matters of faith.
This story inspires and amazes me because Philip followed the movement of the Spirit. Too often, we human beings are more inclined to dig our feet in and say, “But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done.” The Spirit moves like wind, but we are like cement, refusing to move, refusing to change, refusing to admit that things might not be as clear cut as we’d like them to be.
After this mysterious enounter on the wilderness road, the Spirit whisks Philip away to a new place. The eunuch rejoices at his inclusion in the unfolding welcome of God, and Philip continues to follow the unpredictable movement of the Spirit on his way to Caesarea.
When Jesus receives a late-night visit from the perplexed and curious Nicodemus, Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). And yet, despite the repeated reminder in the Bible that we cannot predict or codify the movement of the Spirit, we spend a lot of time trying to do just that.
According to a few studies, Americans change careers an average of 5-7 times over the course of their lifetimes. Some of these career changes are more career morphs, where one career transitions into another (say, from accounting with a firm to self-employed accounting), and some of these career changes are more radical in nature. My husband worked as an administrative assistant for a metal-working lubricants manufacturer before becoming a pastor. Yet, even with this documented pattern of career changes for Americans, pastors feel the need to give a justification before changing careers.
I wonder what would happen if pastors who are leaving ministry were allowed to do so without question. What if we allowed ourselves to wonder at the way the Spirit calls people into church ministry and then releases them from one calling to serve in another capacity? What if we celebrated with people as they discovered new gifts they didn’t know they had, and rejoiced with them when the Spirit whisked them away to something new?
Granted, not every pastor leaving ministry is doing so for joyous reasons. The article making the rounds today makes great points about chronic overwork, trauma, and a growing number of expectations placed on pastors that are unreasonable for any one person to be able to do. In cases like this, I think we need to listen, both to the critiques of the institution of the church and to the woundedness and pain of a person who feels like they just can’t do it anymore.
What if we became people without so many opinions? What if we listened to those who are leaving, not for the sake of judgment, but with the goal of understanding? In the cases of some, the Spirit led them to the church and then whisked them away, just like Philip on that wilderness road. In the cases of others, the church has sinned against them, and we have much to repent of and to learn. We will be unable to know the difference if we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility that the Spirit is like wind while we’ve got our feet in wet cement.