What I Have Learned Since I Stopped Being a Pastor

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Church, General, Leadership

I enjoyed being a pastor. I counted it a privilege of the highest honor to shepherd the flock of God. I loved the congregation with blood, sweat, and tears. I felt–and treasured–the eternal weight of the pastoral task. Each morning I awoke to an inaudible but ever clear trumpet call as I reengaged the battle for souls. Nothing matches the epic life of a pastor, and only the opportunity to train another generation of pastors (and the clear providence of God in providing it) caused me to cease being one.

I am as busy now as I was then. Learning the ropes of an academic career while carrying a heavy teaching load and remaining active in local church ministry can be demanding. Yet, as my wife regularly points out, I am immeasurably more calm, less irritable, and seemingly more balanced. I concur. I still have many cavities of sin to be drilled from my soul, but one year into my new endeavor as a professor, I confess that I am a significantly healthier (holier!) man. The difference comes down to one simple factor: pressure.

Being a pastor was like living in a pressure cooker with no time to cool down. Preaching, while pure joy, was also a grind. I felt like a rubber band that started being stretched on Monday, pulled to its limit by Saturday night, released all at once on Sunday, only to start again the next morning. As a leader, no matter how healthy the ministry appeared and how much the church progressed, I always perceived, pondered, and plotted the next challenge or that just-beneath-the-surface conflict. As a pastoral caregiver, the unpredictability of tragedies like disease, death, and divorce caused me to fear my phone and my inbox.

Such are the realities of pastoral life, but one thing I have learned since I ceased being a pastor: the pressure was mostly self-imposed.

I succombed to the trepidation of expectations. I was far too aware of what people expected of me–even down to matters of dress and appearance–and trying to match everyone’s perception of pastoral perfection was the bane of my being. Sure, keeping an ear to the mood of the church did much to maintain popularity, avoid petty criticism, and stave off controversy, but I took it too far. I estimated my own personal worth by my pastoral performance. If I preached well, led well, cared well, and was adequately complimented, then I lived on euphoric highs. If a sermon fell flat, a conflict arose, I failed in some way, or was criticized, I plummeted into an inner despair. The name for this paralyzing imbalance is pride, sinful pride–demonic, selfish, soul-eating, gospel-usurping pride. A pastor should be aware of his standing among his people and labor to maintain it, but when he becomes preoccupied with his own image, he has an idol that besets gospel ministry.

My sin caused me not only to find my satisfaction in something other than Jesus, but also to miscalculate my congregation’s needs. The people “needed” me, and so I “needed” to be there, often at the expense of ignoring needs much more real–such as my need for rest and my family’s need for attention. The church had needs, yes, but those needs were for more of Jesus, not for more of me. To the extent that I promoted their need of a pastor instead their need of a Savior, I inflated my sense of importance but deflated their search for Christ. Their need for me was that of a confused motorist for a GPS–a guide, not a destination.

In hindsight, there are many things I would not change. I would not change a Word-driven, gospel-centered ministry that started in the pulpit and proceeded from the nursery to the nursing home, from the baptistery to the mortuary. I would not change my approach to staffing or the transitions I led from committee-led programs to team-based ministries. One thing, though, I would change. I would more assertively embrace Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 4. I would concentrate less on meeting every member’s expectations and focus more on reflecting God’s faithfulness. I did not need vainly to attempt to match some unrealistic pastoral ideal. I did need to point them more directly to the matchless Christ in whom they would find the ideal.