WHAT I WISH I’D KNOWN BEFORE I QUIT
BY ANTHONY LAIRD
“I can’t be your pastor anymore. I’m sorry.” My tiny congregation stared back in shock. Those leaders who had already heard the news had moved beyond shock to become hurt and unhappy, but I didn’t care. My sense of failure disqualified me to be their pastor. What had been an exciting personal dream just five years before was now a shredded “might have been,” flapping in the lonely wind of unrealized expectations.
In 1985, I had moved to this promising new community to start a church. My father had pastored a successful church plant; I reasoned I was fit for the same kind of work.
The first setback came immediately. I had expected forty people for the inaugural worship service; only fourteen showed up. Not until I decided to leave did our church consistently average forty in attendance. The low figure was not because of a lack of hard work. I was naive. I didn’t know as much as I’d thought I did, and ministry was much harder than I had anticipated. I’d never taken “Resignation 101” in seminary. The whole issue was never really discussed. I just knew that everything I tried had apparently failed.
I had dreamed of reaching the masses; we reached only a few.
I had dreamed of being sought as an expert in church growth; I was sought only by my wife for a ride home from work.
I dreamed of initiating creative ministries; I had cerebral lock-up soon after I took the position. I imagined nice, respectable
families joining my church; our first addition was a young woman who had recently completed a tour of duty as an exotic dancer.
I wanted to need no one; I grew deeply infected with need. So I quit. I did so without a sense of God’s approval. I didn’t care. I was
disappointed and hurt. My ministry gas tank was dry, so I coasted into that morning service and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Since then, I’ve learned some powerful lessons–ones I wish I had known before I quit.
The same folks I’d been frustrated with were ones I now grieved over losing.
I wish I’d known how much people loved me. In my hurt, I didn’t realize I was about to hurt others by quitting. Out of our mutual pain over my resignation, I finally realized how much my flock loved me. It astounded me.
I had confused their nonparticipation in my latest idea with a lack of love. I failed to realize how busy they were at inflexible
jobs. When they didn’t show up or give like I thought they should, that didn’t mean they didn’t like the plan or me; it meant they had to work late or they were having trouble making ends meet.
Since that experience, I have resisted the thought that life as a pastor is harder than the lives my people lead. Also, I believed the
primary reason for anyone to love me was for producing results as a leader. When I told Reuben, one of our newer leaders, about my decision, he asked, “Why are you doing this? You’re whipping yourself over something I can’t see. I think things are going well.” I thought he was trying to keep me from leaving because of the extra work it would put on him and the other leaders.
Now I know he was concerned about me because he saw a friend making a bad decision. The day I resigned I began to learn how much people loved me for who I was, not what I did.
I wish I’d known how much I loved them. After my resignation, the congregation met in our home to decide how it would carry on. That night, I couldn’t believe how much I loved these people. The same folks I’d been frustrated with–and blamed for my lack of success–were ones I now grieved over losing. The babies recently born in the church were ones my infant son might have grown up with. How I mourned as they played together on our floor that night. It was like a weird divorce. I thought I would be free. Instead I discovered unbreakable chains of love for my people. The bonds of affection had been there all along; I detected them only when I tried to break free from them.
I wish I’d known how much good was happening. The week before I quit, I spoke with my dad. My plans were beyond discussion, and he sensed that I wanted only to inform him. He replied, “Anthony, pay attention to what happens through this process. I think one thing you’ll notice is that much more good is going on in your church than you would have imagined.” Those were prophetic words. People who I thought were unwilling to step up to ministry did so as soon as I got out of their way. Folks I thought would never come into a relationship with God did because of seeds planted during my ministry. People whom I thought didn’t like me, having left the church before I quit, called and wrote letters expressing how much they had benefited from my
ministry. I half-expected the church to fold. It didn’t. Instead it continued slowly to grow. I wish I’d seen that my people were beyond where I thought they were
I wish I’d known there were alternatives to quitting. One smart thing I did was share my decision with three men in my church a week before I quit. What I didn’t do was listen to them. They tried to tell me there were other ways of handling my frustration. They brought up three alternatives I should have considered.
1. Take a leave of absence. I felt the church needed strong leadership right now, and as the great (but wounded) leader, I should step aside to allow fresh blood to enter. What I didn’t know was that because most churches really do love their pastors, they would much prefer to work out a time of absence for healing rather than go through the divorce-and remarriage process.
2. Talk with other pastors. I’ve not completely reformed on this, but brokenness has helped me become more open to colleagues in ministry. Then, I wanted to impress them with my faith and strength. They would have loved to help me. I didn’t ask.
3. Work maintenance into the . weekly routine. Failure is inevitable in ministry, and dealing with failure demands not only a
spiritual strategy but a physical one as well. Many resignation blues could be traced to a lack of exercise and rest. I could have given more attention to personal maintenance.
I wish I’d known the importance of keeping sharp. For years, I thought I couldn’t afford conferences and books. I now know I cannot afford to go without
In my first ministry, I went to all the denominational freebies. Sometimes the events were helpful, but most of the time there was a good reason why they were subsidized. Leaders at those conferences seemed more interested in programming me than sharpening me. I wish I had known what a difference sharpening my mental ax could have made. Good conferences and books are ways God might have chosen to meet my needs.
I wish I’d known what God had accomplished through me. What I labeled as failure was not that at all. Success is being obedient to God; failure is the opposite. That’s it. I become prouder of that first work as the years go by. I am amazed that God used me to draw together some precious people when there was absolutely no reason for them to gather with me in the first place. I was 25, couldn’t grow a respectable whisker, had no program, lived in an apartment, and asked people to “Come grow with me.”
I should have been delightfully stunned, not disappointed, that fourteen people showed up that first Sunday.
I wish I’d known how much inappropriate pride was involved. I have to say it: much of my motive for resigning issued from pride.
Pride prevented me from talking to others, from considering options, from taking time off, from exercising, or from just falling apart in the arms of a brother who might have cared. Pride kept me from saying, “I don’t know what to do,” as opposed to saying, “I’m going to quit–end of discussion!”
I wish I’d known how hard ministry really is. It took me many years to cut through the cliches that ministry is one big joy. A few
years back I reread Paul’s letters to Timothy. I circled the verbs in those letters–endure, persevere, work hard, train, study, take pains. These words of commitment and sacrifice frequently produce joy as a byproduct. But often ministry is simply hard. That is normal. My experience was normal.
I wish I’d known there is no perfect place. What we see is never what we get when considering a new ministry. If that other church were perfect, it wouldn’t be pastorless. And the reality is that church planting often attracts needy people. Many problems in ministry are common to every church, because people are basically the same wherever you go. If I’d known then what I know now, I most likely would have fertilized and cultivated where I was, rather than uprooted and replanted somewhere else.
I no longer ask if my resignation was a mistake. That’s not the best question. Instead I ask, Have I learned from that experience?
When tempted to move, I ask: Am I committed to learn and grow and not quit if at all possible?
These lessons have been used by Christ to create a tighter bond to the ministry I now serve.
REMEMBER: The same folks I’d been frustrated with were the ones I now grieved over losing.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS REPRINTED FROM THE WISCONSIN DISTRICT NEWS, FEBRUARY 2000, AND PUBLISHED BY FORWARD, WINTER 2000, PAGES 2, 3, AND 5.
THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.