3 things I learned when I stayed in the ministry: a guest post by Carrie Stephens
Several months ago, a reader asked me how to tell when it was time to step away from serving. She wasn’t sure if God was calling her out or if the enemy was tempting her to leave. My writer-friend Carrie Stephens shares her wisdom today about how she decided to stay in ministry. On Thursday, I’ll share my story of walking away.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. -John 13:34–35 (ESV)
I sat there, across from my husband on our leather sofa, my hands trembling in my lap. I was about to ask the impossible, and I had no idea how he would respond. I was pretty certain his job was undoing my soul.
So I opened my mouth and asked him to quit his job as the lead pastor of our church.
Part of me couldn’t believe we had ended up here. The Weary Pastor’s Wife had always seemed awfully cliche to me. Bedraggled. Resentful. Disconnected from the call to love Christ’s Bride.
I had been determined to avoid this cliche. But I ended up here anyways. I didn’t feel cliche that day, though. I just felt too weary to keep going.
The pain of a thousand moments weighed me down. I had seen all the bad things up close for too long in the lives of the people we loved and served: sickness, death, loss of jobs, infidelity, anger, unforgiveness, betrayals. The cherry on top of this sad sundae was that I felt like a failure because I hadn’t been able to become the woman some people thought I ought to be.
Or maybe I just wasn’t who I thought I ought to be.
All I knew was that I was tired of trying to be someone I wasn’t, and exhausted from reaching for the unattainable life of the “Perfect Pastor’s Wife”. Quitting seemed like the only way be set free to be myself again.
My husband and I took a week to pray separately. Both of us heard God clearly say not to quit. I tried arm-wrestling God’s sovereign will, convincing Him to change His mind. But He placed me right back where I didn’t think I could stand any longer: on the front row of our church.
The journey through staying in the ministry revealed many interesting things to me. I faced all my dysfunctional ways of coping with the pressures of building and leading a church. It was painful and hard, and I wanted to run away a million times. But I couldn’t escape a God like ours, who has filled the whole earth with His glory and presence.
I know that staying in ministry is not always God’s path for everyone. His hand leads many of us in and out of vocational ministry in various seasons. But if you feel called to stay, yet don’t know if you can bear the weight of the journey ahead, I promise there is a Light and a Love that will see you through. For me, three lessons have risen above them all:
Doing hard Jesus things means we will probably want to quit at some point.
Weariness takes us by surprise, despite Jesus’ promise that we will have troubles in this life. In the garden, Jesus was vulnerable about his desire to let the cup of suffering pass from before Him. It is comforting to know our Savior is familiar with the desire to escape the pain of ministry.
During my darker days, I felt a strange kindredness to the disciples, as they lived in the agony of the days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I walked Emmaus with them, imagining the questions they must have been asking. What had gone wrong? What was God doing? How could He leave us here? What do we do now? Their questions made me brave enough to sit and wait for God to reveal the answers to my own.
I wore obedience like a brace on my soul, leaning into the peace that comes from God’s promise to be with me always, even when I don’t understand His plans for my life. This leaning drew me closer to God than I ever imagined I would be able to come.
Love and interdependence are inherently linked.
I had carried everyone and everything so long, I had forgotten how much I needed to be carried, too- and how much other people needed me to let them carry me. I shared my struggles with the people closest to me in my life and in our church, and their kindness and gentleness toward me were a salve for my soul.
Love and interdependence are linked with the gospel in ways I had not understood before. A family is shaped by the generations of the past, and its future is formed by the lives of the current generation. How I live, love, and lead affects the lives of everyone in our church. And their lives likewise affect mine.
No one succeeds or fails alone. Which brings me to the third lesson:
Real healing happens in vulnerable community.
As I clung to the community I had thought I needed to leave, I found that healing happens where real people bring you dinner, listen to your stories, and love you even when you aren’t sure you deserve it. No one was in a hurry for me to get my act together. Space was made for me to find my way in God’s timing.
I had thought God was making me stay in the ministry because He cared more for the church than He did for me. But I learned that He kept me there because that community would be His healing hands in my life.
By leading with vulnerability and transparency, we create space for others to courageously show up with their own flaws. In the end, love and belonging is what church is meant to be about, for members, for leaders, for the world who is always watching us with such a critical eye. The best hope we can offer a world drowning in wickedness and death is the Love we have for one another.
In order to find my way to that hope myself, I had to stay. I once felt weary. Now I simply feel grateful.