I used to be a pastor. Generally speaking, it was something I loved doing. I was exhilerated when, through my equipping, believers began to not only take responsibility for their own spiritual well-being but also for those around them (Ephesians 4:11-13; Galatians 6:1-2, etc.). I love teaching, preaching, discipleship, counseling and leadership development. In many ways, it was my dream job and I’d love to do it again some day. But after ten years of pouring out our lives for others, our church’s needs shifting from visionary to implementation and some major family changes, I resigned.
I would not say that I had reached “burnout” (a topic I’d like to write more about soon, especially considering the stigma of spiritual failure and the spiritual machismo surrounding the idea. But more on that later.). In fact, part of the reason I resigned when I did was to protect myself and my church family from burnout. There were, of course, many factors that led to the decision to resign but they may all be summed up simply by saying that I didn’t want to elder at that time in my life.
This isn’t something many pastors talk about. In fact, you’re led to believe that your’e somehow selfish or that your faith must be in question if you entertain the idea. But I think it is something Paul himself understood deeply. When introducing the characteristics of spiritual leaders (overseer, elder, bishop, pastor, etc.) Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer.”
A lot of time is often spent on the idea of “aspiring” to the office of elder when men go through whatever their local church’s process to become an elder might be. A lot of time is spent talking about the difficulties that lie ahead; almost trying to talk the potential elder out of it. Are you sure? And this is good. There might sometimes be people who, though they might possess the right characteristics, simply don’t want to serve as an elder in a local church. Someone taking on the task of caring for other people’s souls should do so wide-eyed and they should certainly want to do it because, though incredibly rewarding, it can also be incredibly difficult.
What seems to be discussed less is the question of whether or not this aspiration is permanent? Just because someone had that aspiration at one point in their life, is it simply assumed that they want to continue indefinitely? Is this something that should be gauged at regular intervals and if so, how? Some churches impose “term limits” on their elders and have a rotating board of elders but I’m not sure that designated periods of time are necessarily the best option.
Complicating the issue is the fact that this “aspiration” is certainly tied to one’s spiritual health, but it is not correct to simply say that if someone does not wish to serve as an elder then their spirituality is not healthy. And yet, there is a sense of guilt often experienced by those who realize that, for whatever reason, they don’t want to serve at that time of life.
I wish I had some practical answers to wrap up with but I don’t. These are issues I’ve been wrestling with for over a year now. What I have concluded is that, in many cases, we need to be more sensitive to those in leadership. It is a very difficult thing when your job is tied to your spirituality. It can be really hard when your job is to care for people who will often criticize the way you try to serve them. How can we make sure that our leaders are there because they want to be?
What if it were as simple as our leaders being approachable and open and people treating them as real people; with care? What if it were as simple as our leaders being humble enough to realize that there might be seasons to leadership and the best way to lead is sometimes to get out of the way? We need to make it easier for those in spiritual to be real people.
I don’t regret my decision to resign and I think it was the right time to resign when I did. But after nearly a year away from vocational ministry, the call to serve in that capacity is returning and I’m trying to make sense of it all. In some ways after this break, I “aspire” to serve more than ever. But what about those who are struggling? How can we be sensitive to those who may be second-guessing? How can we encourage those to stay who should and give freedom to those who realize that it is not their time in life to serve in that capacity?
I’d love your thoughts.