It’s only a few steps from the pulpit to the pew, from being a pastor to being a former pastor, but it feels like a marathon you crawl on your knees.
The streets are a ghost town. People don’t line up to cheer you on. It’s a race that begins in defeat and too often ends in despair. The way is littered with losses: crumpled relationships, trashed reputations, dreams stuffed into the garbage.
Here's a few ways pastors and congregations can show mercy to former ministers.
Once the marathon is over, and he who once stood in the pulpit now sits and stares at it, he will be a man forever changed. No one makes the journey from the pulpit to the pew without leaving behind more than a clerical collar and a title.
Ten years ago I made that journey myself. I know all too well the madness and grief along the way. Sometimes congregations and pastors don't really know how to react, what to say, what to do.
So here's some simple advice. Here's a few ways pastors and congregations can show mercy to former ministers.
Pastors: Be a rebel. Rebel against the pack mentality that ostracizes the one who bears the shame of expulsion. Rebel against the horde of excuses that arise when you think of reaching out to your wounded brother. Rebel against joining forces with Job’s friends.
I cannot tell you how much a phone call or a visit from you will mean. Don’t wait for him to reach out to you because he probably never will. His life is Psalm 88 right now—a man without strength, counted among those who go down to the pit, whose companions shun him. Go into the pit with him. And bring with you the light of grace, the food of prayer, the medicine of Christ.
He may be angry, confused, or simply lost. The word of God in your mouth is the bread from heaven he needs in this struggle with the forces of hell. Be patient. Be diligent. Above all, simply remain his friend and brother, no matter what.
Churches: When people leave the ministry, an unexpected reversal happens: the comforted become the comforters. The person whom you once called “Pastor” is now simply John or Joe. Chances are he feels as uncomfortable and confused about this reversal as you do. That’s to be expected. These things take time.
What’s important is that whatever his name is, you adorn it not with slander or malice, but with love and compassion. Years ago, right after I became “Chad” and no longer “Pastor,” I attended a congregation where almost everyone knew me for who I had once been. To be honest, it was a frigid place. I felt isolated, unwanted.
But one dear believer, an older man, was a beacon of light and warmth to me during those days. Every Sunday he shook my hand, spoke to me, demonstrated a love and acceptance that were in short supply in my life. That man was to me a beloved saint, a gift from God. I will never forget him.
You may not stand in a pulpit anymore but you will always stand at the foot of the cross.
I encourage you, as much as possible, to reach out with mercy across the pew, to welcome and love a former under-shepherd who is among the lambs of Christ’s flock.
Former Ministers: I could say a million things to you, but let me say only what matters most.
I don’t care why you left the ministry—moral failure, congregational politics, burnout, whatever—the Christ whom you proclaimed has not left you. He goes into exile with you. He crawls this marathon with you. He cries and bleeds and suffers alongside you.
He’s not the kind of God who withdraws when things get tough. He draws closer. You probably don’t feel that. You might not even believe it. But it remains the truest truth. You are baptized. Christ has grafted you to his saving flesh. He is of you even as you are of him.
You may not wear a clerical anymore but you will always wear the righteous robes of Jesus. You may not stand in a pulpit anymore but you will always stand at the foot of the cross. There a loving God bled and died for you.
His grace will sustain you. He will remain faithful for he cannot deny himself. Christ is not ashamed to call you brother and friend. That, thank God, will never change.