My fingers trembled as I lifted the phone to my ear. Thousands of butterflies took up residence in my stomach as my fingers slowly began dialing the number of my direct supervisor. This is it, I said to myself, There’s no going back now. I held my breath as the phone rang gently in my ear. I could barely keep my voice even as I asked the administrative assistant to connect me to my supervisor.
“This is Ruth.” Deep breath. “I’m calling to tell you I have decided to resign.”
My eyes skimmed the notes I had jotted down to be certain I didn’t leave anything out of this important call. And I waited with anticipation and a little anxiety. I had rehearsed the speech a hundred times that morning, but this was the part where my imagination went silent. I couldn’t even begin to formulate the response I might receive from him. Would it be condemnation? Pity? Anger? Cold professionalism? How would my other colleagues react?
When you work for an organization long enough, it begins to feel like family. This is especially true for a church. Sure, some days my church feels stifling—rules and regulations flow freely as representatives from the head office demand reports and programs and statistics and updates. But this “stifling” could also be described as “security.” It was this authoritative hierarchy that knit us together as fellow pastors. We complained about the same regulations and uniformity that bonded us as allies. What would my colleagues, fellow members of the organizational family, think of my decision? Would they assume that only a grievous sin could rip me from my calling? Or feel betrayed by one of their own? Or just sad for a loss? Or, maybe, just maybe, they would rejoice with me as I stepped out in faith.
Step One: Called to Serve
As I contemplated my colleagues’ reaction, my mind went back to a wooden altar in a camp chapel in Wisconsin. The altar where I knelt and heard, oh so clearly, a calling from God: “I want you to serve in full time ministry.”
The speaker had started his message promising that we would know God’s will for our lives by the end. He used the image of an egg—a white and a yolk. If God’s will is the white and your will is the yolk, you can go anywhere you want, do anything you want. But if you make God’s will the yolk and try to fit him into your life, you’ll always have problems.
Don’t ask me how, but that simple illustration translated to a call to ministry. I had made a commitment as a teenager that whatever God called me to do, I would do. I refused to waste any time attempting to run. So when I heard God call me into full time ministry I said “Yes.” I remember feeling inadequate, and more than a little scared. But I told God “If that’s what you want from me, then I’ll do it. I’ll need a lot of help, but I’ll do it.”
Step Two: A Crisis of Career
Fast forward 13 years. I followed God’s calling into ministry and began serving with my church as a pastor. I soon began to feel the burden of ministry. It’s not a typical 9-to-5 job. It’s long, lonely, heart-breaking hours with little pay, few accolades, and a constant supply of critics. I was miserable most of the time.
There are true rewards in ministry and I experienced them, but I also experienced the heaviness of the work. As I looked back at my ministry, the misery outweighed the reward. And I knew that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. I knew other people who were called to this work and loved it. They felt the burdens, too, but the rewards were enough to counter that burden.
I looked closely at my life to see what exactly I didn’t like about my job:
It wasn’t the people. I loved working with people—heartache, joys, and everything in between.
It wasn’t the town or the church I was assigned.
It wasn’t the office staff. I worked with an excellent group of employees.
It was pastoring that I didn’t like. It was being responsible for another person’s spiritual life. It was being on-call 24/7. It was never leaving the work at the office, as spiritual burdens tend to follow you home and gnaw at your mind as you attempt to fall asleep. It was getting a call on vacation to hear someone criticize me. It was the constant feeling that I was behind on emails, or reports, or program preparation. It was the relentless anxiety that I was not measuring up to someone’s ideal of pastor—whether it was my colleague, my supervisor, a representative from the head office, or one of my parishioners. There was never a day that I found approval from all sides.
I know what you’re thinking: Ruth, that happens in every job. No matter where you work, you’ll find someone who doesn’t think you’re good enough. True enough, but that doesn’t erase the sting of the feeling of spiritual inadequacy.
Maybe at this point you’re saying: Ruth, why did it matter that you didn’t please a few people. Isn’t it God you’re supposed to be pleasing anyway? Another valid point. And if you can confidently say that no one else’s opinion matters, then maybe you’re cut out for the ministry. But it did matter to me. And I couldn’t shake it.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t something I could fix by just not caring about others’ opinions. It was deeper than that. I was miserable in my job calling, and I wanted out.
Step Three: God’s Release
I struggled with understanding how I could hear God’s voice so clearly as a teenager, but question that same calling as an adult. God, didn’t you call me? Did I hear you wrong? Did you change your mind? Did you get the wrong person? Am I just not working hard enough? Do I need to hold on a little longer? Stick it out through the wilderness and find the reward?
These were the questions swirling through my mind as I prayed at a retreat. Suddenly I found myself drawing a picture of an egg in my journal. God’s will is the white, the notes seemed to scream at me. This job is only one small piece of the whole picture. “You’ve served me well in this area, but I have other areas of ministry.”
Tears ran down my cheeks as I felt God’s release. This ministry wasn’t a life sentence after all. It was okay to not like it. It was okay to move on.
Step Four: Resignation
It would be more than a year before I acted on that release. God continued to work in my life as I experienced a whole new level of joy and heartache in this ministry.
But, eventually, I had to do the right thing for myself and for the people I serve. It was time to resign from my position. When I finally made that decision, a weight lifted from my shoulders.
Then, I knew I had to give my resignation to my supervisor.
I waited anxiously to hear his response to my resignation. No condemnation. No questioning me about God’s will or if I had prayed enough about it. Just a calm acceptance, and concern for my wellbeing.
Few things are as rewarding as discovering your boss is a godly leader. Although, I really had nothing to fear. In the short time he had been my boss I had been called into his office twice, and he had calmly sat through my blubbering in front of him. He had assured me that I had what it took to do the job. In every interaction he made it clear that he cared about me as a person, not just as one of his charges. And when it came time to hear my resignation, he prayed with me.
Step Five: Now What?
Soon, everyone will hear the news of my resignation. I began with close friends, family, and cherished mentors. I have heard messages of encouragement, confirmation of my decision. But now I will really find out what people think.
Maybe some will say that I failed. That’s okay. Really, I did fail, and it’s a good thing.
One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics, a quirky look at economics and life. One of their most popular podcasts is called “The Upside of Quitting” where they examine just how good quitting can be for your health and life. One of the interviews was with Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL talking about “Hell week” where recruits are pushed to their limits and many end up quitting. It turns out there are two kinds of quitters, the ones who make excuses and the ones who are honest with themselves:
“I don’t think many people want to say to themselves that they’ve quit. At the same time, we’ve all failed in our lives, we’ve all failed at different things in different ways and I think there’s a lot to be said about facing that failure squarely. And the people who I know, who were able to admit, ‘This isn’t right for me at this time and I decided to quit,’ they’re really able to move on from their experience. And I do find that there’s only shame in it if you feel shame.”
I’m not leaving because this work is hard. I’m not leaving because of my political or theological views. I’m not leaving because I’m angry with God or with the organization.
I’m leaving because this is not right for me anymore. God is leading me elsewhere. I’m anxious about the future, about stepping out of the comfortable security of this job, but I’m confident in the words of Stanley Ditmer:
I’m in His Hands, I’m in his hands,
Whatever the future holds, I’m in his hands
The days I cannot see have all been planned for me
His way is best, you see, I’m in his hands.