Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving Ministry

At the end of February I will be leaving my position as a hospice chaplain. I have been threatening to do this for many months, but now is the time. I have six shifts left, three of which will happen from midnight-8am. If I'm gonna go out, I'm gonna go out big.

I have been in a time of significant personal and professional transition for the past year. I have been reluctant to admit that I feel a call out of professional ministry, but now I am coming clean. While I will continue to write spiritual things, and listen as a spiritual director, I believe that my time as "minister," "pastor," or "chaplain" is coming to a close.

For the last 15 years I have been "Adam the pastor." Two months after college I found myself in summer Greek at Princeton Seminary, and I have been preparing for ministry, thinking about ministry, and doing ministry ever since. I have worked in churches, I have worked as a campus pastor, I have worked as a hospital chaplain and as a hospice chaplain. I have preached hundreds of times. I have taught, I have listened, I have prayed. I have preached sermons that made people weep, I have preached sermons that made people squirm, I have preached sermons that made people roll their eyes. I have attended conferences on evangelism, pastoring, church administration (woo), and preaching. Every time I went out to eat with people they asked me to say a blessing on the food.

It is hard to describe how difficult it is to let go of a label like "pastor." It's one of those labels that comes so close to your identity. It's who I feel like I have been for the past 15 years. It's how other people introduce me. It has been a joy, yes, but it has also been a burden, because of the assumptions that go along with being a pastor. Strangers, upon finding out I was a pastor, would go silent and feel strangely guilty in my presence. People would take mistakes that I made really hard. Expectations were impossibly high. You start playing to the expectations rather than being yourself, and you get so good at it that you confuse the two in your own mind. As delusional as it sounds, you can start viewing yourself as this superhuman figure.  

I believe that I was called by God to be a pastor, but I have also come to learn things about myself that might have also steered me in that direction. In person, I like to project that I am a really strong, capable person, with all his ducks in a row, who is so full that I can give and keep giving. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that giving to people was the way I could be in relationship with them. I am still afraid that if they see my weakness, or if I wait for them to come to me, then I will be alone.

At the same time, my superhuman projection and my inclination to give more than I should actually makes me keep people at a distance. And I think that was part of the allure of pastoring for me. I could have the illusion of intimacy with others while actually holding them at arms' length. I could be with people in the most vulnerable moments of life - deathbeds, weddings, personal crisis - and yet not truly be there. Everyone would come away thinking how strong and full of love I was in those moments, yet I knew in my heart of hearts that they were getting a small part of the real me.

Truth be told, it was dishonest. Dishonesty always distances people. Dishonesty is a fig leaf we use to hide from each other.

I have come to realize that I must let go of the identity of "Adam the pastor" if I want to grow more and more into my true self. Other pastors who wrestle with this will find that they can do this soul work within the context of professional ministry, but I can't. It is time for a new Adam, one that is closer to the authentic Adam. One who doesn't hold people at a distance anymore.