I left the church. Don’t hate me

Sometimes a call to ministry takes an unexpected turn.

By Elizabeth Evans Hagan

Five years ago now, I found myself in a position countless said I’d never be in. I was installed as the pastor of a Baptist congregation. I was 28.

In response to this new call, I got numerous congratulatory notes from leaders in Baptist life and from the staff of the seminary I graduated from to the tune of: “You are a pioneer” and “Thanks for proving that women can lead churches!”

I have to admit, I felt the high of such a big life moment. I was glad to be my church’s pastor, a wonderful little congregation in the heart of a city where I already lived. I was glad to serve, lead, teach and do all of those clergy tasks I’d hoped to do for so long.

This gladness of congregational ministry continued for four years. But then, two months, ago, I willingly left this dream job.

I left without bitterness, feeling burned out or even with another job offer in my hands.

I left because I knew if I was ever going to finish my book-length project, I needed to give writing my full-time attention.

I left because my husband began a new job as president of Feed The Children -- a job that focused his attention both on domestic and international hunger relief that I knew I could lend my voice to support as his wife.

I left because as much as I loved being a particular people’s pastor, I knew there’d be others to pastor along a more global path.

I left because, much to my surprise, my calling changed.

But this time, instead of “congratulations” e-mails from professional colleagues, I got lots of: “Why would you leave us?” “Why not stay to keep fighting the battle for women in ministry?” “Won’t you lose sight of your calling if you aren’t in the church?”

As much as I appreciated these words of knowing I’d be professionally missed, I felt equally sad. I was sad knowing that ultimately many of these comments to me came out of a place of fear -- fear that if someone like me couldn’t stick it out in the local church for the long run, then I was somehow hurting the reputation of Baptist women in ministry everywhere.

I heard: “Young women don’t get pastorates.” “Why would you do this to us?” “Other churches are going to think we’re all flakes!’

But, I’m not a flake.

If I’ve learned anything through this discernment process, it has been the necessity of paying attention to life’s seasons. God’s call is an evolutionary process. Sometimes we are called to lead. Other times we are called to listen.

There’s ancient wisdom in Ecclesiastes, “There is time to be silent; there is time to speak.” In all things God asks us to pay attention to what is now. What does God have for us right now?

Sometimes God calls pastors to take care of their families or their children. Sometimes God calls pastors to minister within their secular jobs. Sometimes God calls pastors to journeys of having no idea what is up ahead, trusting the Spirit’s direction when the time comes to act.

And, we in the church should celebrate and affirm this kind of ministry. John Wesley said it best: “I look upon the whole world as my parish.”

Sometimes this broad view of calling looks nothing like what a seminary application “call story” could have predicted. It looks nothing like an item to check on a response card of post-seminary plans. It may even look nothing like what religious professionals or denominational leaders count as ministry.

But, like others on a similar non-traditional path, I’m trying to follow Jesus.

So I’m learning to preach without a pulpit and write for a congregation that I can’t always see. I’m making pastoral visits for those within my circle, family and friends old and new, and learning to serve the poor in some of the most impoverish communities of the world -- all tasks I might never otherwise be able to tend if I had a parish home.

I left a church for this season, but don’t hate me. I’m still a pastor, too.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.