By Benjamin Cole
When you grow up in Grayson County, Texas, there are two events on your annual calendar that demand your attention. The first is the annual “Battle of the Ax” wherein the Sherman Bearcats take on the Denison Yellow Jackets for four quarters of high-intensity Texas football. The second is the annual Reba McEntire charity concert to benefit the Texoma Medical Center and the Reba McEntire House.
I was never big enough to play football, and I never really enjoyed country music — although I can sing most Reba McEntire songs by heart. One of them has a prominence in my memory that others do not.
Her 1991 hit song, “Is There Life Out There,” tells the story of a lonely soul who feels trapped in an endless repetition of the mundane, unimaginative chores of life. From the inside of a window looking outward, McEntire wonders how life might have been different if she’d taken another course.
That song has played in my head for the past six years. Three years ago, I decided to do something about it. From behind the desk of a pastor’s study, my only window into the life beyond found in the occasional novel — usually John Updike — and feeling more burdened than blessed by the holy vocation to which I had given the greater portion of my life, I pondered the after life.
Not the afterlife of the final resurrection or heaven or the beatific vision, mind you, but life after “the ministry.” I longed to live like the majority of Christians: wage-earning men and women in business or politics or the academy.
But Baptists, much to our peril, tend to espouse a terribly thin theology of vocation. In fact, I remember countless diatribes from seminary pulpits about the pastoral “once-weres” and the “has-beens.”
You don’t have to listen long to hear the not-so-subtle indictment of men and women who “left the ministry” for reasons both noble and ignoble. When you’re in seminary and you hear the roll call of the “formers,” you purpose in your heart never to be counted among them.
And yet, for months now, my name at the bottom of this regular column has been followed by the opprobrious epithet, “former Southern Baptist pastor.” I am unmistakably one of those who stepped away from the pulpit to pursue a life outside the parsonage and beyond the pastorate.
The other day I gave an interview to a reporter who wanted to know how to describe me. “A former pastor,” I suggested, almost laughing at my own embrace of the shameful appellation.
But I had long since departed from my earlier, perhaps naive estimations of “the ministry.” The weekly preparation of sermons became perfunctory. The endless duty of baptizing and blessing and burying the flock of God grew cumbersome. I wondered, indeed, if there was life out there.
I must be careful to say, however, that my love for the people I served has never waxed cold. As the sheep of God go, I’ve been appointed to under-shepherd the best of them.
Along the way, somehow, I just felt like I was spinning my wheels. Sure, there were some real victories: like leading a man named Caesar to Christ while distributing Vacation Bible School flyers; or seeing a deacon’s marriage restored; or sitting by the bedside of an 88-year-old widow dying of cancer and quoting the 23rd Psalm as she drew her last breaths.
But when I hit 30, I knew that I needed an exit strategy from “the ministry.” I wasn’t burned out as much as I was bored. Ordinary Christians would be bored, too, if they had to spend 40-plus hours a week at church. Many can scarcely bear an hour or two a week without nodding off several times.
As I talked to fellow pastors and a few “formers,” I discovered that what I was feeling was almost universal among the ordained servants of God. Indeed, there is something rather emasculating about drawing your salary from the tithe.
So last year, I made it official. I resigned “the ministry,” and moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a different vocation. Thus I joined the exodus of friends and fellow “formers” who have found a purposeful and peaceful life now that their business cards don’t have a glitzy cross logo and the title “Rev.” in front of their names.
I have few regrets about the years I was a pastor, and I pray I will have even fewer as a “former pastor.” Nevertheless, I’m excited to become an ordinary Christian who works for his wages and tithes his earnings to support the unenviable souls who still bear that heavy cross called “the ministry.”