“I Was Burnt Out—And I Stepped Away”
This was not going to be a typical members’ meeting at our church. I knew this. Brian and Frank—the pastors I’d served with since the church was planted two years before—knew this as well. But only a few people in our young congregation were aware of the announcement I was about to make. This was the day that I was resigning as an elder at the church I helped to plant. Though I’d come to a point of peace about my decision months prior, I knew that it would be a shock to some in the church.
But first, we did what we normally do at members’ meetings. We prayed. We recited our equivalent of a church covenant in unison. We joyfully voted to bring in new members and accepted the resignations from those members who were moving on to serve God elsewhere. We handled other church business.
And then the time came: “And now, Shai would like to make an announcement.”
I walked up to the microphone, adorned with the clothes on my back, jumbled thoughts, and a prepared statement clutched by trembling hands. I didn’t know what to expect. Rather than strike the wrong note with superfluous introductory remarks, I simply looked down at the paper and began to read:
To the Members of Risen Christ Fellowship,
In 1 Peter 5:1-4, it says:
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
I want to focus your attention on a phrase in verse 2: “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.”
Part of what this verse means is that being an elder is something that a man should do joyfully and freely rather than merely out of obligation. Puritan author Matthew Henry comments on this, saying,
“These duties must be performed, not by constraint, not because you must do them, not from compulsion of the civil power, or the constraint of fear or shame, but from a willing mind that takes pleasure in the work”
This verse has resonated in my soul for quite some time now. For while I certainly love the church dearly and enjoy serving with the other elders, the last two and a half years has taken a considerable toll on me and my family. In the midst of it, I’ve found myself wrestling with my own low affections for the Lord and an increasing lack of delight in much of the work of pastoral ministry. In other words, “a willing mind that takes pleasure in the work” has not been my recent experience.”
So how did I get to this point? There are a number of factors that played into how I ended up where I was. For the purposes of this article—and like any good Baptist preacher should—I’ll identify three.
In his characteristically humorous way of highlighting the challenges of church revitalization, Mike McKinley wrote a book with a great title: Church Planting is For Wimps. Though church planting features many joys, anyone who’s ever done it knows it’s an extremely difficult endeavor. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Along with the usual challenges that come with church planting—fundraising, building search, etc.—my family faced seemingly non-stop trials. To give some context, here’s a brief modified timeline from the year we planted RCF.
- May 2015. Birth of our youngest son Ezra, giving my wife Blair and I three children three and under.
- June 2015. Moved from Northern Virginia to Philadelphia in preparation for launch in September.
- July 2015. Our living room became a sprinkler park when I turned on the shower upstairs and water began to rain down through the light fixtures in the ceiling.
- September 2015. RCF holds its first service.
- October 2015. This time, the basement of our home floods.
- October 2015. While driving with the entire family on a road trip, we hit a deer and totaled our car. Thankfully, the Lord preserved our lives.
- November 2015. Blair has her first panic attack related to the accident, leading to our first trip to the E.R. and a difficult and often discouraging journey of various health issues for Blair that continue to this day, almost three years later.
And that was just the first six months. As my wife’s condition worsened, I struggled with my inability to keep work at work in order to be fully present when I got home. The demands of a new church are many, but my wife needed me to care for her. She needed me to take on more responsibilities with our three young children as it became more difficult for her to care for them. My life began to feel like I was strapped to a treadmill set to the fastest possible speed on the steepest possible incline. Pastoral ministry began to feel more like a burden than a joy, which leads to the next factor.
The Unexpected Challenge of Vocational Ministry
I always thought the ideal scenario would be to be on staff as a pastor. I mean, getting paid to study God’s Word and shepherd his people? Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?
Unfortunately, when I took the position, my sinful heart came along with me for the ride. I never anticipated the conundrum I would feel when preparing a sermon in the office on a Saturday night; or teaching a membership class; or facilitating an elder’s meeting—all while wanting nothing more than to be at home with my family instead.
Far too often, I felt guilty, ashamed, and unspiritual when the thought that kept me going was not, “I am serving for the glory of God”, but rather, “This is my job. I have to do this to provide for my family.” Having my livelihood attached to my ministry began to do strange things in my heart and its motivations. It got to the point where I began to dread the very things I’d joyfully signed up to do years before. And I hated it. I hated when I felt that way. All this became a vicious cycle, replaying constantly in my mind. It was miserable.
An Unhappy Pastor
The bottom line is that I was an unhappy pastor. Don’t get me wrong—there were certainly many joys and many things I remain grateful for. First and foremost, there was our wonderful congregation, made up of dear brothers and sisters of different ethnicities and generations, united by a common love for the Savior and his glory. I count it an honor to have been able to help shepherd the saints at RCF, even for a season.
As I talked through my difficulties with the other elders, they were very helpful, prayerful, and accommodating. As my wife’s condition entered its second year, it became clearer that perhaps this could be a long-term thing that needed my presence and availability in a way that I couldn’t see happening while in full-time pastoral ministry. Beyond that, I didn’t want to continue serving as a pastor if it meant that I would regularly be “sorrowful”—forget the “always rejoicing.” Finally, it became clear to me that I no longer desired to be an overseer, which the Bible assumes as a prerequisite to a man taking the office (1 Timothy 3:1).
At that point, I knew I needed to resign. All the arguments against resigning—“what will people think?” “what about our donors?” “it’s going to be embarrassing”—proved to be more about my own fear of man and my own pride than glorifying to God. I knew that it could be an awkward transition; my once fellow elders would now be my pastors and I would simply be a member at the church I helped to plant. But I figured that it’s better to be a happy church member than a joyless pastor.
A New Beginning
By God’s grace, we made it through that members’ meeting. Though there were many tears, the congregation has been very supportive and encouraging in the months that followed. In retrospect now, a year later, I can say without a doubt that I made the right decision. It’s been helpful for me to be more present for my family. I’ve experienced much joy in returning to my former vocation as an artist and writer.
I still have opportunities to preach from time to time, and to serve in other ways at the church. I haven’t ruled out returning someday as a lay elder, if that’s what the Lord and the saints at RCF desire for me. But whatever happens, I’ve taken great comfort knowing that my identity is not in being a pastor, but in being a sinner saved by grace through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. And that’s more than enough.