Many, if not most, churches are constantly looking for qualified, competent, caring, and committed people to help do the work of their ministry. Many, if not most, of these churches have at least one such person hiding in plain sight in their pews at every worship service.
According to Bo Lane’s website, expastors.com, 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month. The Hartford Institute for Religious Research estimates there are roughly 350,000 congregations in the United States. Fifth grade division and fourth grade multiplication lead us to the following conclusion: if pastors have been leaving ministry at that rate for just the last 20 years there would be and average of 1 ex-pastor available for every congregation in the country.
I’ve been that guy for almost 5 years now. And I continue to marvel at how difficult it has been to find a new ministry role in the two churches I have attended since leaving the pastorate (by choice, not scandal) after 22 years of preaching, teaching, counseling, and sacrifice. A role that would utilize my gifts and calling, which are without repentance. At 52 I believe I have a few more years of useful service to render in a church context; just not as the head guy. And I see many areas of obvious need in my current church’s ministry where I could help, but have been rebuffed or simply ignored at every offer.
I’m not an ogre. I brush my teeth, comb my hair, and use deodorant every Sunday morning (and the other days of the week, too). I smile, I worship, I give. And then I sigh, and go out to eat with my family. I don’t believe this is a unique experience. I’m convinced it’s a systemic issue that plagues many larger congregations. And I think it’s a shame that the glaring solution might be to attend a smaller church where it would be impossible to hide in plain sight.
So, I’ve made my own ‘deal with the devil’ and decided to remain hidden in plain sight at a church where the word challenges me and the worship invites me into the presence of God. And I have begun to develop ways to fulfill the still rich call on my life by doing ministry outside of my church. I’ve launched elijahworkshops.com to heal families and help people who have been rejected, abandoned, forsaken, or abused by a parent, and am contemplating a bible study to teach the basics of the faith to the un-churched and de-churched.
This decade has given us an economy where many have had to retrain and accept positions that underutilize their talents, experiences, and skills in order to make ends meet. Former managers and leaders are now waiting tables or processing phone orders. Doctors from other countries are now driving cabs or working at 7-11. And at church some ex-pastors, like myself, are serving on the parking lot ministry (I’ve done that), or ushering, or running the soundboard or presentation software (I almost did that). To be clear, I am not disparaging any of those ministries. As an example, what I am saying is that when a now defunct small groups ministry in a church of thousands needs leadership to refocus and re-launch it, that ex-pastor’s gifts and experiences could be better utilized to help in that area of the ministry.
If I could speak to pastors of medium to large sized churches who have untapped clergy resources in their pews I’d offer these 7 suggestions on how to identify and integrate those resources into their ministries.
- LOOK. If you've prayed for leadership help, or if people in your ministry have been praying for help for you, then expect that God has answered/is answering that prayer and LOOK for the answer. Many times we want the answer to hit us over the head and announce itself, but God often moves more subtly than that and slips the answer right under our nose. There's a good chance the help you need is hiding in plain sight right there in front of you on Sunday mornings. Like Hagar with the well in Genesis 21 and Abraham with the ram in Genesis 22, your provision may have been there all along is just waiting to me noticed.
- ASK. Depending on where they are in their journey some exes will seek you out and reveal themselves, expecting to get plugged in right away. (This was me at my first church as an ex. That pastor agreed to have coffee with me and then spent the next 9 months rescheduling through his secretary. We never did meet, and never had a ministry conversation, nor conversation of any kind.) Others will avoid you at every turn, remain mysterious, and pray that no one notices them. It is the reluctant ex that needs to be drawn out. Periodically, or as the Spirit moves you, ask ex-pastors to identify themselves to you. Invite them to come and meet you. One such small gesture can yield a lifetime of reward.
- MEET. Don't wall yourself off from possible clergy in the pews. Once you’ve I.D.ed them make yourself approachable. Engage them. Talk to them. Take them out for coffee. Go to lunch with them. The ministry is a collegium. We all have something to offer to each other, and all have something we can learn from one another. We are stronger when we draw from shared experiences than we can ever be on our own.
- VET. This is what the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James, Peter, and John, did with Paul. He didn't come with a recommendation from a trusted preacher friend, or a recognized ordination from an ecclesiastical body, so they vetted him. They tested him for signs of grace (Gal 2:9). And when they perceived the grace that was given to him they gave him the right hands of fellowship and embraced him as their own. When you vet an ex and he checks out, invite him into ministry fellowship. View him as someone called to labor alongside you in the same vineyard.
- SURRENDER. Sometimes we say we want help to do the ministry when what we really mean is we want somebody to help US do the ministry. Examine your heart. Are you really ready to surrender some of the spotlight? Being a lead pastor makes you something of a rock star in your congregation. No matter the size, that can be intoxicating if what really motivates you is attention. There's a good chance that ex in the pews is going to be 'better' or 'more anointed' or ‘more experienced’ at some aspects of ministry than you are. Do you really want the help if it means sharing the headlines like Moses did with Eldad and Medad (Num 11:24-30)? Surrender any insecurities you may have about your place or abilities in ministry and trust God to honor His word with plans to prosper you and not to harm you (Jer 29:11).
- LISTEN. An ex's perspective on your church can be as valuable to you as the insights of a secret shopper are to a department store, or the tastes of a food critic are to a restaurant. We are all naturally better at seeing the splinter in our brother's eye despite the log in our own. The ex in your pew can offer insider information about how to improve the systems in your church, or how to start some that need to be started.
- THANK. If you do connect with an ex in your pews thank God. It is a form of blessing that only a lead pastor can fully appreciate. And it's a blessing that will appreciate after it is acknowledged. Two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor. Another set of objective eyes can be revelatory. What price can you put on insight and revelation? Some revelation comes through more natural channels than we expect. Like Moses, thank God for sending you a Jethro (Ex 18).