“Lord,” I said, “Most churches are afraid of me. If I’m such a good candidate for their church, they wonder why I am still unemployed?”
I had survived an attempt to oust me from leadership of the church I’d pastored the last three years. It had been the most difficult, up-hill period in my ministry. Then, when it appeared the coup had failed and the know-it-alls knew a lot less than they had figured, I was not given time to take a breath before the ringleader said in private, “It’s not over, Joe. It’ll never be over until you’re gone.”
He was determined to get me out of that church.
A few days later, the Father said to me, “You may leave now.”
Six months earlier, a church leader with ties to the little power group had taken me to lunch with an offer. “If you will leave, they’ll give you $100,000. And you can walk away.”
I said, “I would love to leave. The stress is killing me. But the Lord will not let me.”
A Midwest church twice our size had shown interest in me as a possible pastor. I’d sent them recorded sermons–this was before the internet–and we’d had extensive long distance conversations. They were about to send their search committee across the country to visit us when I stopped it.
I told them, “The Lord is not going to let me leave until this issue in the church is dealt with. Otherwise, I’ll just be passing it on to the next pastor.”
So I had broken off the contacts with the big church. (They promptly turned to their interim and made him the pastor. So, when I became available this was no longer an option.)
The leader across the table said to me, “So, you’re determined to stay.”
I said, “I don’t have any choice. The Lord will not let me leave.”
And now, after their little uprising had failed and the matter had gone public, the Lord was telling me it was safe for me to leave.
I gathered key leaders in my office to say if they could work out a paid leave of absence for a year, and if the church voted to endorse it, I would walk away.
Very long story short, that’s what happened.
Six weeks later, I found myself unemployed. We didn’t call it that, of course. We called it a “paid leave of absence.” But the result was the same.
I still had an income–but ask any pastor. While an income is important, that’s not the point. God called me to shepherd His people. A flockless shepherd is a contradiction in terms.
I was beyond fatigued and ready for a rest. So, my wife and I rested and put our house on the market, I took some invitations to preach here and there, and we waited on the Lord to show us what was next.
That’s when the strange little phenomenon began to occur.
Churches running a hundred in attendance were afraid of me.
It got back to me that some were saying things like: “If he’s so good, why did they let him go?” “We’re not willing to take a chance.” “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There must be more to this than a power grab by a few laypeople.”
The irony was stunning. I had turned down a church running over two thousand to see this conflict to its resolution, and now churches running a hundred were afraid to talk with me.
And so, the months came and went. I preached a number of revivals, we sold our house and moved into an apartment to wait on the Lord, and I kept in touch with a number of friends who were praying for us and passing along my name to church committees.
What I began to pray
Each evening, I walked a four mile route through our part of the city and talked to the Lord. More and more, the prayer sounded something like this:
Lord, most churches are afraid of me. They say, If he’s such hot stuff, why is he unemployed? But Father, I don’t want most churches. I just want ‘the one.’ The one where You want me. That’s the church I’m praying for, Father. Please send me there and nowhere else.
In time, a broken church–victimized by a preacher who stayed only a few months before tearing up the fellowship and running off half the congregation–contacted me. And that’s where the Father sent me.
I realized later, looking back, that under normal circumstances I would never have left the big church in the exciting city (with the far bigger salary) to pastor this wounded congregation with needs galore. I know, I know. We should always be willing to go where the Father sends us, right? And it’s impossible to say what we would have done under other circumstances. But knowing the shallowness of my heart and the weakness of my faith, I seriously doubt I would have been willing to make this jump without the unusual situation in which I then found myself.
This was of God. The Lord sent me to that church for a fourteen year ministry. Afterwards, I continued as a member for another dozen years while serving in a broader scope, first as an area denominational leader and then as a retired itinerant minister.
What we pray for our church these days…
The church where my wife and I now find ourselves members–where God sent us, make no mistake–is experiencing some difficult days. Some say it has a reputation for being hard on its pastors and staff. I’ve been told that most pastors are fearful of talking to the search committee and would dread moving here.
But that’s all right. We don’t want most pastors. We want only one.
We want only the one pastor God has chosen for this congregation. “Send him and him only, Father. Please keep all others away. And let our leadership know in no uncertain terms that You are doing this. For Jesus’ sake.”
God bless all unemployed pastors who want so dearly to be put to work!
If people get their identity from their work–as we are told most people do–then an unemployed pastor may wonder, “Who am I, if I am not doing the work God called me to do?” There are no quick easy answers to this, and everyone’s situation may be different. But we know a few things…
–God is in charge. He is sovereign. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
–God is not limited by fearful search committees or timid churches. He is Lord.
–Pastors–the gainfully employed and the ones still looking–are His children, the work of His hands, the redeemed of the Lord. And we are each to serve Him, whether in big ways or small. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.”
–No unemployed pastor should sit by the phone waiting. Let him (or her**) be up and about, doing the work of the Lord in whatever form that may take. If the issue is putting groceries on the table for the family, the minister should be willing to do whatever it takes–from flipping burgers to selling used cars to peddling insurance.
–In the system used by our denomination, God often uses the method of “one friend telling another friend.” So, we counsel unemployed pastors to stay in touch with their friends, let them know if and when they will be preaching somewhere, provide them with a current resume’ to pass along, and stay focused on the Father, who after all, is the Ultimate Human Resources Manager.
–Let the unemployed pastor stay on his knees, looking to the Father, trusting Him to do His good will.
From time to time, ministers who seem never to hear from a search committee will text to say, “Why is God ignoring my prayers? Why doesn’t He send me to a church?” I have no answer, of course. Only the Father knows the reasons. So, I pray for them and for their families who are often hurting as much as the minister is.
Lord, bless your people, please. Give courage to search committees and great faith to congregations. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.