Why I Left the Pastorate
by Gary Welter
It was the Spring of 2000. I was 47 years old. My second (of three) daughters had just gotten married. I stood behind a pulpit preaching a sermon in a traditional church service for the last time.
My text was Matthew Chapter 14 where Jesus came walking on the water towards a boat full of His disciples. Peter asked Jesus if he could join with Him in walking on the water.
It was not my intention for this to be my last sermon, but somewhere in that message, I knew the Lord was calling me out of the safety of the religious boat I had known for years and into a perilous, unknown walk of faith with Him.
I was preaching a message to myself, or rather, He was preaching to me through my own words! When I left the church building that day, I knew that I was never coming back. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew that I would never return to that.
This was the day that I put both hands on the side of the boat that I was very familiar with. I jumped up and kicked my legs off the side, and now my center of gravity was over the edge. I had come to the point of no return. It's like that feeling when you momentarily lose your balance; it scares you. In the name of "good sense," this was not a good decision. I had only one thing going for me; I knew that the Lord was the One saying, "Come."
Actually, He began calling me out of the boat (the traditional/institutional church) several years earlier, I was just waiting for a sensible option. I didn't mind hopping out of the boat, I just didn't like the idea of walking around on a lake in the middle of the night with high winds and waves -- with nothing to depend on except Him. But a better option never came, and after several years of hesitancy, I just did it. Yes, I sank quicker than Peter ("the Rock"), but the Lord's hand was (and still is) there to save me, and what a wonderful place to be -- walking by faith with Jesus and hanging on to Him.
Here's how my story began:
I was in my 20's, married, three daughters, living in the mid-west, and teaching at a Christian school (having graduated from a Christian university with a degree in education). My wife and I had been part of a church in this "college town," a church that had sprung out of the Jesus People Movement of the early 1970's. We loved that church. It was our life. It was so exciting, especially in the first several years of the church when all the members did everything together. We worked together, played together, ate meals together, watched each other's kids, and we worshiped together. We were really excited about Jesus and just basked in His love for us. (I didn't know it then, but those years "ruined" me. I was never satisfied with the "more organized" and "correct doctrine" years that we eventually moved into.) The emphasis of the church became "leadership training" and we took it very seriously, becoming real students of the Scriptures. Many of the members became skilled teachers and preachers, and as opportunities for ministry positions came available they moved away and took those positions. After fourteen years of being part of that church, I did the same.
In 1988 my family and I moved to Florida so I could take a job to join the pastoral staff of a fairly large church. I was required to complete a few more semesters of education as part of the requirement for ordination. For a few years I administrated all the education ministries of the church (including a Christian day school).
I then became the "Senior Associate Pastor" which added the responsibility of counseling and preaching on a regular basis. The "Senior Pastor" and I were good friends, but we were constantly butting heads. I was persistently pushing for ways to make a large congregation more personal and interactive with each other (including the pastoral staff), while the senior pastor was more comfortable shepherding from a distance and focusing primarily on the once per week Sunday morning services. While I was inwardly frustrated with the senior pastor as being the chief decision-maker, I had been trained well over many years and always supported him both publicly and privately. I was a loyal soldier. However, I was determined to bring change to the church, so I worked (and worked and worked!) to add as many programs and ministries as the senior pastor would allow: morning prayer meetings, family nights (including a meal together), children's programs for boys and girls, cell-groups, gift discovery seminars, etc, etc. I was doing all I could but found myself constantly thinking: "there's got to be more to the Christian life than this -- something is missing."
After several years of being "hard-working, well-liked Pastor Gary," the Lord began to deeply challenge me within the very core of my being. I cannot recount all that the Lord was speaking to me about (this story would be too long and I'm not skilled enough to communicate such things accurately), but here are some of the highlights.
First of all, I need to say that during this time I was aware that 1) it was the Lord speaking to me, 2) I knew that He loved me, but these were painful things He was speaking to me about, and 3) His speaking brought inward turmoil because I didn't know how to respond and act upon the faith that He was giving me (surely He was not expecting me to jump out of the boat, was He ?!).
OK, here are some of the highlights in no particular order. As I'm preparing my sermons and teachings I'm examining one of the many passages where Jesus is confronting the religious authorities because they are basically keeping the people in religious bondage by promoting their own positions of authority and control. I've read this passage many times, but suddenly in my mind I'm identifying myself with the religious leaders instead of with Jesus and His merry band of disciples! This can't be! I have to engage myself in rigorous mental gymnastics just to finish my sermon. But the Lord persists and brings to my mind the hundreds of faces of the faithful people attending the church services week by week; they're loyal, kind, and obedient. They sit quietly with a sense of anticipation while a few of us perform as best we can on a stage. On que, they write their tithe checks, even the elderly who live on social security. They listen patiently to the sermon, hoping it's not too long. They line up and leave with a hand shake and a hug, and they'll be back next week to do it all over again. And I began to cry, "Lord, there's got to be more to your church than this!"
More sermon preparation. This time I come across John 5:39-40 where Jesus said, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." And, again, I sense that the Lord is confronting me: "Gary, you desire to study to know about me, but do you desire to really know me?" Now, I experience further inner turmoil: "Do I know Him? How do I really get to know Him? Wait a minute, I'm a pastor, I'm ordained, I lead people to know Him; I think I really know Him." But as I'm honest with myself I have to admit: "Yes Lord, You're right, I know a lot about You, and I know that you've redeemed me, but I don't really know you very well." Then He brought to my mind the fact that I could do extensive research and learn a lot about President Clinton (the current president at that time) and yet never meet him or know him personally. Furthermore, President Clinton probably didn't care to know me personally, but the Lord, Jesus does -- and that's amazing!!
It is difficult to describe all that was going on in my life at that time. I was working increasingly harder to improve the ministry of the church (as I saw it), I was trying to maintain a good relationship with the senior pastor (my boss) who saw things very differently from me, and also trying to convince myself that I was not a hireling -- although I knew that I had to stick with this job (ministry position) because it was my livelihood. Not only that, but I had three teenage daughters to provide for and a wife who worked full-time in the church's business office. I was stuck. There were no options. No wonder I was having severe stomach problems.
After a couple of years of living like this, something unexpected happened. I was notified that the board of directors of the church had reviewed my salary and, based on my areas of responsibility, decided to raise my salary significantly. They were being very generous, but when I received notification of my raise along with a new "flow-chart" of the ministry team and staff (for some reason this pyramid looking "flow-chart" bothered me), I knew that I was starting down a road that would probably not allow me to turn back. "There's got to be more to Your church than this, Lord." A few days later I came to my office in the morning with a full schedule of meetings and appointments, but as I stared at the top of my desk for a few seconds I felt as if the Lord arrested me and I began a conversation with Him. The few seconds of sitting motionless turned into an hour. The bottom line was this: I knew He was calling me away to something very different, I just didn't know what it was. Additionally, I no longer cared what it was going to mean to me financially. I didn't go into "ministry" because of money and I wasn't going to stay because of money. I only wanted to follow the Lord and learn of Him.
So I resigned that very day from my position with the church. (I resigned that day for my wife, also; and she didn't even know about it!) I agreed to stay on for three months so the church could replace me, but when the senior pastor found out that I was not leaving the city, just leaving my job and membership with the church, I was asked to leave immediately.
This began a really terrible and awesome time when I began to know the Lord in a way I had not known Him previously. (As I reflect back now I see it as an awesome time; when I was going through it back then, it was a terrible season.) My leaving was not handled very well by the leadership of the church. The reason for this may have been because I had close friendships with much of the congregation, and the leadership feared that many would leave with me (though I had no intention of "starting" anything). Within days rumors about me were flying everywhere. I tried to stop the rumors but it was impossible. My reputation in the city was being destroyed. I had always been well-liked by most people, so I had not experienced anything this painful in my life. It was very hard on me and my family. We were instantly cut off from many friendships, and instantly cut off from financial income as well. I truly felt as if I had climbed a tall tree, scooted out on a limb, and sawed off the limb between me and the tree trunk!
It was a rough few months. My wife was looking for a new job. I found work cleaning vacation condominiums. I tried to explain the situation to my kids, and they understood and dealt with everything as well as I could have expected. My wife knew of my inner turmoil that had been going on for years (and, of course, the Lord had been speaking to her, challenging her also). She was absolutely and totally supportive of me and the decision that I made to leave. Her faith and strength during this time was amazing.
I was struggling badly. I was so hurt that people would so easily believe rumors and false reports about my leaving the church, and nobody came to me to verify anything. I was trying to deal with a type of pain I had not known before. Though I had the support of my family, the only relief I could find from the pain inside me was when I ran to the Lord. I felt as if He was literally a place (or location) of safety and peace that I could go to. He was my "hiding place," and I began to learn of Him in a whole new way. Then one day, after several weeks of finding refuge "in Him," I laid face down and began to bitterly cry to Him about the fact that He seemingly allowed the one valuable thing that I possessed to be taken from me: my reputation. As soon as I expressed that complaint to Him, my mind was flooded with this thought: "My Son was a man of no reputation, but you are so concerned about yours." I instantly stood up and apologized to the Lord. The pain of my hurt feelings was gone and my joy was restored. But it was a new type of joy, a joy based on the knowledge that I was learning of Him. And these were my first few steps in really getting to know Him and not just knowing about Him. He is so patient with us!
Somehow, I have always known that He has been drawing me into a close and intimate relationship with Himself, and His church plays a vital role in this process (I think all believers inherently know this). "But what is the role of the church? How does it happen? What does it really look like? What is the role of leadership in the church and how should it function? Why does He personally identify Himself with this institution? Is it an institution at all?" I certainly had more questions than answers, and the Lord began to patiently teach me and answer some of those questions. In fact, He let me experience the answers to my questions. (He communicates much differently than we do, but it sure is effective!).
Some months after quitting my job with the "church," a group of people who had been bouncing from church to church in the city decided to have a meeting. I was invited, too. There were about 50 people at the meeting and they basically shared that they were looking to be part of something new and genuine, and they felt as if I was the right person to lead (pastor) this new group. So, with great enthusiasm to lead a "real different" type of church I accepted the invitation to pastor this new work.
At this point in the story, allow me to "cut to the chase," as they say. During the three years of "pastoring" this flock, we grew in numbers, we had to rent larger facilities four times, our board of directors began looking at the possibility of buying our own land to build on, we had wonderfully talented worship team, there were many gifted teachers of children and adults alike -- in other words, we were becoming a "growing and successful church." And yet secretly I never left one of our meetings when my only thought as I turned off the lights and locked the doors was, "Lord, I know this is not it!" Seeing faithful people show up week after week sitting in neatly organized rows and staring straight forward was causing the same inward turmoil I had experienced when I was the assistant pastor at the church I left. I was more convinced than ever that His church is vitally important to Him, but what we were attempting to build was missing it all together.
In fact, I clearly remember the time that I came to the pulpit to deliver a sermon that I diligently prepared for all week. As I looked out over the congregation a strange image popped into my mind. For a few moments I had a vision of a man walking down the middle of an empty city street. There were buildings lining each side of the street. As the man walked, my perspective changed from being behind him at street level to rising up and having more of a "bird's eye" view. From there I could "see" that the city street was not real but a fašade. None of the buildings were real! Just like a Hollywood set. They were plywood paintings held in place by 2x4 supports behind them! There was no reality to the street the man was walking down. I knew that I was "leading a church" as sincerely, and honestly, and diligently as I could according to the teaching and training I had received. There were outward signs of success, but within my soul (and by His Spirit) I knew it was a fašade. Could it be that the real problem is not the people who are leading the institution, but the problem is the institution itself?
Well, not long after that revelation, I made plans to resign, again! I suggested that our church as a corporation merge with another church that had just begun meetings in the city. After that happened, I co-pastored the newly merged church with the other minister (who I had known for some time). I gave up my salary from the church so that those monies could be used to support the other minister, and I found a job in the sales field. After a few months, the newly formed church was doing well, with no pressing problems, and I left as quietly as I could (I didn't want anyone to be hurt or confused). Some of the folks knew that I was leaving because I no longer believed that the church was meant to be an organizational institution. They confronted me and said they wanted to go with me. But I had to sadly tell them that I wasn't "going" anywhere because I had no idea what His church looked like and no idea how it was intended to function. I was just going home and seeking Him.
That was eight years ago, and in some ways the story hasn't changed much -- my family and I are at home and learning of Him. But in reality, everything has changed! No, I don't have all the answers to all my questions, but I'm discovering that He, personally, is the answer to everything!
For several years now, my wife and I have been gathering together with other believers for the purpose of sharing our lives together and meeting around the Lord. We get together as often as we can just for fellowship, and once a week or so we gather for the purpose of expressing worship to Him and having Him expressed through one another. There is no leader or pastor (I have the great joy of being one of the brothers in this expression of His family -- nothing more, and nothing less!). Our meetings are informal and honest. We sing together. Everyone is free to share. We are learning to let go of our pet doctrines and to focus in on Him who loves us and gave His life for us. We're discovering that we have been designed to know Him (The Head) through our corporate functioning in His Body. And He is opening our eyes to the fact that His church (His Bride) is a living organism, not an organizational institution. Not all of our meetings and interactions are wonderful and glorious, in fact, some are down right painful. But what is glorious is our discovering that He is committed to Christ being formed in us and He is committed ultimately to us becoming one with Him! I now have a reason for meeting and functioning in His church, and "knowing Him" is not a religious duty but a loving passion.
Back to Ex-pastors home page