Since leaving the career I’d once given my life to, I’ve felt the cold and calloused fingers of an identity crisis gradually tightening their grip around my neck. I guess that’s what happens when you morph from a teenager with a crystal clear picture of what your life’s supposed to be into a 30-something with absolutely no clue. It’s the type of thing that throws you into existential disorientation, the type of thing that leaves you sitting across the table from your wife after dinner one evening telling her, “I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
For me, the crisis has been exacerbated by the fact that the career I left wasn’t just a career; it was a calling. It was something I once thought God had chosen me for and uniquely empowered me to carry out.
Growing up in the evangelical church, I always believed that pastors walked on vocational holy ground. While other people went to work to earn a paycheck or keep the cogs of society moving smoothly, pastors went to work to do something infinitely more important: they spoke and led and counseled on behalf of God. What human task could possibly be more sacred than that? It was a job of immeasurable magnitude.
As such, pastoring wasn’t something just anyone could sign up for. Unlike the rest of humanity who chose their professions – like lawyers and plumbers and engineers – pastors had their profession chosen for them. The stakes were too high for it to be any other way; the eternal fate of human souls hung in the balance. Only God could decide who was cut out for this line of work. If you were a pastor, you had become such by divine appointment.
I guess that’s why I never saw my journey into vocational church ministry as anything other than the path that God had personally mapped out for my life. The path wasn’t always easy – there were countless hours volunteering in the church, five years of seminary education, hundreds of theology books dutifully consumed, an unspoken vow of relative poverty, a handful of critics who didn’t agree with me, and way too many pointless committee meetings along the way. But through it all, my identity was entirely secure. I knew who I was, where I was going, and why my life mattered. Any obstacle or setback was seen in light of an overarching confidence in my own sense of self-understanding. I had a calling from God.
Until one day, I didn’t.
As I’ve previously documented at length, my religious convictions are no longer what they used to be. The faith that once fueled my passion to enter church ministry is vastly different from the faith that I now hold. And although the journey to this place has been long and gradual, there was an inevitable tipping point along the way when this spiritual evolution had career-altering consequences. Eventually, I realized that I could no longer preach and lead in good conscience. My spiritual belief system had eroded too drastically. My doubts about my faith had multiplied too much. So, I did the only thing my conscience would allow: I walked away from being a pastor.
At a personal level, the aftermath of that decision has been life-giving in many ways. It has brought freedom and openness; it has invited curiosity and joy. My own spiritual horizons have been expanded, and I’ve become a healthier human being as a result.
But in terms of my career trajectory, the decision to leave the work of pastoring has had an entirely different effect. Not only did it cost me the only career I’d ever really known or cared about, it also cost me the security and confidence that came from believing I was called to something eternally meaningful.
When someone switches jobs – for example, leaving a job in marketing to start a career in real estate – there’s an inevitable shift in self-understanding that takes place. The business cards have to be reprinted. The daily 8-to-5 takes on a whole new look. The skills required for success aren’t the same as they used to be. But ultimately, it’s unlikely to be an identity-altering transformation. It’s just a mid-life change in direction – like being on a road trip and deciding to leave the interstate and take a more scenic route instead.
But when you leave a vocation in church ministry, it’s not nearly as simple as that. You can’t just hit the turn signal and take the next exit. Far too much has been invested. Not only are you uprooting yourself from a job that’s become intertwined with every aspect of your faith, your family, your community, and your weekly schedule; you’re also uprooting yourself from a job that has come to define your very identity as a human being. There’s no such thing as a seamless exit from something like that.
Instead, leaving pastoral ministry is more like jumping off a train in the middle of nowhere with no map and no means of transportation. You boarded the train back at the station, expecting to ride it all the way to the end of the line. You bought the ticket and became a train rider. That’s who you were. That’s how you planned to get where you were going. But now? You’re stranded. You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know how to get there.
Maybe other pastors are different, but I never had a Plan B if ministry didn’t work out. No networking in other industries, no development of secondary skills, no careful curation of my LinkedIn profile. Any true pastor, in my opinion, wouldn’t have even entertained such ideas.
So I guess it’s not surprising that after leaving the church, I’ve found myself professionally adrift, unable to get my bearings on the outside of a world that I poured my life into since adolescence. Who am I now that I’m no longer set apart or called to do the Lord’s work? What’s my purpose now that I’m no longer immersed in a belief system that renders my daily work imbued with divinely-appointed significance?
When you’ve been programmed to believe that what you’re doing is the highest calling a person can have, it’s impossible to simply walk out the door and go do something else. At least, not without a truckload of baggage. There’s too much to unravel, too much to deconstruct.
These days, I make a living (or at least part of one) by teaching high school students how to read, write, and use passably decent grammar. It’s not a sexy job by popular standards, but it’s respectable, honest work. On good days, I like to think I’m making a positive contribution to society. On great days, I may even imagine myself enriching a few of my students’ lives.
But there are no eternal stakes in my classroom. There’s nothing in my job description about saving souls or converting the lost. Compared to how I saw my work as a pastor, what I do each day as a teacher seems remarkably ordinary. And I’d be lying if I said that doesn’t occasionally leave me feeling empty and unfulfilled.
Every now and then, a student in class will ask me, “Mr. Humphrey, did you always want to be an English teacher?” I can’t help but wince as I process the question, thinking back to what I envisioned for myself when I was leading student Bible studies as a teenager, or writing theology papers as a seminarian, or teaching Sunday school classes as a youth minister, or strategizing in staff meetings as a preacher, or casting a compelling vision as a church planter.
But even though this was never my dream, right now it’s my reality. And maybe this reality is exactly what I need.
As difficult as it might be, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the healthiest thing for my emotional well-being is to have a job that doesn’t dictate my entire identity. After a lifetime of thinking that one’s work only mattered if it involved being God’s personally chosen ambassador and spokesperson, I have lots of ideological garbage to purge from my system. I’m long overdue for a vocational detox.
That’s my goal for this next chapter of my career. I’m committed to extricating myself from the lies that I’ve been brainwashed into believing about who I am and why I matter.
Since leaving the ministry, I’ve spent countless hours scouring job postings wherever I could find them, I’ve applied to (and been rejected by) dozens of employers both near and far, and I’ve even given way too much money to a career coach who sent me on my way with nothing of value beyond a cheesy smile and the empty promise of his signature motto: “You’re kind of a big deal!”
But the irony is that thinking of myself as “kind of a big deal” is precisely what landed me in this crisis to begin with. I used to be “kind of a big deal” – or at least, that’s what I deluded myself into thinking. But it turns out that I’m just “kind of a big mess,” sitting here after nearly four decades of life with nothing more than a seminary degree, a handful of sermons I mostly don’t believe in, and a professional resume that’s about as useful as a grocery store receipt.
There’s still a long way to go before I rewire all the faulty ways of thinking about being a “normal” person working a “normal” job. But here’s what I know so far: I don’t need to be a big deal. I don’t need to save anyone, inspire anyone, or become anyone’s spiritual guru. My life can have purpose even if my work doesn’t have eternal implications.
The fact is, my days are still overflowing with meaning. More so than ever. It’s just that now, the most important things shaping my identity don’t have a job title or a paycheck attached to them. They’re part of the average, everyday fabric of a remarkably unremarkable life: family, nature, movement, art, relationships, ideas, beauty, spiritual curiosity.
What’s funny is that these things have always been there, sitting right beneath my nose. I’ve just been too caught up in saving the world to pay attention.
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