“In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.” Thomas Merton
As awful as 2020 was, for me, 2019 was even worse. That year, on the day before my 53rd birthday, I reluctantly said goodbye to the congregation I had served for the previous six years. As a pastor, I had failed.
This is the first time I’ve reflected publicly on that experience, and, to be honest, I do so with fear and trepidation. Fear, because I cannot control how others who were involved in my departure might react to me speaking up at this time. And trepidation because I’m still in process. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. I’m still trying to forgive those who were connected to my loss. And I’m still healing from the trauma of it all. In light of this, I approach this telling of the story from a place of humility rather than finality. This is a waypoint, not an endpoint, and my intention is to tell my story of grief and grace as honestly as I can at this point in my journey.
There have been a lot of dark days since I was asked to leave the church. Even so, in this journey of soul-searching, repentance, and healing, I can say I know God is leading me where I need to go. I’ve seen enough grace in the deconstruction of my vocational identity that my heart trends toward hope, and I look forward to becoming more of the man I am created to be. I came to the church in the summer of 2013, along with my wife and three school-age children, after a six-year stint of doctoral study in Aberdeen, Scotland. I had moved to Cascadia to serve a thriving congregation as their Associate Pastor for Adult Discipleship.
For the first 2-3 years, I seemed to be in my element. However, as time went on and the responsibilities of my position continued to expand, the pressures of my role left me stretched thin and emotionally drained, always struggling to keep up. At the same time, occasional conflicts erupted between me and other staff members, mostly over differences in leadership style and ministry priorities. Even though I loved my job, my work seemed to hold me back from a different part of me that yearned to write and teach for the broader Church beyond my congregation.
Yet I was determined to bury my vocational ambivalence (even though I am sure some of my colleagues could sense it) and to be the best pastor I could be. The harder I strove to excel at everything, the more my ministry and my work relationships seemed to suffer. In my more honest moments, I recognized my work was being driven less and less by love and increasingly by the fear of failure—and fear of not being enough. My identity had always been tied to a need to be ‘good’ and for others to think of me as such. As a pastor, I was also aware congregations hold high expectations of their leaders which are often unrealistic. I felt deeply the internal and external pressure to perform adequately in every area of life and work to live up to the hopes and expectations held by myself and others.
With my nose to the grindstone, I ignored all the warning signs and soldiered on . . . that is, until my coworkers began telling me my partnership with them wasn’t working. Though I knew there were many frustrations, never had it crossed my mind that I would actually lose my job. But eventually the lead pastor told me he thought I should start looking for other work. Two months later I would announce my resignation to the congregation, and two months after that I would be on my way.
Disorientation and resistance to loss
During this season, it was hard to think clearly. My analytical mind was constantly receiving interference from the messy mix of emotions that wanted airtime. When I wasn’t consumed with a sense of injustice and grievance over the process (“This is wrong!”), I had a growing sense that God was calling me away from the church (“This is right”). These two truths felt incompatible, and yet there they were. Eventually I came to see: My demand to be right – my need to be justified – was keeping me from hearing God’s still small voice. I was Elijah outside his cave, only interested in hearing the logic of my own voice. I was Jonah outside Nineveh, cycling through my complaints and fixated on what I thought justice should look like. As the days passed into weeks and the weeks into months, I reluctantly came to recognize, in spite of my resistance, the difficult truth that my exit from church ministry had been necessary – maybe for the sake of the church but for my own sake as well.
The fact is, the way I’d been pastoring had become self-destructive. I’d gotten stuck on a carousel of performance that was spinning too fast for me to get off. In my classes and sermons, I would teach others the importance of having our identity grounded in Christ—and yet I had hitched my own identity to my job. Failure was not an option; I was my work. The unspoken, unadmitted logic in my head ran like this: If I fail to do well at work, then I am not good, and failure to be good at work means I myself am a failure. If I needed to be a closet workaholic in order to protect myself from the shame of failure, then so be it.
Discovering my voice
During this time, a friend and theological mentor said to me (with an enthusiasm I did not share at the time), “This may be the most important thing to ever happen in your relationship with God. None of your many years of theological study will help you to help others . . . unless the God you talk about personally meets you inside the abyss of your own darkness.” While a part of me hoped there might be an alternative interpretation of my circumstances, I knew deep down that what he was saying was true. And I had to acknowledge: If my theology can’t help me here and now—in this awful place—then I might as well go find another profession that actually helps people. I recognized I would need to come to terms with what it really means to find my identity in Christ—even if at the time I didn’t know from experience what that looked like. What I did know was the false self I’d invested in building over a lifetime would need to be put to death, so my true self could somehow discover freedom.
It is strange how difficult such a simple thing as “being yourself” can be—that something so apparently self-evident would turn out to be the work of a lifetime. Those aspects of myself which I used to view as signs of weakness, deserving of shame, I am now learning to embrace as opportunities to be loved by God. As I allow myself to be found in him, “holy and blameless face to face with him in his love,” as Paul put it, I am gradually coming to find myself. And that has required the hardest thing of all, as it turns out: accepting myself as I really am and was created to be.
I’ve been in therapy for 20 months now, and little by little I’m learning what it takes to know that freedom and acceptance. I am learning how to pay attention to my life with curiosity rather than judgement, with compassion rather than condemnation, and with more grace and less shame. On good days, I find enough courage to face the fears that drive me toward self-protection and self-promotion. And when the inner voices push me to perform for the expectations of others, rather than pretend I can’t hear them, I’ve learned to listen to them—to acknowledge them—and then to walk them to the door.
Life after loss
As I reflect on the last two years, I find myself, surprisingly, filled with gratitude more often than not. For me, that’s progress. With the Apostle Paul I am learning to say, “Where sin (pain, struggle, suffering) increased, grace abounded all the more.” Yes, I lost my job—and experienced all the rejection, betrayal, shame, and disrespect that came with the loss. Yet in its place I’ve discovered the field that holds the prized treasure—my true self. When my true self is dominant, I am less motivated by the false self’s need for approval and able to accept myself as I am with all of my unique gifts and flaws. As I have dug around in the dirt of this field, I am able to recognize all the ways I have been accompanied by Jesus, who has been teaching me what it means to be a beloved child of his Father.
This is not to suggest all my questions are settled. I continue to have lingering questions about decisions, actions, processes, and motives. I am too often tempted to ruminate on it all in a fruitless attempt to sharpen and clarify all the grey lines. And I can sometimes make an idol out of my desire for resolution. Yet when I hold on to the truth that not all that goes sideways in this world has a rational or coherent explanation, I am free to meet God in the mystery of things as they are. And I figure if I can do that, then maybe I can also learn to see myself as a mystery—to be regarded with wonder and curiosity rather than as a problem to be solved. As I learn to approach life this way (in fits and starts, mind you), I am discovering a new kind of peace. Not the peace of certainty and clarity, but the peace of friendship with God who transforms even my solitude into community with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
I also continue to have questions about my identity; I still wonder “Who am I if I’m not a pastor?” As the grace of living one day at a time unfolds, new possibilities and unanticipated opportunities have appeared. I’ve begun to explore my vocational yearnings to support the Church on a broader systemic level—and have done some writing and some conference speaking. In these tentative efforts I’ve found some hope. About a year after leaving the church, just after COVID shut everything down, I found part-time employment as a hospital chaplain. To my surprise, it is work I enjoy quite a lot. The job requires me to support people as they are confronted by loss and trauma . . . and while their pain is often more severe than anything I’ve ever experienced, I have found my own losses help me to be present and empathic in ways that would not have been possible a couple years ago.
And yet, while a respected, decently-paying job (with a title) is a wonderful blessing, I am very conscious of the fact that it would be easy to fall back into the same old trap by trading one self-justifying idol for another. I am sometimes tempted to grasp at titles and accolades that will make me seem ‘legitimate’ in the public eye. In these moments, I remind myself that my new and deepest aspiration is actually to be fully alive and free. So, I am slowly learning to be comfortable with other people’s discomfort with my ‘non-traditional’ vocational status. And when they say to me, “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” I say in my heart (and sometimes out loud), “I’m where I need to be right now.”
Last year a friend shared an image that has helped me to frame my story. It is something Gregory of Nyssa learned from his sister and teacher, Macrina, about the journey of the human soul toward God. The human soul is like a rope, she told him, and the length of that rope is the timeline of our lives. Yet this rope has become caked with mud from all the ways the world has deluded, discolored, and deformed us. Undeterred, God in his love pulls this rope inexorably toward himself through a narrow hole exactly the size of our true self. As we pass through that narrow hole, all that is false and loveless is scraped away, and we are freed to become the selves in Christ that God created us to be.
I am comforted by this image of the rope. In those times when I find myself struggling to hold it all together, it is Love who holds me. In this life I may still be a muddy rope, but I am being faithfully and patiently drawn by Love who will never let go.
 Ephesians 1:4
 Romans 5:20
 Matthew 13:44-46
 Gregory shares Macrina’s teachings on spiritual life in his book On the Soul and the Resurrection.