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10 Lessons Learned on Life after Pastoral Ministry

One day, I was engaging the work of a pastor – still, after 30 years or so, trying to figure it out week by week and sometimes day by day.
Then, the next day, I was an expert. I moved from the parish ministry to the seminary classroom, the “Professor of Pastoral Leadership.”

I pondered what I had learned over those years that might be of benefit to these young students.

A few months into the new role, I was invited to address a group of pastors from a very different perspective – not about what I had learned in the pastorate, but what I was learning about the pastorate from being out of it.

It does all look different from the pew, to tell the truth. So, here are 10 things I’m learning about pastoral ministry by no longer being the pastor of a congregation.

1.  Community is not to be taken for granted.
I had no clue as to the challenge people are up against when they come to our churches. They find friendly people, but those friendly people already have friends.

Many Sundays we found ourselves staring at each other after worship. “Where do you want to go eat?”

“I don’t know; where do you want to go?”

The friendly people who smiled and shook our hands to welcome us had gone on to eat with their real friends.

How many times had I done the same thing as I met new people at our church? How hard had new members had to work to find their way into the warm fellowship that we took for granted? How many didn’t have the perseverance?

2.  The work done on preaching is time well-spent.
It is a comfort to know that when my pastor takes the pulpit, he comes prepared with something I need to hear from Scripture. It means a lot to me that such careful, prayerful work has been done.

3.  There are saner ways of living life than the intensity of pastoral ministry.
Much of the way pastors carry out our calling is unsustainable. The academic rhythm of life is much saner. I’m just saying: Were I to do it over, I would work on greater sanity.

4.  Our lay leaders are paying a price to engage in ministry leadership.
We need to introduce some sanity into what we ask of them as well. I have come to know what it is as a church member to show up at the end of a long day to participate in a ministry that is not my “job” when what I would really like to do is to go home.

5.  Having a pastor is a good thing.
I had that with some co-workers to some degree, but I have appreciated being able to sit down with “my pastor” and talk about life and God, to know I have been prayed for.

This knowledge has infused my previous work as a pastor with meaning in a fresh way.

6.  The most important things about being a pastor are easily squeezed out of my life and schedule by the demands of the organization.
That was more difficult to see from the inside – how much time and energy goes into supporting an organization and responding or reacting to consumers who call themselves church members. Theological reflection on ministry was often set aside.

7.  I really like not being in charge of everything.
Not that I was really in charge of everything, but I do know that I felt a weight of responsibility for the success of what we were doing together. My kingdom is much smaller now, and that is OK with me.

8.  God is at work in many places that were totally outside my range of vision.
I knew God to be at work in our congregation, but I have had the privilege of being in a variety of different settings over the past four years and have seen God’s activity in small congregation in cities, in rural areas, in county seat towns.

I have witnessed God’s work in the lives of seminary students. I have gained a broader perspective on church than I lived with as a congregational pastor.

9.  How one leaves a congregation may be a contribution to its future.
I was intentional about my leaving and hoped that I did it well. The congregation, staff and my successor have done a remarkable job of forming a partnership in the gospel. I’m grateful that I didn’t mess that up.

10.  Pastoral fellowship is not to be taken for granted.

Pastors in Houston, for example, are particularly blessed with the opportunity for sharing life and ministry with each other. That experience motivated me to find that here, and I have had some success.

Robert Creech is professor of pastoral leadership at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Prior to joining the Truett faculty, he served as the senior pastor at University Baptist Church in Houston for 22 years. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, The Journey Continues, and is used with permission.