April 4, 2020

Adam McHugh on the Aftermath of Ministry

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Note from CM: A couple of years ago, I called Adam McHugh my “doppelganger.” Reading his stuff and corresponding with him, I felt a true kindred spirit. Recently, I discovered that he’s had some significant changes in his life, once more going through experiences to which I can easily relate. I encourage you to go to his blog, Adam S. McHugh, and read more, but first join me in thanking Adam for allowing us to re-post this piece, which captures some of his thoughts about leaving vocational ministry and the wilderness journey that entails.

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Adam McHughThe Aftermath of Ministry
by Adam McHugh

I have a friend whose family moved from Virginia to California when she was young. For at least 5 years after the move, her mother introduced herself in this way: “Hello, I’m Lesley. We just moved here from Virginia.”

These days I’m tempted to introduce myself like this: “Hello, I’m Adam. I used to be a pastor.”

I haven’t been in professional ministry for 4 months now, but life these days mostly feels like pastoral aftermath. Historically speaking, D-Day gets all the recognition, but there was still a year of fighting to go until Germany surrendered. I guess D-Day for my ministry was February 27th, but the great battle continues.

I didn’t expect this. I thought I had already done most of the work of transition in the year leading up to my last day. I didn’t leave because of disillusionment or controversy. I left because my dreams and my vision for the future changed. I had a big dream of moving to wine country, training to be a sommelier (French for “wine douche”) and writing about wine, place, the idyllic countryside, and the transition from big town urban to small town rural.

Currently, I divide my time between two places: wine country on the California central coast and Los Angeles, the two parts of my life united by the 101 freeway. And that is exactly how my life feels: divided.  Detaching from an old life is not as simple as driving 3 hours north on the freeway, as much as I wish it were, but I also don’t feel as though I’m returning to that old life when I drive south. If anything I feel most at home now on the 101, in that in-between place. I guess you can get out of the wilderness in one day, but it takes much longer to get the wilderness out of you.

Part of why I was ready to leave ministry is that I didn’t want my job to change the conversation. I didn’t want my handshake to communicate “I’m different from you.” I want to be thought of first as a human being, a man struggling to find happiness and love and meaningful work, just like every other person in the world. And that is happening, but you know what? A little part of me misses the reverence. When I was a hospice chaplain, people would literally hush when I walked into a hospital room. It made me stand out. It made me feel a little bit special. It made me feel like people recognized I had a contribution to make. People don’t do that anymore. My role and position no longer distinguish me. Now people don’t immediately start opening up to me. I have to prove to them that I am a good listener first.

The hospice analogy works, because I am grieving loss. A few weeks ago, I sold most of my biblical commentaries. I had around 100, and now I have about 25. It’s not because I don’t care about the Bible anymore, but it’s because I don’t have the drive or interest to read a 20 page excursus on a Greek phrase anymore. I used to stay up late reading the New Testament in Greek. Now my Greek New Testament gathers dust as I read fiction or Wine Spectator. And I feel guilty and a little lost about that. The “shoulds” are still there. I should be translating Greek and Hebrew. I should be reading all the latest theology books. I should be able to converse easily on the New Perspective on Paul. I should be devouring all the blog posts.

But the desire just isn’t there, and I believe in listening to the actual desires that we have rather than trying to tell ourselves what desires to have. I am detaching from old desires and attaching to new ones, exhaling the old version of me and inhaling the new one. Adam the pastor is being replaced by Adam the sommelier, or better, Adam the human. My vocation is changing. But the process is painful and it feels like a war.

Sometimes when I tell people I used to be a pastor, they ask, “So are you not a Christian anymore?” That response always takes me aback, but I can’t deny that my faith is changing, and sometimes it really does feel as though I am losing my faith. For the last 15 years I expressed my faith through the exercise of pastoral ministry. That was the primary medium for my discipleship and spiritual formation. It no longer is. And when you untangle your faith from your professional role, things start to unravel.

I’ll be honest: right now I don’t know how to participate in church. I don’t know what to pray for. I don’t know what questions to ask. I don’t even always know how to talk. And this sounds dramatic, but I have lost some sense of the meaning of life. What is my purpose? What do I get up for every morning? What am I trying to accomplish? God was relatively easy to find in church work and campus ministry and hospice, but where is God when I’m pouring wine and talking about soil type?

Fortunately, God has been in wine ever since Jesus said “this is my blood,” and that is largely why I am doing this new work, but my identity, my understanding of work, how I practice my spirituality, and how I relate to people are all changing dramatically, to the point that I have stopped recognizing myself.

I’m Adam and I used to be a pastor. I don’t know yet who I will be next.

Comments

  1. How to participate in church… “Take and eat…”

    How to pray…don’t worry about it for “we don’t pray as we ought”, anyway. But the Spirit intercedes for us.

    Have a great time in your new vocation and go up to the Daou winery in Paso Robles and take in that great view and sip some of their wonderful Zin for me.

    God will continue to use you wherever you go and whatever you do. You can’t get off the hook that easily 😀

  2. Lamentably, all of this would probably make him an excellent pastor.

    But yeah, it must get tough to have everybody shut up when you walk by, and never get invited to any of the card games.

    • +1 Exactly. I read:

      “I’ll be honest: right now I don’t know how to participate in church. I don’t know what to pray for. I don’t know what questions to ask… What is my purpose? What do I get up for every morning? What am I trying to accomplish?”

      – and I think welcome-to-REAL-life. This describes, I believe, the majority of well-intentioned people in the West. We/they serve industry because that is the means to a livelihood; but laborious or corporate jobs aren’t big on the meaning. I remember the quote “Most people don’t get to have careers, they just have jobs”. So you spend 40-50 hours every week doing something menial in an entirely replaceable way [purposefully replaceable, corporations do not want irreplaceable people]. And 9 out of 10 people you meet have no interest in what you do with the majority of your waking hours – possibly you yourself don’t either.

      But we’ll be subjected to another sermonette about meaning by someone who does ‘meaning’ for a living.

      • “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.”” -George Carlin (some attribute it to Drew Carey… seems to sound more like Carlin, though.)

  3. Christiane says

    if ADAM ever gets the urge to ‘ora’ along with his ‘labora’,
    there is a monastery in the northern CA wine country called the Abbey of New Clairvaux where the monks make wine. Adam could go for a visit (visitors are very welcomed and they have facilities for them to stay)

    . . . it might help to ease his ‘transition’ from the religious life to a place of soil and grapevines and sun
    . . . or, as Mule has implied, Adam may discover that his new life is far more connected to his old life than he had realized

    . . . when a man hears God call his name and he responds . . . his journey can only get better and better

    http://www.newclairvaux.org/virtual-tour.html

  4. When one thinks wrongly about God or wrongly about who God says he/she is, this is perhaps a faith worth losing. I suspect Adam will grow better in the soil than under the soles (souls) of men. Bravo for this bold move and the experience of freedom in God’s love that enables Adam to share these intimate thoughts! May he continue to grow in grace.

    Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit [a]of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5.

  5. Pursuing a new dream can be disconcerting, especially when it appears to be totally disassociated from the prior vocation.

    A wilderness is a necessary transition, though it’s not meant to be a permanent abode.

  6. I can relate to Adam, I reached a point in my life when I had to unlearn theology, withdraw from Christian circles to find myself, to find Jesus. I was filled to the brim with Bible studies, watching Christian programs, Christian radio and was deeply unsatisfied, I watched a movie about Jesus and found no correlation with what I had been devouring to His message and him, I had become fearful, isolated, guarded but I saw him as free, honest, intense. I had to go away, if I did not then I would lose him, that was how i felt at the time. God wanted more from me, wanted to show me more of him.

  7. Been there. I actually left vocational ministry 4 years ago, and frankly, I think I’m a better pastor because of it. I had grown increasingly frustrated as a pastor. I left my full-time “secular” career for part-time pastor’s salary, and life…spiritual and otherwise…spiraled downward. I found myself angry while attending worship services; at fellow pastors for not having solid work ethic, not using money wisely, not having foresight when making decisions that affected their congregations, not using church discipline properly, etc.

    Having left vocational ministry, I’ve found myself able to actually enjoy pastoral ministry.

    I get asked to do weddings for couples who don’t have churches or pastors willing to do them, which gives me opportunity to develop relationships with them through pre-marital counseling. I married one couple whose pastor refused to marry them because they lived together for 8 months prior to their wedding. Ain’t that a kicker? Pastors tell us we ought to get married, then refuse to do a wedding because it would “set a bad example for the congregation”. By the way, this same pastor had “led someone to the Lord”, and had him give his testimony at a huge church event. He wept as he talked about how Jesus had set him free from addiction. All the while, his pregnant girlfriend, whom he lived with at the time, never married, and eventually abandoned her and the child, was sitting on the front row. Talk about mixed messages. I gave the wounded couple that I counseled a clear message…”Christ loves you as you are, not as you should be” (Thanks, Brennan Manning).

    I’ve been asked to do funerals for families without a pastor, and counsel them through their grief. I’ve been asked to do funerals for several older folks, whose churches and new pastors had forgotten them. I considered it an honor, and put a great deal of time and effort into spending time with their families, and preparing appropriate, personal eulogies.

    I’ve been invited to speak at InterVarsity at the University of Georgia, and actually had time to accept the invitations and speak to them.

    I’ve written and taught courses on spiritual things that really matter to me, not things that I hope will draw a crowd.

    I’ve blogged more, and developed relationships with some good folks through that forum.

    I’ve spent time with my baby girls, without worrying about who’s going to knock on my door at 11:00PM, wanting to drop off an unruly teenager for pastoral counseling about his grades in school (Yeah, it happened…).

    I’ve wrapped myself less in the business affairs of the church, and more in the mystery. Steve Martin made the comment of the day on how to participate in church…”Take and eat”.

    And I haven’t had one phone call complaining about music choices in years .

    I wish you much luck on your journey, but don’t think for a minute that pastoral life is over, just because vocational ministry might be gone. It’s just starting….

    • Lee, your post has “KINGDOM” written large, all over it. I don’t think GOD prefers one class of pastors (vocational or not) over another, but your non-vocational role puts you in such a great place or freedom to meet needs that might go unmet otherwise. I thank you (as one who has had a brother, and then my dad die recently) for your pastoral role with funerals and grieving. What a great need.

      Glad to see “HIS Kingdom come” in such tangible ways.

  8. Pastor Bill Metzger says

    Mike Yaconelli used to say that in our jobs we prostitute ourselves for forty hours a week so we can have the freedom to do what we really want. And he was “called” to be a lay pastor. Henri Nouwen use to say,”I am not what I do, I am not what I have, and I am not what people think of me”. We tend to derive our identities from what we DO for a living. We become human-doers instead of human-beings. After spending 30 years in parish ministry, I, too, wonder what it would be like to “not be a pastor anymore”. Would it affect how I go about the spiritual disciplines every day? Would it affect where and how often I would worship? Would it affect my marriage and family life? I don’t know. And that’s scary! Am I a Christian because I am a Christian “professionally”? Wow. My two cents! Galatians 2:20

    • I think it would affect you, it certainly did me. In ministry I practiced the disciplines of prayer, bible reading, fasting, meditation, corporate worship, personal worship, etc. I did these to remain sharp as part of the job. But I haven’t practiced these as “disciplines” for many years now. I do still rise at 5:45 to meet with God every morning. Usually it is for Bible study and prayer, but sometimes it is just listening to music, hanging out, singing to Him, or even yelling at Him. I still fast too, but now it is when my heart is moved by someone in need. I still do most of those things just no longer as disciplines. Now they are more like tools of survival. I like how Adam said “I believe in listening to the actual desires that we have rather than trying to tell ourselves what desires to have.” That sums up one of the biggest changes in my post-ministry life.

  9. Joseph (the original) says

    Adam: what an amazing ‘shift’ on your spiritual journey. But I do think it is quite an interesting one…

    I am a much ‘older’ graduate student @ Cal Poly, SLO. I have returned after 30 years to pursue my MS Degree in Agribusiness with an emphasis in wine marketing. If you are ever in the Paso Robles/San Luis Obispo wine country, I would enjoy getting together with you over some glasses of fine wine & discuss the change in course & the merits of wine.

    Anyway, what a great way to discuss all things theological and/or enological…

    saude!

  10. Excellent piece of writing, Adam. I run a forklift and process packages/freight for a living. I’m coming after your job…. kidding (sort of). I’m a fairly quick learner, and the wife LOVES the CA wine country….. maybe an apprenticeship ?? I think you are heading for a great place, both personally and within the KINGDOM. The conversations I had this morning with my taekwondo instructor would NOT have happened if I were a professional christian of any type (he was telling me about the zen of martial arts).

    Breathe deep, and enjoy, bro.

  11. “I’m Adam and I used to be a pastor. I don’t know yet who I will be next.”

    You are a missionary. An ambassador.

  12. Powerful post that resonates deeply. I left professional church ministry in the late 90’s and it took 6-7 years before I was no longer the guy who “used to be a pastor.” I think that I finally put that identity to rest when I truly gave up on the idea of ever going back into professional ministry.

    I still remember the dramatic change the first few years. There was a spiritual weight or constraint upon me in church ministry that I didn’t even know was there until it was gone. It was both freeing and scary to live without it. I started enjoying strong drink and a good smoke again for the first time since being a rebellious teen. But it took a while for me to find balance and purpose in my post-ministry life.

    People I meet now would never guess that I used to pastor and more than one person from my old church who have friended me on FaceBook have quickly defriended me expressing how disappointed they are in what I’ve become 🙂 Funny thing is, it is usually the church ladies. The guys actually relate better to me now. But I feel closer to God than ever, and more authentic as a person too.

    Yep, I can relate, Adam. It is a hard journey but well worth it. Being “called to ministry” doesn’t always mean getting paid by a Christian organization.

  13. The Boiler Guy says

    Reading stuff like this really gets under my skin. Here is a guy that had the opportunity, at least I assume, to go to seminary, maybe even move to the surrounding area of that seminary, and then go on into ministry. There are those who, to be honest like myself and a few that I know, would love to have gone to seminary and either gone into pastoral or academic (or both) roles. If he really want to find his place in the church, it could be to seek out and find men who have a desire and need help in transitioning out of a house and job to go back to grad school to pursue seminary education.

    • If he really want to find his place in the church, it could be to seek out and find men who have a desire and need help in transitioning out of a house and job to go back to grad school to pursue seminary education.

      But why should that burden be on his shoulders? I’m not exactly sure what he could do anyway… The stuff involved in the issue you raise seems like something that’s a huge systemic issue that’s going to take a lot of change on the part of seminaries.

      It seems to me that the issue of a person walking away from a profession they were trained for isn’t something that only pastors have to deal with. I know people who’ve gotten graduate degrees in a field only to find out it’s not really what they want to do. I think it’s probably a bit different for pastors simply because it’s so much of identification thing. Other than doctors or congressman, most people aren’t always identified by their job title.

    • Boiler Guy, you sound angry about the choices another man has made. Without arguing, may I suggest that continuing your education – even without benefit of seminary – is a choice and an option? It is part of what I’ve been doing much of my life now, as I want to draw closer to God – and the basics of Christianity don’t need a degree. No M.Div required to treat others as we’d like to be treated, or to feed the hungry, visit the sick or imprisoned or infirm, no doctorate in theology needed to clothe the naked. As a matter of fact, most of the ordained folks writing here would probably *love* a break from some of the crap things that go with the job of “pastor”.

      Just a thought or two… 🙂

  14. Pastor Bill Metzger says

    TBD- Ah, the joys of being a LUTHERAN pastor. I STILL enjoy drink and a fine briar pipe filled with an expensive cavendish blend. Don’t need to leave the pulpit/altar for that! 🙂

  15. Adam, where on the Central Coast? My aunt’s vineyard is in the Santa Rita Hills, west of Buellton.

    • Steve – I am working at Sandhi Wines in Los Olivos, which sources fruit exclusively from the Santa Rita Hills.

      • Oh my….. the job lust….. I might poke my eye out, but I’m leaving the tongue… the LORD give you everything, and more, that you need in your new adventure. My Trader Joe’s $2 cab just isn’t cutting it…

  16. I’m not in professional ministry. After reading Adam’s post and all the comments above, I thought about someone I know here (not US) who’d said “I could have been the senior pastor”… a young (early 40’s) pastor with a master degree planning for a PhD, and trying to move up the ladder. And I thought that he probably should live more and not do more. Thank you for sharing this post here, C. Mike.

  17. Perhaps neither here nor there, but here goes:

    While listening to a story on NPR last night regarding professional sports, the commentator said something to the effect regarding commissoner Bud Selig: the NFL needs a mentor, not a vice president.

    I couldn’t help but think of conversations here at iMonk regarding pastors being replaced with religious marketing executives. This is still an issue of vocation, but perhaps about religious vocations being demeaned as much as “secular”. A pastor can’t be what he is called to be. Perhaps its the result of the same “on fire” cancer plaguing evangelicalism, that no matter who you are or what you are doing, it’s not good enough. I can understand being dillusioned and walking away from a religious calling under such ridiculous burdens, but this pragmatic, overly peitistic radicalism dehumanizes pastor and parisioner alike.

    We need a new (or perhaps return to an old) Christian Humanism which affirms humanity as God’s creature, where we glorify God by being who we are, rather than by wearing a mask. It seems to be a symptom of the same condition in which God found Adam and Eve when they were hiding in the garden behind fig leaves.

  18. Been there.
    Have the T-shirt.
    And the scars from sheep bites.

    I would recommend to the author to run out and purchase a book called: Lost in the Middle – Midlife and the Grace of God. God used this book to start the process of rebuilding my relationship with Him instead of just going to church because I was supposed to.

  19. Off topic, Adam, but other than your book (which is on my hot list, Kindle/wise) which other works on introversion and the church do you recommend ?? Thanks for completing your book, I’m sure that was a mountain to climb.

  20. I have been struggling for the last few years about the idea of a special “call” to ministry. I think I understand it, and can even see some benefits of emphasizing it. But most of those benefits are pragmatic. I’m not sure I can make a biblical case for it. This is a very personal thing for me as I wonder about stepping back from the pulpit (huge identity factor in my life) and going into some kind of parachurch work or some kind of business. I dream about the relief from certain obligations and expectations that come with the job. But then, I wonder, will I simply be replacing them with other issues and challenges I will be too old to adapt to? And where does calling come into this, if it is a legitimate concern?

    DSY

  21. Having spent some time in church work, I can tell you that I couldn’t wait to get out. I have a dear friend who is married to a full-time pastor, and I am sure that she would like nothing more than for him to come home one day with a plan on how to stop being a clergyman and start being just a regular human being.

    I say Good Luck, Adam, and God bless!