Four things I learned from flaming out in ministry

When I left my full time job at a church to start my own business, it was framed in a way that was positive. I was going after my dreams and other fluffy things that made me feel good and made people I knew proud of me.

It took me a while to admit to myself what really happened. I wanted to be the hero and control the story of my own life. I wanted people to think I had it all together.

The truth was I’d had a horrible 18 months after a leadership change and had been (deservedly) all but fired. Saying you quit your job after your pay was going to be cut 25% is a lot less sexy than saying you’re chasing after a dream.

But once I admitted to myself what happened, a weird thing started happening: pieces of anger, guilt, and embarrassment started to come to the surface and then fade away. By admitting and owning what actually happened, I was able to go through the grieving process that any failure brings. It’s now almost two years since the meeting where I found out my life as I knew it was ending. In the months since, here are a few things I’ve learned:

Jesus cares more about you than your ministry.

This was a hard one to come to grasps with. I’d spent 4.5 years doing everything I could to be as successful in ministry as I could be. I read the books, followed the influential leaders, and worked my butt off to make an impact in whatever way I could.

Not long after I was told of the decision, I was driving the back roads home from work and I broke down. I felt like I’d failed God, my wife, and myself. We were six weeks pregnant, had bought a house the year before, and I’m losing my job. The weight of it all crashed on me and I started crying.

It was in that moment on those back roads that Jesus put his arm around me and told me what he really thought of me. He loved me despite my professional failure. He was proud of my effort even when misguided. Most of all, he wanted me to know he cares more for who I am than for what I can do for him.

People you were close to will leave.

Out of site out of mind is something I’d heard of but never completely experienced. For a month or two after I left my church, not much changed. But as time went by and we began to move on, many of those relationships did too. At first I was bitter about this, mainly because flaming out is already lonely enough. But then I realized there was no ill will behind it and began to accept it. It’s still sad, and I miss many of those friendships, but those things happen in a breakup. The quicker I accepted this as normal and not personal, the easier it was to move on.

Some ideas don’t fit your context.

After I was coached off staff, I began to question my ideas and strategies. After all, my clinging to them partially led to my dismissal. Was what I thought was most effective for reaching people wrong? It’s one thing to not have success. It’s a whole different level of humiliating to be incompetent.

About nine months after I left my position, I went to a church conference. While there, I heard leader after leader from the most influential churches in the country reinforce some of the ideas I had. It was there that I realized my ideas weren’t wrong, they were just wrong for the context of my old church. There’s a huge difference in those two things and learning it led to a renewed passion for what I do.

Past mistakes can be future catalysts.

When I left my church, I thought my career in ministry was done. I was just another statistic of a hot shot who screwed up and couldn’t hack it.

In reality, those mistakes have been the catalyst to the successes I’m having now. I never could’ve imagined working with a church of 5000 in Singapore, or helping four church plants launch within the same year, or being a resource for over 40 churches. I thought I was a failure. In reality I had failed, but I had learned from that failure. By putting those lessons to use, I’ve been able to bounce back in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of.

Flaming out in ministry hurt at a level completely different than anything I’d ever experienced. It was personal and spiritual rolled together with a side of relational to go with it. It’s taken close to 22 months just to get to the point where I can publicly talk about it. I know there is more to learn from this journey along with more healing to experience, but I wanted to write this to encourage anyone who has been, is in, or will ever be in the position I was in.

It’s hard; but it’s worth it.

It hurts; but it’ll heal.

It’s embarrassing; but you’ll get through it.

You are more than the sum of your past mistakes.

Be honest with yourself, embrace where you are, and refuse to not bounce back.

The best is yet to come.

Say your prayers and take your vitamins.

Have a nice day.

-Jonathan

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