New name, same story.
Another well-known pastor of a megachurch stepped away in order to pursue an independent ministry.
This time it was Rob Bell, author and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. Preceding him in like manner were Brian McLaren, Francis Chan, Jim Belcher and N.T. Wright.
No scandal for any of them, just the choice to pursue writing, speaking or leading separate from the local church.
There can be little doubt that such moves can be the direct call of God. They can also be choices that may be regretted. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose-Driven Life tweeted of Bell’s decision, “Speaking tours feed the ego. All applause & no responsibility. It’s an unreal world. A church gives accountability & validity.”
As some of you know, I’ve got a little experience with this.
I experienced every pastor’s secret dream. Or at least the secret dream of a lot of pastors.
Most of us loved seminary. We loved learning, and idolized our professors. What a life they had! Teaching and writing and reflecting on ministry and God and the Bible and the church, without the headaches of weddings, deacon’s meetings, raising money or dealing with how regularly Sundays always seem to come.
Our secret fantasy? To be offered a job at a seminary. To teach, and escape. And if we let our fantasy get really out of this world, it would be to be named the president of one.
It happened to me.
And like many of you might have, I said “yes.”
Then I resigned in less than two years and came back to the church I had left.
And I am so glad.
In the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey got a chance to see what life would be like if he had never lived. In like manner, I was given a chance to see what life would be like without serving as the pastor of a church.
George Bailey learned he wanted to live again.
So did I.
This is not meant to be disparaging to those who are called to serve in seminaries as professors or administrators. But for those of us who are called to ministry in the local church, please hear me say: no other vocational pursuit will satisfy.
If you are really called, then nothing else you will ever try and do will satiate your drive.
I know it’s tough.
I know there are days you want to quit.
My advice? Don’t. If you do, you’ll wish you could go back. I’ve never met anyone yet who did get out of the game who remained glad they did.
You will miss getting a terrific idea for a talk or a series, and have the ability to develop it and teach it.
You will miss coming upon a nugget of scriptural insight, tethered to language and historical insights, and not be able to share it.
You will miss living in full community with others – young and old, married and single, believer and seeker, black and white.
You will miss being a leader, chasing dreams and building a kingdom vision that reflect the comprehensive vision of the church, and being free to pursue it with all vigor and energy without barrier.
You will miss being on the front lines of impacting lives – not just talking about life-change, but seeing it, experiencing it, making it happen as you cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Simply put, if you are a practitioner, and not a theoretician, you will miss the practice.
I caught something on TV one summer that riveted me. It was a one-hour program on the Hawaiian Open Iron Man Triathlon. If you aren't familiar with that event, it is the premier triathlon competition in the world. And it deserves its name. It involves a swim in the open ocean of over two miles, followed by over one-hundred miles of biking, ending with a full marathon run.
What grabbed me wasn't the competition itself, but the stories of the people involved, their strength of will, their fight to the finish. One of the individuals profiled was a woman named Lynn Brooks. She was competing in her nineteenth Ironman.
She talked how one year, during the marathon leg of the competition, she left the race and entered an aid tent by the side of the road. Her body was aching, her emotions were drained, and the desire to stop - to just end it all there - was overpowering.
When she entered the tent, she looked over, and sitting on a bench, was a man who had also been competing - and he was just resting and relaxing - drinking an ice-cold beer. Reading her thoughts, he said, "All you have to do is drop out of the race like me."
Suddenly, she said that she realized who he was - he was the devil. She immediately left the tent, and re-entered the race. Reflecting on the moment filled her eyes with tears. She said, "It was the hardest, and most glorious, day of my life."
Stay in the race.
James Emery White
"Megachurch pastor Rob Bell seeks life beyond the pulpit," USA Today/Religious News Service. Read online.
Elements of this were adapted from the afterword to James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker, 2011).
Story of Lyn Brooks adapted from airing of NBC-TV coverage of the 1998 Hawaiian Open Ironman Triathlon, re-broadcast on Sunday, July 25, 1999.