Over the past seventeen years, I’ve had several social media comments asking how I reconcile spending thirty years in Evangelical ministry and, in their words, “deceiving people.” These comments deeply wounded me as I struggled with the first half of my life spent making a career in a religion I have renounced. Was all that time wasted?
Last night, I finished the book “Remains of the Day” by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was a significant eureka moment as I empathically related to the protagonist, Stevens, an English butler. And I felt a rush of healing sweep over my soul. I have long believed that good books are enjoyable, great books are thought-provoking, and extraordinary books are windows to the soul. I found “Remains of the Day” to be extraordinary. During my six-mile run this morning, I crystallized thoughts for this post.
I had few advisors as a young boy who grew up in the Appalachians’ poverty. And so I did what many others have done: I followed in my father’s footsteps. He was a Pentecostal pastor, and my grandfathers were itinerant preachers. If I could gaze back down the 65-year-long road of life and have that decision over and afforded wise mentors, I would have chosen a career as a writer. That could be for another post.
I rarely have in all these years thought of the first half of my life in quite the way I did last night. Encountering this book prompted me to startling new perspectives on topics I imagined had been resolved.
Nothing could be less accurate than to suggest that I regret my career as a minister. However, unlike the five senior pastors I worked with, I viewed my role as an arts pastor as an encourager. They considered themselves prophets. Where I created experiences that espoused love, joy, and encouragement, prophets believe they are actual messengers of god. They refer to Jeremiah’s book, which says a prophet’s five primary roles are pulling down, destroying, throwing down, building, and planting. The negative aspect of their ministry (the proclamations of judgment and shame) constantly grated against my role as an encourager.
The men I served were not evil. They chose a particular path in life; it proved misguided, but they decided it. They were the decision-makers. I was not. They taught me (and required) that I be their servant. And I trusted them. I trusted in their wisdom. I trusted I was doing something worthwhile all those years I served them. My faith was sincere, and I served with honor.
So what can be gained by looking back and blaming oneself if the first half of life did not turn out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is that for those of us relegated to secondary roles, there is little choice but to leave our fate in the hands of the men (almost always men) who employ our services. What is the benefit of worrying too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took?
Perhaps a ‘great’ minister can only be one who can point to their years of service and say that one has applied their talents to serving their senior ministers—and thus, to serving humanity. Most people do not know the requirements when serving an authoritative senior pastor, particularly in a mega-church. In my experience, too many people believe they can work at these higher levels without knowing the exacting demands involved. It is certainly not suited to just anybody.
I gave thirty years’ service to religion; I would surely not be unjustified in claiming that during those years, I was, in the most accurate terms, “attached to distinguished churches.” Looking back over my career, my chief satisfaction derives from what I achieved during those years and the encouragement I gave many thousands of people. I am today nothing but proud and grateful to have been given such a privilege and to have reached the pinnacle of “success” in my profession.
However, I was not permitted to “question” my senior pastors, beliefs, rules, and their version of the history of Christianity. They told me this was the only job I was fitted for and that I would be an outcast anywhere else. Only in the year 2000, when I became financially independent, could the myriad questions that had piled up over the years be expressed without fear of retribution. And in 2006, I finally managed the courage to leave the ministry and, ultimately, religion forever.
Unfortunately, the Evangelical cult (think Hillsong meets Bill Gothard) so enmeshed my family that they could not abide me questioning the faith. And with the children grown and out of the house, the dissatisfaction of my marriage as our paths diverged became all too evident. I documented the subsequent events in my memoir “Renaissance Redneck,” so I will not be redundant. I have so much to say, but I will finish with a few of the truths I gained from Mr. Ishiguru’s extraordinary book.
He writes that for many people, the evening is the best part of the day, the part they most look forward to. And this appears to be true, for why else would so many people give a spontaneous cheer as the sun sets? The bell rings, the voices erupt, and drinks are consumed at the waterfront bar three blocks from our cottage and iconic places such as Key West every evening.
Mr. Ishiguru continues, “You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now, you can put your feet up and enjoy it. The evening’s the best part of the day.”
There is something to his advice: I should cease looking back so much, adopt a more present outlook, and try to make the best of what remains of my day. I am fortunate that I retired young enough to be in the mid-afternoon, still approaching the evening.
It is time I began to relook at this whole matter of encouraging others. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a wasted activity to indulge in throughout life—especially if encouraging others is the key to human fulfillment, at least to me. Yes, I DID ministry for thirty years, but I am and have always been an encourager. That has never changed. And I rest and revel in that fact.