What To Do When You Lose Your Job
You must recognize negative thoughts and push back against them by practicing nourishing habits such as silence and solitude, taking long walks, and spending time with spiritual friends.
“Do you have time for a call? I really need to talk.”
The text message stared up at me from my phone. It was about 7:30pm on a Tuesday night. I was helping my kids get ready for bed. But I could tell his request was urgent.
I had spoken with him earlier in the day. “Rob” was part of a small cohort I was in that focused on our preaching. Rob had improved a great deal in our time in the cohort, yet he continued to share stories about interactions with his church’s leadership that concerned some of us.
In fact, a couple of us had spoken with Rob just that morning after learning that he had been called into a hastily scheduled meeting with the church elders. We knew that wasn’t a good sign. We listened to Rob share what he thought the meeting was going to be about and then advised him, as best we could, to try to get ahead of the complaint by owning it and proposing a two-month plan to address it and show growth and improvement. We signed off with an assurance from Rob that he would let us know how the meeting went.
Then I saw the text from Rob. I finished getting my kids ready for bed, then called him, preparing to hear the worst. I could tell as soon as he answered that he had lost his job.
Rob isn’t the first pastor to lose his job and he certainly won’t be the last. But because I had been working closely with him and found myself in a mentoring role with him, this news hit me hard. It caused me to reflect and ask, “What should a pastor do when they lose their job?”
The temptation is to become angry and bitter and find someone to blame as a public scapegoat. Most pastors who have lost their job would be lying if they didn’t admit that a part of them, even if for the smallest period of time, hoped that the church would rally behind them and force out those who had caused trouble and cost them their job.
But this is a futile hope. The reality is that we, the pastors, are much more committed to the church we have served than the church is to us. It is much easier for a church to move on from a pastor than for a pastor to move on from a church. And often, at the first hint that the split wasn’t amicable, pastors are disappointed to see how quickly church members (even those they consider close friends) close ranks around the remaining leadership in support of them.
So what is a pastor to do when they lose their job?
First, don’t panic. Pastors panic when they lose their job because things have suddenly and drastically changed for them. Their first thoughts go to uprooting the family, their kids having to change schools, and if they lived in a church-owned house, where to live.
My advice to these pastors is to breathe deeply. The days after losing your job will be hard. There will be a lot of decisions that need to be made. But panicking about the future won’t help anyone. Instead, get away by yourself each day for some time to think. Take a notebook and a pen with you. Sit in your car, go to a coffee shop, or take a walk. But take at least an hour each day and free-write (or brainstorm) anything that comes to mind: questions that need to be answered, decisions that need to be made, and any angry or bitter thoughts that occur to you.
Write it all down so you can begin processing it.
Focus on the future
This second one may be controversial, but I recommend it anyway: make a clean break from your situation with the church and focus on the future.
Now, I don’t mean that you should undermine anyone in the church or sow division. And you should honour whatever terms are included in your severance package. But it isn’t your responsibility to smooth over people’s feelings who are upset, or to apologize for the church leaders, or to put on a show of unity on your way out. You should be professional for sure, but it is up to the church leaders to handle the fallout from their decision. You need to prepare to move on, not worry about cleaning up their mess.
If somebody asks you why you were let go, there is nothing wrong with saying, “It wasn’t my decision. You should ask the church leaders about it.” You should be respectful, but being respectful doesn’t preclude being truthful and ensuring that responsibility lies where it ought to. Your first responsibility, after you lose your job, is to your family and yourself. You need to take care of yourself and your family and begin discerning where God is sending you next.
Reach out to friends and other colleagues
I took a call one afternoon this past summer from a different colleague and friend. It was very unusual for him to call me, so I made sure I took the call. The news was bad: he had been fired. As we talked (mostly, I just listened), it occurred to me that I appreciated his call rather than finding out about his situation through social media. And at the end of our call, he was very thankful that I had been able to ask him a couple of questions that helped him think through how he needed to proceed.
If you take the time to call your friends and colleagues in ministry, you will be rewarded by the meaningful responses you receive from those you most care about. You might also be surprised by who knows about open positions in other churches or by other help these friends might be able to offer. Reaching out to friends and colleagues will also help to keep you grounded and out of your own headspace of fear and anxiety.
Take care of yourself
Finally, you must take care of yourself--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This will be a prime time for the enemy to attack you. I’ve written extensively about this. In fact, it is my mission in writing--to help pastors take better care of themselves. But you will be tempted, if you lose your job, to sit at home, watch TV, and descend into depression.
You must recognize those tendencies and push back against them by practicing habits such as silence and solitude, taking long walks, and spending time with spiritual friends. These habits will nourish your soul at a time when you most need nourishment.
Losing your job is very difficult. It happened to me with my very first ministry. It was traumatic. I struggled with whether to stay in ministry or not. Thankfully, the church we went to next affirmed me in many positive ways and reminded me of the joy that can be present in ministry.
I hope that this never happens to you. But if it does, or if it happens to someone you are close to, please remember the above thoughts, and make sure to take good care of yourself.
As always, let me know how I can serve you in this.
P.S. If you’re like most pastors, you’ve really struggled during the pandemic to maintain healthy boundaries and practice healthy self-care habits. You’ve been torn between those members who want an in-person worship gathering and those who want an online service. It’s quite likely you’re still ministering to both groups. In a sense, you’re pastoring two diverse and distinct churches.
You must prioritize your own spiritual and emotional health or you will burn out in ministry. My new book, Soul-Care for Shepherds, is written with you in mind. Pick up a copy, read it through, and reach out. I’d love to help you build healthy self-care habits in your life and ministry.
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