Coffee mug in hand, I slip on my shoes, pull a beanie over my ears and step out my back door. It’s colder this morning than any morning since we moved. The grass is glazed with frost like a pastry.
A twenty-yard walk puts me in the threshold of a building affectionately named “The Coop” by the previous owners. In the back section of the building is an ill-fitting slab of carpet for flooring and pieces of an old bookshelf that pretends to be a desk. I call the room my office. With no heat in the building, my only comfort is the warm mug between my fingers and cotton surrounding my ears.
The computer protests for a few seconds before allowing me to begin work for the day. “Travel agent” is the simplest description of my work. I get people from A to B, and I use phones and email to make it happen.
This wasn’t in my five-year plan. This wasn’t in my four-, three-, two-, or one-year plans either. But here I am, analyzing manifests and travel itinerary while sipping coffee.
Five and a half years ago I walked across a stage and collected a bachelor’s degree in Bible and theology. Eighteen months ago I walked across another stage for a master’s of Theology. The institutions that handed me the papers considered these “professional degrees,” yet they failed to specify what profession—pastor, teacher, missionary, ministry leader. Or something like that. We use a shorthand in these circles and call it “full-time ministry,” or “going into the ministry.” My dad spent his whole career “in the ministry,” so I speak this shorthand fluently.
If you add up the years, credit hours, books read, papers written, classes attended, and tuition dollars spent on this education, I have most other professions beat. Except medical doctors. I guess I am well qualified to be a travel agent. I mean, I can parse Greek and Hebrew verbs.
Anne Lamott said, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” Stephen King said we can write about anything we want “as long as you tell the truth.”
You can nod and grunt with approval, until you begin writing your own story. Telling the truth means you have to disclose your life. And it’s hard because I have self-disclosure issues. My exit interview from seminary documented this fact. My wife has affirmed this for several years.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, so they say. So, this is the truth about how I ended up drinking coffee in “The Coop” booking other people’s travel. Here’s the truth behind why my five-year plan failed—or at least my perspective on the truth.
After completing both my degrees, I failed to get a job as a pastor. Failed to get a job as an intern. Failed to get a job as a parachurch leader. Failed to get accepted to a PhD program so I could become a theology professor. Failed to serve the Lord “in full-time ministry.”
The defensive side of me wants you to know that I tried. Over the course of eighteen months I prepared my PhD application—with my eye on one school and one potential supervisor. I flew to visit the school, met with the supervisor, pulled in anyone willing to read my writing sample, and studied math for the first time since high school for the GRE. Everything was perfect.
But they said no.
In the months surrounding that rejection letter, I applied for a dozen other jobs I found scattered across job boards. Initial application, follow up questionnaires, and, for almost half of them, interviews. For two of them I even had multiple interviews. That was progress. That was promising.
But they said no.
Each of them said, “We clearly see your call to ministry.” But is that really true if no church actually calls me to their ministry? They all had great reasons. I understood their reasons.
The metaphor of a closing door seemed applicable. With tongue in cheek, a mentor advised that “when a door closes, open it. That’s how doors work!” More helpful things could have been said.
I’m bad at failure. I even built my personality to be risk averse, exactly because I hate these kind of situations. No doubt I could have continued to try. The job board still brimmed with possibility. Yet, my motivation and interest faded.
I felt guilty. Guilty for not landing a job in the field in which I had invested so much time. Guilty for not being in vocational ministry. The last nine years of my life had been filled with pastors, professors, and former classmates who talk about their work in ministry as the most important work in the world—trying to encourage the student version of me to look forward to the career I had ahead of me. Now I’d chosen not to do that. Or, rather, no one chose me to do it.
More so, I felt guilty for stopping my job search. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be a pastor. Yet, the guilt would have weighed heavier if I had never even tried. Now that I had made an effort at applications some of the guilt subsided. Other guilt remained.
So, I fled. I moved to another city, state, and time zone. To the north, where the steam fades quickly from your coffee mug. I moved—at least partially—to get away from the people who knew I went to seminary. It seemed like everyone expected me to get a job in ministry. That’s what seminary graduates do. Expectations (both internal and external) are sticky. Like grease you can’t wash off your hands.
But moving away allowed me to flee their gaze and recreate myself among new friends, friends who didn’t have to know I went to Bible college and seminary. And after three months in a new city, not one person I’ve met knows I went to seminary. I share about growing up, what I do now, the fact that I lived in Texas for several years. I will mention the job I had in Texas, but will avoid mentioning the whole reason we moved there and remained there for so many years—seminary.
But here is the truth: I do know why I am not a pastor. At least I have a hunch. It’s at least one piece in the puzzle.
I blame my mentor David. He gave me permission that I couldn’t give myself—permission not to be a pastor. He bought me coffee and an apple cinnamon muffin, and told me his story of serving the Lord for decades in the business world. A “secular” job, as the ministry lingo might call it.
I told him about conversations with my friends, pastors, and professors who were so fulfilled in their ministry. They spoke of changing lives. They spoke of doing “really important work for the Lord.” How could I not go into ministry with this amount of evidence?
Then I discovered that Jesus loves David and his work. It’s shameful to admit that I had to learn that. Theological education made sure I knew how important ministry was, but I missed the part about the corporate world’s importance—how Jesus values the labors of a craftsman as much as the sermons of a preacher.
Maybe Jesus could love my work like that too.
I am recovering.
A close friend from seminary serves as a senior pastor and (often) my counselor. “Sawyer,” he said, “there are many times when I would rather not have ‘pastor’ in front of my name. People who would never talk with ‘Pastor Matt’ will talk with you.” I think I believe him.
So, I am learning to hope that there is value in the work I do outside of formal ministry, that perhaps I can be useful to the church even when I don’t draw a paycheck from them. They don’t train you how to do lay ministry in seminary.
I still fight jealousy when I see pastors. It still looks like something I ought to be doing. But not right now. Or maybe ever. For these moments I have been given the gift to do something else. To explore different work that the Lord is doing. Maybe I could call it ministry.
Back in my office in The Coop, my coffee mug is half full but cold. It doesn’t keep warm long in these early winter months. Time for a fresh cup.
 David is a different mentor than the door metaphor mentor.
Cover image by Stephy Pariande.