Should You Leave Your Job for Full-Time Ministry?

Tom R. Harper

From: Career Crossover: Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry (B&H Publishing Group, 2007). Used by permission. All rights reserved

Editor’s Note: The findings in this book excerpt are based on a study of 344 “crossover leaders” — church leaders who once worked in the secular marketplace but then crossed over to full-time ministry work in the church.

The one who works his land will have plenty of food,
but whoever chases fantasies lacks sense.

Proverbs 12:11

There is a corporate ladder in the ministry world. Many crossover leaders try to climb it, seeking the same fame and monetary gain they chased in the marketplace. If they become senior pastor of a growing church, the headiness of speaking to hundreds or thousands of devotees from the pulpit every week and seeing a swelling budget can make humility difficult. They’re finally CEO of their church. This may be their closest brush with being the big cheese.

Why do you want to enter the ministry?

Why in the world would you leave your current life and career to serve ungrateful sheep, face financial difficulty, suffer biting criticism, and endure long hours and short vacations?

Of course, I could’ve asked the same question of a minister thinking about secular work. And that’s my point: the two worlds are more alike than you think. It seems that on either side of the fence, the greener grass loses its luster the longer you stand on it. Picture yourself several years into your ministry, on one of your worst days when a deacon openly undermines your leadership, and see if you still love your job. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of similar days no matter where you work.

Good reasons abound for entering the ministry. But you’ll want to figure out your reasons first; don’t assume you heard a call today then blindly jump tomorrow. Our respondents suggested ten bad reasons to leave life in the marketplace:

  1. You’re discouraged and burned-out in your current job.
  2. You want to feel good about your work.
  3. You feel the need to please someone else (family, friends, etc.).
  4. You dream of “changing the world.”
  5. You failed at other jobs and want to try something new.
  6. You want a “career” in the church.
  7. You’re low on funds and think church work would be easy money for awhile.
  8. You think ministry seems like the most fun job out of several you’re considering.
  9. You want to try your hand at full-time ministry to see if you like it.
  10. You see an open church position that has better hours, benefits, or salary than your current position.

Do these questions induce a nod or two? If so, your calling may originate more from yourself than the Lord.


What Season Are You In?

If you feel led to leave the hotbed of spiritual outreach””the marketplace””our survey respondents want to catch you for a word or two before you leave.

Jesus himself worked in the family carpentry business. Many of his teachings were parables that resonated with business people and the entire working class. Two thousand years ago, the average adult life revolved around work and business transactions””no different from today.

Our Lord worked longer in business than he did in full-time ministry. This was no accident. He easily identified with those in the marketplace and with secular workers through the ages. He not only crossed over, he spun business into deeply significant lessons and illustrations.

God placed you in your current career because it is a season of your life that has a beginning and an end ordained by him. A preacher friend of mine, Dan Hall, delivered a sermon recently on God’s perfect timing. He pondered why Jesus appeared on the earth in that exact moment in history. Why didn;t he come earlier, before the Egyptian enslavement? Or later, right before the fall of Jerusalem?

We can’t guess at God’s reasons for his timing. But he has ordained a place in time for everything, especially his Son’s birth: “While they were there, the time came for her [Mary] to give birth. Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son” (Luke 2:6-7, my emphasis).

In Ecclesiastes 3:1, Solomon writes, “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven.” Is a season about to end””or begin””in your life? Or is the time not yet ripe for any changes?

If we would only trust that the Lord brought us into our current season for a limited time to learn specific lessons, to grow in our walk, to serve certain people, then we would enjoy the moment. We can have faith that our Father in heaven will carry us into the next chapter of our lives at just the right time.

One crossover leader made this point well: “Be faithful with what God has put in front of you before you consider being faithful with what you want God to put in front of you. If you aren’t salt and light now, don’t assume you will be salt and light in vocational ministry either.”

Bloom where you’re planted, says the adage. Extend your roots deep into the dirt under your feet. Practice ministering in a familiar environment. Witness to people you know”¦


A Story of Workplace Witnessing

When I sold advertising for a rock radio station in the mid-nineties, I formed a quick friendship with a new ad rep a few cubicles down from mine. He overflowed with positive energy and laid several hints that he might be a Christian. I was a relatively new believer myself, so this excited me.

We started doing lunch. I found out he was a Jehovah’s Witness. I panicked.

I soon became a target for his smooth words and sound arguments against what I knew to be true. But I also started reading about how to counter his tactics. We had some healthy debates. I hungered for further equipping. Finally I enrolled in a seminary class on witnessing to the cults.

As a grad student I was assigned an end-of-term paper on any topic within the scope of the class. I spent an evening of indecision about my theme. The next day, God sent two young Witnesses literally to my doorstep, and my paper turned into an account of the ensuing conversations with my new Jehovah’s Witness friends.

My growing passion for apologetics and the cults started with a workplace relationship. God used my friend to give me depth and awaken a hunger for learning. In the end that coworker indirectly equipped me to break more effectively through the deceptions of cults.

If you leave your secular career, what opportunities will you squander that God meant only for you? Are there people around you at work right now who need to hear the gospel? Does God want you to walk away from the ministry he’s developing for you on the job? Maybe he wants you to ask him right now, before you go any further with your dream.


A Crossover Example
Bob Buford: From Media Mogul to Social Entrepreneur

Bob Buford brought the concept of halftime into sharp focus for a multitude of men and women facing midlife searches for purpose. His book Halftime delves into the mind of the middle-aged achiever who wants to make a mark””not just money””in this world.

Bob’s recent work, Finishing Well, puts retirement into perspective. He interviewed 120 accomplished people, most of whom scoffed at the mention of retirement. Though in the world’s eyes they deserved to slow down and relax a little, they couldn’t stop serving others with their God-given talents and passions as long as they were able.

Bob’s own journey is a little different from most you’ll read in this book. I found his second-half work intriguing””author, speaker, head of Leadership Network (which connects innovators within the world of large churches), life coach, and participant in numerous boards and other distinguished groups. Like him, I feel God has given me certain skills and a personality that don’t fit the pastor or church-staff mold. I feel drawn toward organizational and creative work rather than preaching or teaching. I would love to go on a mission trip or help a bold pastor plant a church, but full-time leadership in a local church doesn’t seem to be the Lord’s vision for me.

When I interviewed him, I was struck by Bob’s obvious heart for people trying to discern the next chapter in their lives. I posed an objection to him that I’d heard from other respected and well-known leaders: “What do you think about those who say we shouldn’t necessarily look for significance outside of our job, but instead seek ways to minister to those around us in our current careers? In other words, do you agree that God gives us certain spheres of influence he wants us to reach without leaving the marketplace?”

“It’s utterly a matter of calling,” he said. I’ll let him explain.


Should You Stay . . . or Go?

During his last eight years as CEO of Buford Television, Bob worked on transitioning into his own halftime until he sold the family-owned national cable company in 1999. When he wrote Halftime, he was still four years away from leaving the marketplace to become a social entrepreneur.

“When I came to halftime,” he says, “I wanted to re-allocate 80 percent of myself to kingdom things. A lot of the people I see who make a crossover do it the way I did””through a parallel career. What you do is begin what I call “˜low-cost probes,’ where you try some things out and you see whether they work for you.”

While we should take our time finding the right fit, we shouldn’t “endlessly stew” about our direction, he says. Some people fantasize that some day their ticket will arrive, and they can finally realize their dreams of serving others and following God’s will for their lives. But too often the daydream passes because they can’t pry themselves away from life’s busyness””jobs, young kids, bills, and an addiction to the pursuit of success.

“In my case, I had a very measured course,” Bob says. “It took maybe eight years to get most of me transferred into a ministry.”

After he started Leadership Network, he remained chairman of his company’s board. He crafted an abbreviated role for himself, focusing mostly on the company’s mission and values. He came into the office once or twice a month”¦


A Matter of Calling

Now back to the question: if God directs our paths (Proverbs 3:6), why should we take it upon ourselves to leave our jobs and go into ministry?

Bob believes Jesus ministered to people in his own path: the woman at the well, Zacchaeus in the tree, Martha and Mary. “I think you can fully do that [minister where you are] in business. You can do pastoral care all day long with just the customers and coworkers and other people.”

But, he says, you can’t plant churches while you’re also a CEO. You can’t be committed to both your job and what you believe is your calling unless one of them takes a backseat while you focus on the other.

“Peter Drucker once asked me how much I was involved in my business and how much I was involved in ministry. I said it was probably fifty-fifty. And he said, “˜That’s just wrong. You either need to be involved 80 percent in your business or 20 percent in your business.’ By that he meant if you’re in charge, you need to be guiding things in a very active way””involved, not distant. But the worst [thing] is to just say you’ve delegated that responsibility and in fact you cling to it. You don’t give enough of yourself to really do it well and you don’t give [less] of yourself to let someone else do it well.”

Bob predicts an increasing number of leaders will move from the marketplace to full-time ministry. “The two trends that I see mostly are planting new churches, which usually involves marketplace people, and starting multi-venue churches, where a home church has satellite locations. Life Covenant Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, had five hundred people attending eight years ago in one location. About three years ago, they had seven thousand people attending at five locations, and they now have eleven thousand people at even more sites. At the time they had the seven thousand people attending, they had seventy-two full-time staff, seventy-one of whom had a marketplace background.”

Whether we minister in the marketplace or enter full-time ministry, Bob emphatically believes God’s personal call on our lives determines our individual paths. But, he says, “either one of those callings is equally valid.”


The Call Still Comes

Bob Buford’s story supports a fact shown by our research: though a huge number of Christians minister where they work, thousands will leap into full-time ministry each year. The call to cross over obviously compels many to uproot and commit to a new life.

God’s plan for each person is unique and so specific that only you can discern what’s right for you. Listen to God, pray, read the Word, seek wise counsel, talk to your pastor, and include your family in your decision. Don’t rely on your gut or your emotions to decide. Intuition should only get your thinking started.

Many ministry leaders said that all their skills, experiences, failures, successes, relationships, and lessons equipped them perfectly for their specific ministry mission. One respondent’s skill set transferred almost entirely intact: “As a lawyer, my job was to read, study, gather evidence, persuade, challenge, and defend. I do that all the time as a pastor. As a lawyer, I spent my life mediating and seeking to resolve conflict. I have used those skills hugely in the church””almost daily.”

Let’s close with an important, practical step toward understanding if you and the ministry really fit.


How to Test the Ministry Waters to See If They Part for You

I like how one respondent sums up this important decision: “If you can continue working in your current business career and feel at peace with God about it, then don’t quit! God can certainly use you right where you are. God needs faithful business people to “˜shine a light’ in a world that is often dark.”

If you currently have a job that pays the bills””even if your dream is very different””you are in a safe place. Be thankful God has put you in a job that provides for your basic needs. If your immediate task is to find a new job so you can more adequately cover life’s expenses, my advice is to focus on securing your work before exploring your dream. You can always leave a job when you’re called to move on.

Our crossovers recommend that you to dip your toe in the water first. It is not always wise to dive into the first pool you happen upon, nor prudent to jump in without knowing how to swim. Churches need people like you. Simply asking how you can help can set you on the path toward your future ministry with incredible speed and precision. If you already volunteer at your church, it might be time to increase your involvement to get a taste of more intense service and full-time work.

Here are a few ideas to get you started as you sit down with your pastor, elders, or other volunteers:

  • greet visitors
  • serve communion
  • visit the sick in hospitals
  • serve in the nursery
  • teach Sunday school
  • work with youth
  • assist your pastor with sermon research
  • lead short-term mission trips
  • become a deacon or elder
  • volunteer as an assistant or associate pastor

Don’t rush in. Try out different areas. Give time for God to grow you as you serve. Think “parallel career.” And then start working on your plan.

From: Career Crossover: Leaving the Marketplace for Ministry (B&H Publishing Group, 2007). Used by permission. All rights reserved

Tom R. Harper is founding publisher and, president of NetWorld Alliance, and co-founder of Church Central Associates, focusing on church consultant training and church health resources. He lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky.