Leaving The Pastorate Set Me Free

Kary Oberbrunner

Pastors traditionally “retire” one of two ways:

  1. They commit a moral failure (affair, embezzlement, etc.)
  2. They get old.

I didn’t qualify for either.

Yet slowly over time I felt an increasing conviction about leaving the pastorate. My performance wasn’t suffering. In fact, I had just been offered a promotion. But that spring afternoon, a few Mays ago, I found myself sitting in my director’s office emotionally informing him I couldn’t accept my promotion with complete integrity. In church world sometimes they appoint a successor prematurely. I felt honored they’d chosen me to lead the church. The catch? Succession was in the distant future, like ten years away. In the prime of my life, I wasn’t comfortable making a long-term commitment. Besides, I had reservations about the position overall.

  • Was it a good fit?
  • Was it really my calling?

In my heart, I knew it wasn’t. But I had few other options, or so I thought. Stepping back from the situation, I could see common sense trying to lead me. My head and my heart entered a great debate:

  • This is why I went to grad school—to lead a church. Why wouldn’t I take it?
  • Thirty-three years old with a young family isn’t the time to reinvent yourself.

I felt caught between my present day job and my potential dream job. Thankfully, I had a gracious boss and an understanding director who allowed me to keep serving on staff despite refusing the promotion. I continued to invest in the church giving the people my best efforts. I truly loved and cared for them. Yet at the same time, I knew my day job wasn’t my final destination.

Can the pastorate be preparation for something else?

Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I got the impression once a pastor always a pastor. I searched my subconscious for examples of successful transitions. Without locating any, I scoured the Scriptures instead. Bible students know how shepherding and pastoring are used interchangeably. The Scriptures are full of these metaphors. Referencing teaching the Word of God to the church, Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21). The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11, “…and he gave some as pastors (Greek =  “POIMEN” = shepherds).

The Scriptures reveal many people who started out as shepherds (Abel, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, and David). These people transitioned into different roles both in “spiritual” and “secular” professions. They became patriarchs, matriarchs, kings, rulers, and leaders. Evidently, God saw wisdom in having them care for sheep before they cared for nations, kingdoms, and business affairs. Perhaps God viewed shepherding as preparation for something else? Perhaps God actually ordained their transition?

So how do you know it’s the right time to leave? After all, over 1700 pastors leave “the ministry” every month. Are all these departures God-ordained?

When Is the Right Time to Leave Your Day Job?

Months before I left my day job, I remember chatting with one of my mentors, John Maxwell. (John is also one of the few pastors I know who left on a positive note.) I asked him how to know if it’s the right time to leave. From our conversation, I drew the following conclusions:

The Right Time to Leave—A Good Type of Restlessness

  1. When you’ve fulfilled your calling.
  2. When you’re being pulled toward improvement.
  3. When you’re embracing a new assignment.
  4. When you’ve reached your potential.
  5. When you’ve learned as much as you can from the people around you.

The Wrong Time to Leave—A Bad Type of Restlessness

  1. When you’re bored.
  2. When you’re running from improvement.
  3. When you’re escaping your current assignment.
  4. When you haven’t paid the price.
  5. When you think you’re better than the people around you.

John concluded his thoughts that day by saying something that ripped right through me. He said, “Remember, don’t move anywhere else until you’ve done the best where you are.


Because I had done my best at my day job, I realized my departure was inevitable. Even though I knew this, my church didn’t. Preparing to make this announcement felt incredibly difficult. Because I had a visible role, I knew I needed to communicate my departure to all one thousand members at once. You can imagine the fear I felt. Forget slipping out the back door! I had to announce my escape from a stage—literally. During the week of my announcement many thoughts went through my head. When I thought about disappointing people, I felt panic. Yet when I thought about pleasing God, I felt peace. The day of the announcement went better than expected. My wife, Kelly, stood by my side in support. To our surprise, at the conclusion of the news, the entire church cheered and gave us a standing ovation. Funny, huh? The only standing ovation I ever received in my life came the moment I announced I was leaving. But all joking aside, their genuine appreciation strengthened my confidence in a very emotional moment.

Life after Death

Leaving the pastorate was hard. After all, loving deeply hurts greatly. Despite the initial grief, today we couldn’t be happier, more at peace, and more on fire. I’m Igniting Souls full-time in my business and in my non-profit. I’ve gained a business partner and started two international teams with over 100 coaches, speakers, and authors.

Sometimes letting go is essential to moving forward. Sometimes leaving the pastorate will set you free. 

Kary Oberbrunner is the author of DAY JOB TO DREAM JOB: practical steps for turning your passion into a full-time gig. 

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