The Hollow Feeling of Doing Well
“What is that like?”
This question is a common one. When I tell someone I was once a pastor but now I work in a bank I get this question. Not always wanting to answer I respond with a “fine” or “different” or something general. Sometimes the question is asked at parties, and even at work. My discomfort with revealing what I do now and what I used to do is acute and has probably caused me to avoid some social situations when I know the question might be asked.
Every now and again, I’ll answer by telling people I have the worst job imaginable for a person like me but I cannot escape no matter how hard I try. But when I do that I can feel the awkwardness creep in the room. I used to tell people I’m the worst banker in the world, but I cannot tell people that anymore.
Today I found out I have the highest sales score in the branch and I’m on pace to get a bonus. It’s unexpected because I’ve been doing so poorly over the past few quarters. And it’s unexpected because I’m not very good at what I do.
I have a hollow memory from back when I was young enough to be riding my bike everywhere instead of driving. We lived on the side of Ruffner Mountain and the street in front of our house ran like a short stubby asphalt river down into a small valley and met the bottom of another hill. That hill was called Thrill Hill because of the thrill derived from going over with a little speed. Actually it required no speed whatsoever to feel your stomach in your throat.
It was a pretty dangerous hill and when I was much younger I can remember some teenagers losing control and their car ending in the living room of the house most at risk because it sat at the corner of my street and Thrill Hill. By the time I was a teenager most homes in its path had set up large stones and other impediments at the edge of their yard. Thrill Hill was dangerous and I was not allowed on it at all. But one day I did go up, riding as far as my legs and Huffy would take me and then I pushed it the rest of the way. Somehow my parents knew this and I was in serious trouble. I can remember the empty hollow feeling inside of so needlessly upsetting them.
That’s kinda how I feel now about doing so well at work. Empty, like a plundered tomb.
Yesterday I started reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Buechner keeps referencing it. I’m only a few chapters in but the whiskey priest has already revealed why I feel so hollow. He is on the run. They have shot all the other priests. His clothes are as tattered as his own soul is drowning in drink. But he still performs his duties as a priest when asked and does so without pay.
At one point a man asks him why he doesn’t just renounce the priesthood like another priest who took a wife. And he says he cannot do it. Though poor, hunted, and always needing a drink, he is a priest. He has no home. He has no income. He does not even have an assigned parish. No boss to report to. But a priest still.
At one point, he is in a man’s home and all he wants is sleep. But the man wants to confess his sins and the whiskey priest hears them and then the man goes and wakes up his neighbors so they can do the same. And the whiskey priest is sitting there with tears in his eyes. Tears of exhaustion and anger. And the man is telling his neighbors the tears are for them and their need of forgiveness.
If I could, when people ask me what it is like to work in a bank after working as a pastor, I would describe that scene. They might not understand it. After all they are just making conversation and being polite. But that would be my preferred response. But I wouldn’t just tell those people. I’d also like to tell other men who have decided they don’t wanna be a pastor anymore.
I could also tell them the story of Thrill Hill which really has nothing in common with my present circumstances except for the emptiness. I felt empty then because I did something I was not supposed to do. Now, it’s success in work that more and more seems at odds with my calling as a pastor.
When I wrote The God of the Mundane, I was hoping to get people to see the inherit dignity and importance of what we typically call secular jobs. Every job is inherently spiritual and kingdom work. There is no job more spiritual than another. I still believe that to the core of my being. My experience in the business world has confirmed it. But you do not get ordained into the business world.
A man may leave one area of business and do something wholly different and the soul remains at ease. But it is not the same for a man who has been called by God and man to be a pastor. When that man does, the fabric of things is stretched and torn. At least for me this has been the case.
For a while now, people have told me again and again that I am still a pastor. A pastor to them specifically. I’ve appreciated the sentiment as compliment. But I did not believe them. I was too miserable. Just like that whiskey priest, I didn’t feel like I should be thought of like that.
I’d like to tell that to all those who are thinking of walking away from the pastorate.
There are “how did I get here moments?” galore. You’ll be sitting across from a very sad person whose life is shambles and you will find your soul revolting against the responsible you have to the person in front of you as a banker.
I know this sounds sad. And on one level it still is. But on another level, I’m glad to know now. I’m glad my wife and I see this together. I still hesitate to say it was a mistake to leave vocational ministry. But I’ve been reading this story of the whiskey priest. And his conviction of his calling fits far too well with the hollow place I’ve tried to fill. What he holds onto at the risk of his life, I let go of.
I could probably do a good job of justifying myself. And even be right in doing it. But I’m not really all that interested in doing that anymore. And so now when people would ask me what it’s like to be banker after being a pastor at my best moments I look them full in the face and tell them I’d like to return.