Written by Josh Roberie

The hardest thing I ever had to do was step away from my position in full-time ministry. I was the youth and young adults pastor at my church. For a long time, I did not think there was anything for me outside of this comfortable church ecosystem.

As a child, my home life was unstable. I survived four divorces growing up. The constant family crises left me feeling insecure and disappointed. Going to church gave me the chance to make a difference in the world. It was where I could be told how incredible I was. Home became an increasing source of pain. Church became a wellspring of security, confidence, and recognition.

I volunteered and worked at the church during high school. After graduating college, I worked there full-time until I was 30 years old. People identified me with my church as much as you would pair Starbucks with coffee or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. Except I am not as trendy as coffee or as good at sticking out my tongue and dunking a basketball as Jordan. Everything of significance to me, including my identity, was inside that church bubble.

It’s a flattering thing to be wanted, but it’s also hypnotic. I quickly got to a place where I didn’t want to say no. Then one day, I looked up and discovered I couldn’t say no even if I wanted to.

I needed the space to change. But leaving my role also meant cutting off my family’s source of income. So, I cut grass with a man I’d previously hired to do my landscaping. I delivered pizza for a couple of months. I worked in retail for a year and a half.

Many things began to shift in me during this time. I had not realized how wounded and weary I was or how much I gained my identity from my role in full-time ministry. I did not just need to learn some new tips to build on an already strong foundation. How I viewed myself, God, and those around me required a complete overhaul. I needed to believe again.

In the months after leaving my church job, my family began selling things we could no longer afford. We put a for sale sign in our yard. We also sold our luxury car. I am ashamed to say I cried when I parted with my golf clubs.

As I peeled back the layers, I discovered that long before I began working on a church staff, I had begun relating to God, church, and others in an unhealthy way. There were patterns of hurt and shame that went unaddressed.

My desire to succeed and my ability to use accomplishments to cover my weaknesses fueled my cycle of religious performance.

In the novel Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, the central figure is a young boy who wants to train his dogs for hunting. To teach his pets, he needed to catch a raccoon on his own. Knowing raccoons are curious creatures, he placed a piece of shiny tin inside a hole in a log. Then he hammered nails inside the hole with enough room for the raccoon to put its hand into the hole, but not enough to remove it with the piece of tin in his hand.

The boy continues to check the trap every day until eventually, he finds a raccoon stuck. All the little creature had to do to escape was to let go of the tin and pull his hand out. But because he wanted to both escape and keep his prize, he remained trapped until the boy killed him.

I was a lot like that stuck raccoon. In His goodness, God allowed me to either hold on to the things I thought I wanted or to let go to find the things in Him I really needed. I didn’t need my position, popularity, or special treatment. What I needed most was time away from a job that consumed my identity.

Doing so helped me become a better minister and, honestly, person. I did not like how judgmental and proud I had become. I was frustrated by the fact my fears kept me from being myself. I wanted to be free to be my authentic self—the best reflection of who God made me to be.

Letting go of that old identity meant leaving behind my home, friends, status, identity, church family, and financial security. I worried I had brought my family out into a desert with no way out. But what I found next was an identity much bigger and more welcoming than I could have ever imagined.

Josh Roberie is the author of Believe Again: Finding Faith After Losing Religion. Find more of his work at joshroberie.com