From pastoral to parachurch ministry: Learning new rhythms and a new identity

By Len DenBraber

Becoming the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Focus on the Family Canada was my sixth major transition since entering full-time vocational ministry as an assistant pastor over 30 years ago. Those changes have taught me that every new role involves grieving certain losses while embracing new opportunities. It’s a strange feeling to be simultaneously thrilled with a fresh challenge in a new environment while wrestling with missing family, friends and familiar surroundings. And as I’ve gotten older, change has become even more challenging to adapt to.

This change, however, was different from all the rest. For the first time, my wife, Leanne, and I didn’t have to relocate. It was a blessing to wake up in the same bed in the same house on my first day of work and return home at the end of the day!

The nature of the work was also very different. Although I served as an executive pastor in a large, growing, multi-site church and an assistant superintendent for my denomination, the “business” side of overseeing a national ministry with multiple properties, thirteen websites, thousands of constituents, and nearly 100 employees from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes required a steep learning curve. Having weekends off was also a new experience – no last-minute sermon prep on Saturday, no early arrival at the church on Sunday morning, no preaching, and no Sunday afternoon pastoral calls.

Upon reflection, I’ve realized that moving from pastoral ministry to leading in a parachurch ministry has required two significant shifts.

New rhythms

My kids and I had a little ritual on Sunday afternoons. Once we finally settled into our respective spots in the living room and I woke up from a nap induced by the post-service adrenaline crash, I would ask no one in particular, “Do you know why I love Sunday afternoons?” Eventually, one of the kids would give in and respond with, “Why is that, Dad?” I would respond, “Because it’s as far from next Sunday morning as possible!”

Despite my Sunday afternoon cynicism, I loved the rhythms of pastoring. No week was ever exactly the same, but over the years, I developed a pattern of study, prayer, worship, staff meetings, counselling appointments and so on.

Leaving local church ministry completely disrupted those patterns. Now, my days are usually filled with meetings discussing everything from marketing strategies to staff evaluations to planning strategic initiatives to reviewing our IT infrastructure. No one expects to find me in my office working through commentaries or spending time in contemplative prayer!

In fact, I discovered that nurturing my soul was almost a by-product of pastoring – it was expected and comparatively easy to find (or make) time to do so. Now, I have to be much more intentional about carving out time early in the day and on weekends to read, pray and reflect. It has also given me a new appreciation for dedicated congregation members who participate in church functions in the evening or on weekends after a busy week at work.

Commuting to work has also been a significant adjustment. When I pastored local churches, I always lived within a 15- to 20-minute drive from the church. Due to the cost of housing where I live, I now have a 45-minute commute one-way. While I have benefitted from listening to podcasts and audiobooks on my commute, leaving home earlier and arriving home later has played havoc with my physical fitness. Call me lazy, but I just don’t have the discipline to get up at 4:30 a.m. to go for a run or hit the gym after dinner!

New identity

“So, you’re not a pastor anymore?”

The question phrased as a statement rankled me more than I cared to admit. I found myself responding by sputtering about not working in a local church but still holding an “ordained” credential, and so on.

It wasn’t until a few months into my new role at Focus on the Family Canada that I realized I needed to come to terms with the fact that I am not “Pastor Len” to most people I interact with – I’m just “Len.” After a difficult experience early in ministry that nearly caused me to quit pastoring altogether, I thought I had worked through the “you are not what you do” identity issue. However, I realized that the term “Pastor” was (and is) dear to me and that I derived a certain self-worth from the moniker.

I’d like to sugarcoat it, but this is one of those losses that a new role brings, and I am working through the grief of laying down that identity. It was helpful to hear in a recent podcast that we can “wear” different identities while still being true to our core God-given image. For example, my grandkids interact with a different “me” than my children, my wife or staff interact with. The “me” that is Pastor Len has been put aside for the foreseeable future and replaced with the COO of Focus on the Family Canada.

Going to church has also been an adjustment. It is the first time in more than three decades that Leanne and I have attended a church where I don’t work. On the one hand, this is great – I can show up just on time, sit where I want and leave without feeling obligated to talk to everyone! (That said, we still find ourselves among the last to leave.) It’s also the first time I have realized why people miss church on Sundays. We have visited family in other cities, gone on vacation, and (confession) even just taken a Sunday “off” from time to time.

However, not being the pastor means I don’t influence the service order, the song choice, the aesthetic environment or a host of other service elements. It has been so difficult not to compare, contrast and even criticize (internally) the churches we have attended, and I have found myself fighting against adopting a consumer approach to church.

After months of “church shopping,” we have landed at a church where we can participate and serve – and where I will have to learn to shut down the impulse to assess and evaluate everything and just worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you asked me to plan my ministry trajectory while in Bible college, I wouldn’t have dreamed I would be the COO of a national ministry like Focus on the Family Canada. I am grateful for God’s leading and am humbled to serve in my current role, but being forced into new rhythms and invited to lead in a new capacity remain ongoing challenges.

Pastors, I hope you have a renewed appreciation for the time you can spend communing with our Saviour while “on the clock!” But I hope you also take my testimony as a cautionary tale and do the work of nurturing your relationship with Jesus separate from your vocational calling. The day will come when your primary role is not pastoring, and I pray that you identify as a follower of Jesus over and above your role as pastor.


Len DenBraber is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Focus on the Family Canada. He and his wife, Leanne, were in pastoral ministry for over 30 years.

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