Another truth came from his therapist, who was steeped in the Scriptures: Conn was acting just like Jonah.
“Are you kidding me?” Conn reacted when the man first compared Conn to the stubbornly disobedient Old Testament prophet. “I’m the opposite of Jonah. I want to do what God wants me to do.”
“No, no,” the counselor responded. “If you’ve been trying to get out of Omaha and God wants you to stay, it sounds like Jonah.”
Time in ministry sometimes demands time away
Meanwhile, Hinrichs’ surest conviction after his church closed rested on a simple idea: He wouldn’t be going back into ministry. So, he found a job as a public school teacher and continued raising his children and living life.
Five years later, at a Christmas Eve service in 2018, God started a gradual revelation to Hinrichs.
“It was almost like I could hear God whispering across my heart,” Hinrichs said. “God distinctly called me back into ministry.”
Furthermore, Hinrichs found out in 2018 and 2019 that starting as a teacher in one’s 40s created some financial challenges. So, as Heinrich’s thought about ways to make ends meet, like working at Target, God’s whisper on Christmas Eve became a little louder.
“In that moment, God was saying, ‘Seth, what are you already qualified to do?’” Hinrichs added. “Why am I not going into ministry? What’s holding me back at this point?”
God supplied his battered pastors with a shepherd, then some sheep
At the time, Hinrichs felt a full range of emotions, including loneliness and fear. So, he took a low-risk, digital route and e-mailed eight or 10 friends in ministry about working again as a pastor.
Of those who received an email, only Eric Dykstra, senior pastor of Free Grace United, a multisite church with locations across Iowa and Minnesota, wrote back with a genuine willingness to walk together.
“Not everybody will receive your return to ministry with open arms,” he said. “To be strong enough to come back, you need to be in a place where you’re OK with your story.”
Dykstra invited Hinrichs into a journey since Free Grace United was starting a new campus and needed a pastor. Initially, the church struggled through COVID-19’s early months. Still, the team stayed with Hinrichs, and that group of disciples eventually became Second Story Church.
Hinrichs has charted a different course, more like the apostle Paul’s approach. Whatever happened at the churches, Hinrichs realized, was not the core of Paul’s life and well-being.
“Paul is able to say, ‘My identity is not found in my circumstances, whether Ephesus is fighting or going well, whether Corinth is having moral issues or not,’” Hinrichs explained. “Paul’s identity, his understanding of himself, weren’t tied to the earthly results of his ministry. They were tied to Jesus.”
Leaving ministry creates spiritual and financial challenges that God loves to remedy
For Conn, the road back to ministry started with a job at a town grocery store. At that point, he needed the work. Before that, he was employed at a fireworks stand and drove an LED billboard truck with rotating ads.
“All those jobs made me feel demoralized at first,” he said.
He was nowhere close to being active in a local church. Many Christians in his life were connected to his old church, further compounding the pain and complexity.
All he wanted was to get out of Omaha. One way to get out was to be a pastor somewhere else. He was open to that, especially if mountains and rivers were nearby.
But all his attempts to pastor a church ended the same way: Each time, the prospective church’s pastor search committee said they felt led to choose someone else.
But then Conn, without pastoral work, noticed the Father was doing more than paying Conn’s bills.
“God was placing me around people who were gently restoring my soul,” Conn shared about his grocery store colleagues. “Those people I worked with did more to save me than I did to save them.”
What story will you tell?
During those days of healing and progress toward ministry, someone asked Conn’s wife, Shelly, a transformative question about the couple hiding their pain and the ugly side of leaving their church.
“Why are you lying?” Robert recalled someone asking Shelly. “We just started answering people’s questions directly ―shortly and honestly. It was freedom not to have to cover up anything anymore.”
Like Conn, Hinrichs also worked through the complexities of vulnerability about leaving ministry, improving his health and restoring his life. He had to decide what to share and who he trusted enough to tell.
“That’s sacred space,” he explained of his inner life. “You don’t need to let someone in just because they’re asking.”
In Omaha, by the time Conn needed to quit his job at the grocery store, he had entered into unexpectedly valuable friendships. So, he experienced seemingly contradictory emotions.
“When I quit my job at the grocery store, I was equally excited and sad,” he said. “Sad because I would miss the daily conversations with people who never once thought about what I have based my entire life on: Christ.”
Therefore, the man confronted with a resemblance to Jonah only had one step of faith left to take: plant a church in Papillion, Nebraska.
In April 2021, Conn agreed in prayer to the Lord to pastor a new church if God provided a building. The next day, his phone rang: A friend who was a pastor said a church without a pastor had a building.
Ultimately, that opportunity wasn’t for Conn. But, even so, Conn couldn’t argue with God’s timing.
“I think he just kind of had to wake me up,” Conn explained. “It was not about a building but about ‘God, are you in this?’”
A few months later, a Converge pastor, Mike Howard, helped Conn attend the Converge Church Planting Assessment Center. Converge leaders affirmed the Conns had what it took to start a church. Then, God supplied the Conns with devoted partners to create the church.
So, in September 2021, the Conns started gathering with their core team on Sunday nights. They worshiped, clarified the vision and formed the culture. Arrows Church officially launched in April 2022.
“It felt weird because it was almost like God was opening up all these doors,” Conn said. “We were just used to doors being closed.”
A ministry that went down in flames forms things to come
Time away from ministry also fostered renewal and intimacy with God for Hinrichs. Distance from the pain stimulated his capacity for processing the life he had lived. His emotional health increased, facilitating a realization he was OK despite a bruised heart and new vocation.
Moreover, the pain in 2013 generated a conviction to do ministry a certain way.
“I did not come back to ministry to do surface-level stuff,” Hinrichs explained. “If we can’t present a faith that is practical, down to earth and nitty gritty ― that’s got some teeth to it when we’re going through the real stuff of life ―what are we doing?”
As for Conn, he still relives some pain and occasionally remembers the questions and confusion of another person’s decision. Yet, he returned to ministry because, like Hinrichs, the church presents a faith people need.
“I truly believe the local church is the hope of the world,” Conn said. “If there is anything I’ve learned being in ministry for as long as I have, it’s that God’s will is perfect, but the people who do God’s will aren’t.”
Believing God’s will is the local church as the light of the world, Conn stepped out with faith somewhere between a mustard seed and a mountain.
“I’m so glad we have gone through what we’ve gone through,” he said. “The Robert of even a few years ago would have been freaking out the whole time leading up to launch.”
Out of the nest and into the fire turns out for the best
Lately, Conn’s been reflecting on Christ’s comment to Peter about forgiving others “not seven times but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22, NLT). To Conn, he wonders if Peter and Jesus were talking about how people often have to forgive the same person for the same offense rather than new people and new offenses.
“I doubt Jesus meant someone’s going to offend you 490 ways,” Conn said. “I think he might have meant someone’s going to do something really hurtful to you, and you’re going to have to forgive them over and over and over again.”
Perhaps Conn’s most consequential lesson in ministry thus far is accepting the one in charge. Through all he’s experienced, Conn’s confidence in a God who moves mountains has grown.
“I think God used a horrible situation to push me out of the nest,” Conn said. “That’s what is so hard about trust. It usually hurts, but it’s always best.”
From depressed to dangerous
Hinrichs has rebuilt habits of his mind and spirit during the past six years, giving him hope even as he doesn’t deny a single moment on the hard road behind him.
A jog that ended because of bewildering brokenness temporarily ended Hinrichs’ ministry. However, he chose to walk toward a new life, sustained by the hope of God’s kindness and power.
“I’m much less afraid than I was before. I’m no longer operating out of as much insecurity as I was before,” Hinrichs said. “A pastor who is operating out of an identity in Christ, who is solid and secure in that and has worked through their emotional journey, that is a dangerous, dangerous individual to the kingdom of hell.”
Pastor, it’s never a bad time for a checkup. If you are interested in looking at where you are in ministry, learning how you can face your ministry challenges and increase fruitfulness, Converge can help.
Ben Greene, Pastor & guest writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.