Escaping the Velvet Coffin: 6 Steps to Help You Decide if It’s Time To Leave


Feeling trapped in a job that's too comfortable? Read on to learn how to recognize if you're in a velvet coffin and discover actionable steps to escape it.

Have You Ever Heard of the Velvet Coffin?

I heard this term recently while listening to a podcast. The “velvet coffin” is a place where you feel completely trapped in a box that is also kind of comfortable.

When I heard the term, I had a nearly visceral reaction.

Like you, I’ve existed in a few velvet coffins. The challenge when you realize you’re in that box is knowing what to do and when to do it.

It seems life can present a litany of velvet coffins. In this article, let’s focus on the work coffin.

My Most Recent Velvet Coffin

I’ve worked in professional ministry for nearly 18 years. For most of this time, I served as the lead pastor of a North Point Ministries (NPM) location.

Working with and for Andy Stanley was an incredible experience. It was also a gift to work with peers like Jeff Henderson, Clay Scroggins, Joel Thomas, Adam Johnson, and Tensley Almand. Serving on the NPM leadership team and leading a campus location was a welcome challenge.

The first year in the role was overwhelming. Our church grew by over 100%, our staff team doubled, and programming and execution complexities increased more than I can describe. Six months into my time at NPM, Andy asked me to preach at North Point Community Church. It was a terrifying honor. My mic pack read “ANDY,” which didn’t help!

Needless to say, I learned a lot that first year, and the same was true for the next few years. Our church and staff kept growing while the complexities of leading our church increased in tandem.

I eventually settled in. Over time, though, I felt like I was settling.

I loved our church, staff, congregation, Andy, and the rest of the team, but I felt like I was in a velvet coffin.

Working at NPM was comfortable. Challenging at times but comfortable.

And I felt trapped.

I was making a good salary for my position. I was contributing to NPM and our campus. I was part of the “they.” And I knew finding something better was unlikely.

It had all the makings of a velvet coffin.

What To Expect in Your Velvet Coffin

I sensed that something had to give. I knew how comfortable this coffin already was, and with each passing day, the velvet became more velvety.

This realization forced me to confront myself, my job, and my comfort.

Here are a few of my key learnings:

1. There Is a Point of No Return

I wasn’t there, but I knew some people who were there, and that scared me.

The velvet coffin point of no return happens when you become too comfortable to step outside your comfort zone. For people who get trapped in their complacent boxes, the results are all too common: frustration, boredom, lackadaisical attitudes, and just getting by.

These people become frustrated with themselves, bored with their roles and responsibilities, and lackadaisical about their future and the organizational mission.

It was as if they were buried alive. Completely trapped.

2. There is Something to Fear

When I sensed I may be reaching my point of no return, I grappled with the reality of fear.

I was afraid to leave the coffin. I had an excellent salary, understood my role and responsibilities, and was comfortable with my team. Too comfortable. I was afraid to fail.

I was equally afraid to remain in the coffin. Yes, it was comfortable, but it was still a coffin. I felt trapped and didn’t want to be buried alive. I was afraid of regretting remaining in the coffin.

As I wrestled with these fears, I realized they were in opposition and couldn’t both remain true. If I stayed, regret would become my fear. If I left, the fear of failure and the unknowns would serve as my fear.

I had to decide which fear I wanted to face. The velvet coffin forces a fear confrontation. You can’t avoid fear, so we choose which fear we prefer.

Climbing Out of Your Comfortable Coffin

When lying in the coffin, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re not actually in a coffin but rather a comfy velvet sofa (or desk chair).

As you know, lying to yourself is the easiest lie to tell.

We tell ourselves we’re just in a rut or it’s only a season. This can be an accurate assessment at times. But not all the time. Or even most of the time.

You’re in the velvet coffin when you realize you feel trapped but also feel too comfortable to confront (or even acknowledge) your comfort.

You can stay there, but the outcome is relatively predictable: anger or apathy.

If you feel that you’re currently in or near the velvet coffin, try this:

1. Assess Your Heart: Ask yourself some painfully clarifying questions, such as:

    • Have I learned nearly all I can learn in this role and from this organization?
    • Is there something outside my job that is causing me to feel trapped?
    • Can I reinvent my role or rethink my perspective?
    • Is this a short-term reaction or a building problem?

2. Talk it Through: You’ll need wisdom to ascertain what’s happening entirely. A counselor can be a great asset, and trusted friends or peers can also be helpful. Talk with your boss or manager if you’re in a high-trust organization. Whatever you do, never make critical decisions in isolation.

3. Consider Your Options: In most cases, we don’t need to leap out of the coffin overnight. Take a moment to look around, test some ideas, and potentially even build a bridge out of the coffin through a side hustle. I began coaching a few leaders and preaching at other churches years before I left my NPM role. This approach allowed me to test the waters and build a little business base.

4. Make the First Decision: Deciding to leave or stay necessitates a series of decisions. The first decision is deciding with certainty if it’s time to move on. Just because you know it’s time doesn’t mean you need to resign tomorrow. I determined it was time to make a change ten months before I left. Those ten months allowed me time to fully process and lean in a direction with my heart and head. Moreover, making the decision brought about some immediate relief.

5. Consider Your Responsibilities: While you may be the person in the coffin, your decisions may impact others. This can be part of what’s entrapping you, but it can also be a way to rethink your purpose and perspective. With the right attitude and vantage point, remaining in the coffin for a season might be best. While I decided that leaving was my best next step, those ten months provided me and my family time to prepare to exit the coffin (and its velvet).

6. Decide Which Fear to Fear: When you realize you’re in the velvet coffin, you will face fear. But you can decide which fear you’d prefer to face: Regret or Failure. To me, the fear of regret was a greater fear. Not knowing what could have been was a more significant threat than leaving the velvet and potentially failing.

Deciding Not to Decide is a Decision

You can put off your decision for a while, but not for too long. The problem with the velvet coffin is that the velvet becomes increasingly comfortable, and the lid closes tighter and tighter with each passing day.

As I said, there is a point of no return. Or, to say it another way, there is a point where you no longer get to decide if you stay or leave. In many cases, people who take up permanent residence in their coffin are eventually evicted. The anger, frustration, or apathy that comes with the coffin tends to bring negative organizational consequences.

If you feel trapped in a velvet coffin, remember that you’re the CEO of your decisions. You decide to stay or leave. You can choose to reframe your role or purpose. You determine what fear you’d rather face.

If you elect not to decide or delay your decision, you’re choosing to remain in your coffin. Don’t be surprised if you eventually find yourself feeling buried alive without many viable options.