Almost a decade ago, Bill Pope found himself in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively. After 23 years as a pastor at churches in Alabama and Georgia, he wanted a new challenge for his life and his career. There was only one problem: he had no idea what he was going to do.

So, he did what many men of faith have done throughout history: He took to the woods. “When I left the pastorate, I took about a three week sabbatical, and I went to a cabin that my brother-in-law owns up in the Tennessee Mountains,” Pope says. “I took a stack of books with me, and my job, every day, was to get up, go for a long walk early in the morning as exercise, and then come back and read a book a day. That was my job.”

In those rugged Smoky Mountains, Pope had no distractions. The reading gave structure to his days. And, it just so happened, one of the books he’d brought along was an introduction to financial planning. Pope says there was a great passion the author had in describing the clients he met. “Those relationships and how he helped people, that really resonated with me.”

Pope says it isn’t the leap of faith you might think, making the move from the church to financial services. In the pastorate, he worked with members of his congregation, counseling them on spiritual matters as well as financial issues. Sometimes their marriages would be suffering due to financial concerns. Other times, the problems dealt with ailing parents or children who had gone astray morally or financially.

“I felt that as a pastor I already had a lot of experience talking to people about their finances,” Pope says. “I just needed to get more training in knowing what I was talking about. So it was a comfortable transition to me rather than a drastic shift.”

At the end of the day, Pope adds, “I found that the conversation has remained the same (between his congregation and clients). It’s only the starting point that this changed.”

As a pastor, his parishioners would come in and talk to him about family or marriage, or issues of faith, but eventually they would get around to all facets of their life, including finances. Now, he says, the entry point of the conversation begins with finances, but they end up talking about their faith and family. “It’s just a different starting point but we get to the same place.”

After that sojourn to the wilderness, Pope had the epiphany that he would make financial services his career. A contact from the church put him in touch with people at Northwestern Mutual, where he worked for two years before striking out on his own as an independent advisor.

But from the start of his financial career, Pope saw a niche that fit his unique skill set, something that would set him apart from other advisors. He saw that many of the advisors he spoke to were not comfortable talking about long-term care. He found that people were a little intimidated or uncomfortable with the topic because eventually the conversation led to nursing homes.

“Because of my experience as a pastor, of being in nursing homes on a regular basis and visiting them, I didn’t have that resistance.” Soon, Pope became the go-to guy when a long-term care case surfaced. Other agents would call him into an existing account and have Pope come in to close the health aspect of the deal and they would split the commissions.

Things were taking shape quickly in his new career, until he had a health scare of his own when he developed prostate cancer. “That sort of set me down for a little bit,” he says, but he used the time to get all of his licenses completed. The time also gave him a bigger picture view to figure out what type of advisor he wanted to be long-term.

The period of reflection evolved into Pope’s idea of being a planner, someone who really studies his client’s overall financial plan and maps that against their retirement goals to find something sustainable. Going back to his days in the pulpit, Pope always recognized in himself an ability to study and present a message in clear language.

“When I was preparing sermons, I didn’t just want to get up there and talk off the cuff. I studied and I prepared so that what I had to say was organized and people could sit there and listen and follow along to a logical presentation.”

Now, he’s taken those same skills and applied them to his presentations, particularly when he’s faced with “trying to unravel the complexities of communicating some of the features of life insurance or disability, or long-term care. There are so many moving parts to some of these products that people just get confused.”

Pope was determined that he would find a clear message for his clients. “I was not going to use financial words or terms that people didn’t know about; I was going to talk in plain English when I was discussing these products with the clients.”

For practice management tips from other top advisors, see SMA’s 2012 Advisor of the Year Finalists.