Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Last week, I suggested that after the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. While that piece was primarily focused on movements in broader society, I connected this thesis to the church too. I wrote that, while there is an opportunity here to join in work toward the kingdom of God, "[f]or some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church." I want to explore that suggestion further in this week's post and a following one next week.
This week, I'd like to explore what it means that for some pastors, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to their roles in and experience of church, and thus, after the pandemic, an increased number of pastors are done enduring ministry.
First, I must say out that I am far from the first to point this trend out. There has been a series of articles over the past year in both religious and secular press describing the exodus of pastors, including these sources: The Alabama Baptist, Kentucky Today, Religion News Service (also reprinted in The Christian Century and USA Today), ChurchLeaders.com, Lifeway Research, Business Insider, and Christianity Today. More citations could be added too.
It seems like this exodus of ministers is being driven by fall-out from a combination of the top headlines of last year: the COVID-19 epidemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the extremely contentious election cycle. All of these stories have made pastoral work harder, and misinformation related to the first and third of these stories has further added to pastors' challenges. The cumulative effects have been stressful and have left pastors asking questions about their place in the church.
The pandemic involved significant stress for pastors in figuring out what to do in the face of church shut-downs and how to do it, how to made decisions about remaining closed or reopening, and how to navigate the organizational dynamics of congregants' opinions on questions about reopening and COVID-19 precautions. Questions about how to meaningfully address racial conflict in the United States, especially when such issues are polarizing to (white) congregations, added to pastors' stress. Then trying to promote Christian love in a political climate of extreme division made the job more complicated, especially for pastors serving politically mixed churches.
In each of these instances, these issues presented large, complex challenges that required significant adaptation and presented no easy solution. In many instances, pastors felt alone in trying to navigate these challenges. Thus, the substantial stress of responding to such issues has been enough to leave some pastors wanting a break.
But these issues also raised questions for many pastors about their relationship to their congregants and denominational leaders. Pastors risking COVID infection for themselves and, sometimes, their families to do ministry wondered whether congregants or denominational leaders cared whether they got sick. Pastors asked whether their white congregants were more attached to white supremacy than they were to Jesus' gospel of love for people of all races and nations. Pastors watching their congregants write vicious or false things on Facebook, either about the election or the pandemic, questioned how that fit with the Christian message of truth and love. Pastors wondered whether denominational leaders would support them in conflicts with their congregations over any of these issues and sometimes felt that those leaders did not.
These questions also undercut pastors' willingness to endure the challenges of ministry, challenges which were usually significant pre-pandemic, but which have only grown in the last year and a half, as described above. Why endure the stress if those for whom you worked didn't care and your work wasn't going to change people's actions or hearts anyway?
So, an increased number of pastors have decided that they are done. They have left or are leaving ministry.
This trend seems to be impacting pastors across the theological spectrum, in different denominations and polity systems, and in different geographic areas (as indicated in the breadth of news sources quoted above). Varying age ranges are also involved, though anecdotal evidence collected by my wife suggests that the trend is especially pronounced among pastors in their 30s and 40s and among women. While many factors are likely at work, this group includes parents of school-aged children, some of whom are also caregivers for older relatives as well, both groups negatively impacted by the pandemic. Women in particular have borne a significant amount of the pandemic-related parenting stress.
While the resolve and faith of those pastors staying in ministry is certainly to be praised, we must be careful about treating those who choose to leave as "failures" or their complaints as unimportant. Such responses lack compassion and seek to justify oneself. Decisions to leave reflect real issues in the church laid bare by the last year, and these departures will have real impact on churches. We as the church must take both seriously and seek to learn from them, rather than write them off.
What implications does this trend have for churches? I see several.
1. Increased difficulty for congregations seeking a pastor. The number of congregations, while shrinking overall, does not seem to have reduced as sharply as the number of pastors in the past year. Thus, fewer pastors = fewer possibilities of filling open pulpits. This trend will play out in different ways in denominations with call vs. appointment systems, but it will impact them both. This impact will be manifest immediately.
2. Increased pressure on struggling congregations to close. There is already pressure on such congregations. Small, impoverished, or dysfunctional congregations will have the greatest struggles attracting new pastors and had the most significant pre-pandemic challenges. If they are unable to find pastors, that creates yet another incentive for them to close their doors. While the pressures may be immediate, the resultant closures are likely 2-5 years down the road.
3. Disruption of leadership pipelines. Especially if it proves true that a disproportionately high number of early- to mid-career pastors are leaving, that means that there will be fewer pastors to develop into leaders for large congregations and denominational positions. This impact won't be felt immediately. Instead, it will become increasingly manifest in the next 5-15 years.
Thus, the impact of the pandemic on clergy supply in the United States will last much longer than the pandemic itself, serving as a drag on Christian ministry for years to come. Clergy are not and should not be solely determinative of the health of Christianity, but it would be foolish to pretend that clergy leadership does not matter to the quality of the church's mission and ministry.
While these forces pushing pastors away from ministry are cross-cutting, there is something that congregations and denominational leaders can do. Pastors that feel supported by their congregation and their denominational leaders are less likely to leave. Tangible support can reduce stress levels from responding to the pandemic and other social forces, and the existence of support reduces the questions pastors have about their relationships to their congregations, colleagues, and supervisors. Pastors are often looked to as sources of love and comfort, but they need these mercies as well.