A Barna article making the rounds on social media claims 38% of pastors in 2021 claim to have considered quitting full time ministry. Even more poignantly, Barna says a full 51% of mainline pastors have considered quitting. Am I surprised? No, I am not. I say, “Welcome to the club.” There are two kinds of pastors, those who admit that they have considered leaving the ministry and liars. I mean, really, I don’t believe there is a pastor on earth who hasn’t given it a thought. You’d be crazy to not consider it. Most of the interesting characters in the Bible questioned their calling. Moses (have you considered my brother Aaron?), Jeremiah (I’m too young), Jonah (we all know that big fish tale), even Jesus himself (let this cup pass from me…).
I’m addressing pastors now, the Word and Sacrament spiritual leaders under the pressure of being the congregational leader. Some of this may be true for deacons and other church staff. Some may not. Take what’s useful and discard what is not. Being a pastor is hard. Sure, you get to walk with people through some of the most joyful times of life, like baptisms and weddings, but you’re also called to walk with people through the loss of a job, the loss of a child, the loss of their health. Dozens of funerals take their toll. And frankly, weddings can be a tightrope of competing family “must-haves.” Preaching and preaching-preparation is one of my favorite tasks, but for many, public speaking is one of the top fears. There is also the pressure of week after week being gospel-centered, interesting, funny, deep, and relevant. Unless we want to tickle people’s ears and never challenge anyone or anything, part of our call is to speak truth to those who pay our salaries. Any rational person can see the rub there.
Add to all of that the role of being one of our society’s last generealists. The pastor manages a small business, serves as a public voice in the community, oversees staff, works with children and youth, cares for the elderly, visits the sick, tends to a building and property, works with a cadre of volunteers, answers to a board, teaches, counsels, and sets up chairs. The pastor’s family is in a fishbowl. Everything you do is in the public eye and under public scrutiny. You represent God. No pressure.
Add to this the realities of a pandemic. People who threaten to leave if masks are not required. People who threaten to leave if masks are required. People who say, because you are judiciously tending to people’s health and well-being, “You have no faith. I don’t recognize this church.” People who are mad because you’re “withholding communion,” or not distributing it properly. People who are mad because of audio difficulties on the live stream. People who are mad because you aren’t visiting the hospital or nursing home (even though it’s not allowed). People who think you aren’t doing your job because worship attendance is down, or Sunday school and youth programs aren’t thriving. People who are frustrated because you don’t address the moral and social issues of the day. People who get mad if you do.
It’s easy to see why some are throwing up their hands. In our synod we have not seen any quit the ministry as of yet, but we do have a record number of resignations and congregations in between pastors (about 16% of our congregations). Some pastors are simply choosing this as the moment to retire. Some are looking for a new call in a fresh setting. Still others have been pushed out by lay leaders who feel “it’s time for a change” or “it’s just not a good fit.” Looking through the list of congregations in transition, every one of their former pastors are still pastors. Some are retired, but most are active, and none have left the ministry.
There is no shame in looking for a new call. We should all be open to the wind of the Spirit blowing through our lives. Always. And sometimes it truly isn’t a good fit. Right now, it’s very hard to tell. We are all tired. The pandemic made us sprint, adapt, learn new competencies. Suddenly, we are all televangelists. Society is anxious. People aren’t at their best when they are anxious. Managing the boat in a storm is taxing.
So, maybe you’ve called in all your favors, spent your personal capital. Maybe it’s time for a new call. Fill out your paperwork, your Rostered Minister Profile. Doing so is a spiritual practice. It is a form of discernment if you’ll pardon the pun. You will ponder important questions. Take your time. Why are you a pastor? What is most important about your work? What are your top gifts? What are you not so good at? To what has God called you? What are your core convictions? What has been the fruit of your ministry the last three years? This is the stuff of good reflection.
After doing this soul work, you may decide you’re in the right place; it’s not time for a new call. Or you may become intrigued by new possibilities. If so, submit your RMP and we’ll activate it. Talk to call committees. Take an interview. The interview itself is a discernment process. You always have two calls in your hand: the one you have and the one you’re discerning. You may feel the tug of the Spirit to a new call. You may feel a sense of renewed call where you are.
Keep some things in mind as you discern.
- There is no guarantee that the grass will be greener in a new call. Every place has its foibles. Every church has been under stress. Your current context has issues. Any new context will have issues too. There are no perfect churches.
- Moving is stressful. Moving is exciting, but moving is often cited in the top ten in lists of stressful life events. If you’re moving because you’re stressed out, keep this in mind.
- Test the water. Make sure your restlessness is the movement of the Spirit, and not just the angst of an overworked and tired pastor.
- There is no harm of foul in discernment. A call is not a lifelong commitment. We should all be open to the Spirit, who sometimes calls us to new places, even new vocations. Your congregation is not the only place you can serve God. This vocation is not the only calling in the world.
- It is quite possible that a new call is just what you need. (And maybe what your congregation needs.) Sometimes we come to a place where we need a new challenge to stay energized. You deserve a challenging call. Your congregation deserves an energized leader.
- Sometimes the Spirit kicks us in the behind. After his baptism, Mark reports that the Spirit “drove Jesus into the wilderness.” That may mean going, or it may mean staying, but be aware, sometimes it’s time.
If you’re feeling crispy right now, fried, overworked, and at risk of burnout, take some time off. I know, it feels unfaithful to step away during a storm, but it’s been storming since March 2020. You’re no good to your people if you’re quivering ball of stress about to erupt. They need a rested, thoughtful leader. Your family needs you too. Step Away. Continuing education, vacation, your days off — take it all. Medical leave if necessary. Do whatever you have to do to stay healthy and lower your own anxiety, so you are available to help your people lower theirs.
Above all, take time for prayer. Talk to your spiritual director. Confide in a friend or colleague. Call your bishop. It’s going to be okay. The church isn’t going anywhere, even if the pieces on the board are shifting. The Spirit is running amok in the world. Soon the smoke will clear from this pandemic. God is already doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?