I have been a subscriber to Christianity Today since the early 1980’s. I have always appreciated the quality and Biblical orthodoxy of its articles. Recently both the CT magazine May/June issue, and its quarterly supplement “CT Pastors”, focused on the current challenges facing congregational pastors in the U.S. These challenges include both increased internal congregational conflict and decreasing worship attendance. One result of these challenges has been a great many “burned out”, discouraged clergy.
Regarding internal conflict within the Body of Christ, the “CT Pastors” editor, Kelli Trujillo, quoted Clement’s letter to the church of Corinth in 96 AD. “Have we reached such a height of madness as to forget that we are members of one another?” Well in some U.S. congregations, especially since early 2020, the answer is apparently an emphatic “yes”.
There is no doubt some comfort in knowing there has always been some level of internal conflict and disunity in the life of the church. However, many pastors are saying that the last few years have been, by far, the most difficult years of their ministries. One pastor, who was interviewed for the CT article, “Emptied Out”, described what he has experienced in his last two years of ministry in one word: “Excruciating”.
Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford University’s Institute for Religion Research, recently surveyed pastors. His survey found that two-thirds considered 2020 “the hardest year in their ministry experience.” From CT managing editor Andy Olsen: “The past few years of social and political upheaval have taken a particular toll on ministers. Countless churches are threatened by an epidemic of pastoral burnout.”
So what are some of the causes contributing to both congregational conflict and frustrated, discouraged pastors? At least two immediately come to mind.
1. Not surprisingly one cause has been pandemic-related ministry challenges since early 2020. An additional quote, this one from CT writer Kyle Rohane: “The digitization of church services, sped along by the pandemic, has twisted the knife” when it comes to member dissatisfaction with their pastors. “Since the pandemic, the debate over in-person versus impersonal preaching has been complicated considerably. For the first time, due to the recent proliferation of live-streamed and recorded services, local pastors are in stiff competition with obscure preachers from other states.” Kelly Kapic, writing in her “CT Pastors” article, said: “The long COVID-19 pandemic has increased the difficulties for many (churches), resulting in less church involvement and more mental health challenges, less relational connection and more political polarization.” On a personal note, I know of two pastors—both serving smaller congregations—who have each had five or six active couples angrily leave their churches in the last two years. Oddly enough, in one church it was because the pastor followed state guidelines regarding in-person worship and masks, while in the other church the couples left because that pastor did not strictly follow those same state guidelines. A classic “lose-lose” scenario.
2. A second cause contributing to both congregational disunity and pastor “burn out” is an accelerated decline in worship attendance. While the pandemic contributed to this decline for most churches, the majority of these congregations were unfortunately already in decline before 2020. A 20-year study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that small churches (100 or fewer in weekly attendance) now make up 70 percent of US congregations. According to one “CT Pastors” article, “The median crowd at church on a Sunday morning is half what it was 20 years ago. In 2000, the median worship attendance at US congregations was 137; now it’s down to 65.” My own observation, after consulting with hundreds of pastors and congregational leaders over the last 30 years, is that congregational decline often increases the likelihood of internal conflict, and directly contributes to the discouragement and stress experienced by pastors.
Not surprisingly, these ministry challenges are contributing to many pastors re-evaluating how long they want to remain in the ministry. From writer Kyle Rohane: “What’s unusual about our current situation, is the sheer number of pastors wanting to leave ministry simultaneously throughout the US and across demographics and traditions.” He also writes, “The aging of American pastors is a well-established phenomenon. Baby boomers have stayed in ministry longer than expected, and we should expect to see a natural rise in retirements as they finally transition out of lead roles. But the pressures of the past two years could cause many to retire early.” (Emphasis mine) Even more specific to our immediate challenges, author and pastor Dane Ortlund tweeted, “A tidal wave of pastor resignations is coming in 2022.” And one last quote from Kyle Rohane: “A nationwide pastor shortage could be a death knell for many smaller churches.”
So what can be done; whether at the direction of pastors or lay leaders? To begin with, there needs to be awareness that a significant percentage of serving pastors are dealing with an “affirmation deficit”. Given the realities of pastoral ministry since early 2020, a pastoral support group is more needed than ever in congregational life. (And this is at least one group of lay leaders that should be hand-picked by the pastor.) Given the current clergy supply crisis, I can state unequivocally that you do not want your current pastor to be retiring or leaving sooner than necessary. This is a good time for lay leaders to step up and provide emotional and spiritual encouragement for their pastors.
In addition, pastors and lay leaders alike need to address the issue of congregational unity. Granted, this might be more challenging now than it would have been a few years ago. However, this makes it that much more urgent and necessary. Kelly Kapic writes, “When things are especially challenging for church leaders, it can be hard to even see the good that has been given, because we feel overwhelmed by the hardships and disappointments. Maybe we need encouragement to look again with grace…Jesus promises to meet us in and through his imperfect people…Our confidence is not in our faithfulness but in God’s. God knows our limits better than we do, so by loving others well, limits and all, we participate in God’s work without being crushed by it.”
To end this column, here is one specific and particularly practical suggestion that can contribute to congregational unity. It was hi-lighted in Ike Miller’s article (in “CT Pastors”) entitled, “The Myth of Thick Skin”. The subtitle to this article is “The surprising cure to painful criticism: Invite more feedback”. The concept is straightforward. Congregations need regular, healthy ways for members to voice their concerns to lay leaders. And these listening sessions need to be done without the pastor present. The lay leaders — perhaps those who are also in the pastoral support group — take notes during these listening sessions; notes that will be passed on to the pastor while not revealing the individual “source”. In these “listening sessions” disgruntled and/or concerned members can be heard without being challenged. Additionally, the pastor can learn of their concerns in a manner where he or she is less likely to feel unfairly and personally criticized. A final quote from Ike Miller:
However tempting it may seem, the secret to dealing with criticism as pastors isn’t to avoid it or hear less of it. The secret to handling criticism well is to create channels and practices that allow for more of it, but in healthier ways…Healthy feedback tools provide less-personal pathways for this communication to take place so that we, as leaders, can remain humble, teachable, and receptive to wise counsel without being destroyed by the emotional blows that often accompany it.Ike Miller