The Trials, Tribulations and Challenges Facing Pastors in 2022

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

How is this Woke Agenda Working for You?

The ELCA has long bragged in its news releases by a tag line reporting how significant it is because of its size. One could cite this as another example of a Theology of Glory, but then ‘God’s Work Our Hands’ sounds rather ostentatious too (not to mention synergistic).

Anyhow, the current tag line reads:
“The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with nearly 3.3 million members in more than 8,900 worshiping communities across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.”

Compare this to the tagline in the oldest press release I saved, from August 2016:
“The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.”

Since 2021 statistics are not available yet, that means that the ELCA admits to the loss of more than 400,000 members in the four-year period from 2016 through 2020, meaning a hemorrhage of around 80,000 souls per year. The drop of roughly 400 congregations would come out to an average of about 80 per year. And these are “net” figures, after any growth in either category.

As Dr. Phil might ask, “How is all this inclusiveness working for you?”

Is My Pastor About to Quit?

You might say we are beginning to witness the proverbial straw that is about to break the camel’s back.  The camel, in this case, is the Protestant ordained ministry.  (Including, of course, Lutheran pastors.)  The straw is the current pandemic, and all the ways it is contributing to the work-related stress of pastors in this already infamous year of our Lord, 2020.

And yet the “straw” metaphor doesn’t do Covid-19 justice.  This pandemic and its consequences would have been hard to even imagine just ten months ago.  Yet here we are.

 I retired from parish ministry less than two years ago.  Apparently just in time.  And while I am currently coaching numerous not-yet-retired Lutheran pastors, I have been personally insulated from the “new normal” full-time pastors are dealing with in this pandemic era.  So I was surprised to come across Pastor Thom Rainer’s latest article just posted on August 31st.  The title alone gained my complete attention: “Six Reasons Your Pastor Is About to Quit”.

Who is Thom Rainer?  He is the former CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and currently leads the coaching ministry Church Answers.  And while Thom is Southern Baptist background, I’m convinced his insights apply to mainline Protestant pastors in general—including Lutheran clergy.

 Early in his article Thom writes this: “The vast majority of pastors with whom our (coaching) team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches.  It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.”  (Keep in mind Pastor Rainer has been in ministry for almost forty years.)  Here are the six reasons, as described by Thom Rainer, why many pastors are “about to quit.”

  1. “Pastors are weary from the pandemic just like everyone else.”  No surprise here.
  2. “Pastors are greatly discouraged about the fighting taking place among church members about the post-quarantine church.  Gather in person or wait?  Masks or no masks?  Social distancing or not?”  Rainer also mentions the added stress when these conflicts have been politicized.
  3. “Pastors are discouraged about losing members and attendance.”  Pastors I have been coaching are, this summer, seeing in-person attendance that is only 30 to 50% of pre-Covid levels.  And Rainer adds this: “Pastors have already heard directly or indirectly from around one-fourth of the members that they do not plan to return at all.”
  4. “Pastors don’t know if their churches will be able to financially support congregational ministries in the future.”  And while giving might be healthy up to this point there is apparently mounting anxiety about whether this will continue to be the case in 2021.
  5. “Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly.”
  6. “The workload for pastors has increased greatly. … They are trying to serve the congregation the way they have in the past, but now they have the added responsibilities that have come with the digital world.  And as expected, pastoral care needs among members have increased during the pandemic as well.”

This pandemic has, in my view, created something of a “perfect storm” when it comes to the matter of clergy supply.  Even pre-Covid we were seeing the reality of many more pastors retiring than new pastors being ordained.  Now that trend will undoubtedly be accelerating, due in part to many pastors retiring sooner rather than later.

 Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition (CiT) ministry coaches are available to help confessing Lutheran congregations who are or soon will be dealing with a pastoral vacancy in these uncertain and unnerving times.  If you are a congregational lay leader at a church that already has—or soon will have—a vacancy, or you are a pastor who will be retiring in the next one to two years, we can help.  Our coaching assistance, while at a distance, is comprehensive, and is customized to address your congregation’s unique ministry challenges.  If you want to know more, contact me, Don Brandt, either by email ( or phone (503-559-2034).

 And for every lay person reading this, do what you can to thank and encourage your pastor!

Dr. Don Brandt

Director, Congregations in Transition