The following tweet hit me this morning:
As a fellow pastor, I was shocked and nodding in agreement at the same time. I can understand why so many pastors are throwing in the towel. COVID really placed some stress on pastors, so on one level, it’s not a surprise.
That said, I think COVID was more of an accelerant than a cause. A lot of the causes were taking place long before the lockdown. There are a lot of things happening in our culture that leave clergy feeling depressed, ignored and unappreciated. At some point, they just give up and leave.
I’m still hanging on. I haven’t given much thought to leaving the ministry-yet. But the last year has been depressing. There is this feeling that I’m doing all of this for nothing. You get the feeling that people don’t really care about faith, or about the congregation they belong to. I’ve been working in trying to help turn around a small church in the Twin Cities suburbs, but at times I wonder if the congregation really cares if the congregation survives or not.
You work to welcome visitors doing whatever is possible to greet them and they end up going to a larger church down the street. Others attend for a while and then just stop coming. As much as we talk about the church as a community, it feels more and more like your church is in the bargain bin, as people go for the shinier model on the endcap. People going to church now feel at times like consumers instead of adherents. Yes, I know that back in the 50s, people went to church because it was the thing to do, but even those people were dedicated to the institution than it seems today.
But it isn’t just local issues, as important as they are to pastors. I think there are larger issues that are making an impact on the local church. There’s that poll that shows the number of people who go to church has dipped below 50 percent. There are articles like this one by Shadi Hamid that talk about how politics has taken the place of religion in our society. Actual religion, the one about God and Jesus isn’t as sexy as Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren.
A pastor from Michigan was spot in his response to Dan White:
That sense of discouragement is such a marked difference from where I was at a decade ago. Back then I was an Associate Pastor at a changing congregation and I wrote a blog post called “Faith in Low Tide.” It was a response to a post written by the late theologian Loren Mead about how to maintain your faith at a time when the church is changing so much. I look back at what I wrote and I seemed so full of a sense of hope:
First Christian is a church trying to accept the fact that it’s not a big church anymore. In fact, it’s more of a small church these days. There are two ways to respond to that, and I see both at times. Sometimes in the same person.
One way to respond is with anxiety. Pastors feel anxious because they want to do something, anything, to make the church “successful” again. We might not want to admit it, but I think deep down, we pastor-types want to see the church grow numerically and tend to think it numbers. We get mad that the congregation isn’t “doing anything” to allow themselves to grow. We get mad at ourselves for not being able to make the congregation grow. Lay folk also get anxious that the church isn’t growing and get mad at each other and frustrated at the pastor for…well, you know what I’m getting at.
The other response is to just get out there just do stuff. You go on mission projects or decorate your car and fellowship with others on a nice, sunny day. You basically walk in faith and just keep being faithful, feeding the poor, learning more about God and having fun.
In many ways, I am the pastor that I was warning about. But so much has changed since those sunny days when I wrote that article. The difference is that I am way beyond anxious, I feel discouraged.
What’s the answer for pastors? I really don’t have the answer. But I think something that Mead said back in 2010 still makes sense: learn to be faithful. Mead wrote the following:
Work on your own faith. We KNOW how to keep spirits up when things go well. We DON’T know how to thrive when things blow up on us. Find the things that feed your spirit — what are they? Study? Periods of quiet? Hard exercise or strenuous games? Deep conversation with colleagues or friends? Special spiritual exercises or worship? Carpentry or Gardening? Going on retreat or to conferences? Music — listening to it or making it –whichever is right for you. Remember the Psalms? — they are obviously what Jesus turned to when things went badly for him. Try them. Whatever it is, be sure to make time for it. And do it. Find. If you haven’t already, what feeds your soul and do it. Don’t let ANYTHING get in the way of your own renewal.
I feel the need more and more to make sure that at the very least, I am trying to keep doing faith practices. I’m trying to keep a regular schedule with devotions and prayer. Maybe I need to find a Bible Study for myself. In the midst of the storm, you keep trusting in God even when it seems that God is silent or on a vacation.
There is an old spiritual that comes to mind right now: “We’ve come this far by Faith.” The lyrics go like this:
We have come this far by faith,
Leaning on the Lord,
Trusting in His holy Word,
He’s never failed us –yet.
Singin’ oh, oh, oh, can’t turn a-round,
We’ve come this far by faith.
I feel I have to have faith in God, not that things will dramatically change, but that God is faithful to me and I’m learning to be faithful to God in the storms of life. Many pastors are dealing with those storms as well. I can’t tell you to stand strong in the faith, that has to come from you. I can’t tell you that I won’t turn around and leave. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I can’t make promises. All I can do is remain faithful and trust that in the midst of earthquakes and windstorms a still small voice will be made known to me.
You can listen to a podcast based on this article by going here.