My friend clams up each time I mention pastoral ministry. In the three years since she left her job as a pastor for work in higher ed, she hasn’t talked about the entrenched sexism and racism that eventually caused her to leave ministry. It’s too soon; the wounds are still fresh.
The Great Resignation is underway in the United States with an astounding 3 percent of employees collectively refusing the terms of low-wages, absent benefits, and dangerous working conditions expected by their bosses. Pastors, too, are walking away. Recent poll data collected by Barna Group, a California-based research firm that studies faith and culture, confirmed what I’m seeing among my friends and colleagues. According to Barna, about 38 percent of Protestant senior pastors surveyed have considered leaving ministry over the past year. Among pastors under age 45, that number rose to 46 percent.
In personal phone calls, emails to congregations, and announcements on video, my colleagues have explained why they are leaving. An intractable conflict. Embedded sexism. Shifting congregational commitments. Unclear paths for ministry following the pandemic. Exhaustion, low pay, and lack of appreciation. After 18 months of live-streamed worship services, tele-pastoral care, and online funerals, my exhausted friends are leaving their churches one by one. Each week, I learn of another pastor transitioning not only out of their current job but out of ministry altogether.
Church ministry isn’t glamorous. While U.S. megachurches occupy a disproportionate space in the media landscape, in reality, the majority of churches in this country are in rural and suburban areas with fewer than 100 people attending each Sunday. The budgets of these churches are small and they are unequipped to provide most of the benefits offered by large companies. Some of us are both the janitorial staff and the preacher in our congregation.
But what we gain as pastors — and why we continue in low-to-middle pay work — is the opportunity to help forge communities held by common commitments to the gospel. We get to nurture generosity, redistribute our money, and create forms of mutual aid and care. We learn to get along with people with whom we disagree. We carve out new ways for conflict, repair, and restoration.
But in the wreckage of Trumpian politics and a never-ending-pandemic, our jobs have been reduced to negotiating skirmishes over mask-wearing and vaccination status. Former and current pastors have shared with me that their denominations and powerful congregants have pushed for a false unity that tolerates homophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories. My friend Ryan, a seasoned pastor, finally gave up. He felt that he could no longer follow the work of the Holy Spirit when he was expected to make room for people who actively thwarted God's movement. When we name the need to repent of sexism and racism, powerful church members withhold their giving and muster factions to oust us. Our compassion fatigue is real.
Pastors are not only leaving conservative churches but progressive churches as well. Many of us are done squabbling over building fees and sermon topics. My colleagues have shared about how difficult it has been to convince white liberal churches to stand against racism and reimagine economic practices that emphasize redistribution. Our ministries are engulfed in desires for new programs, anxieties about church growth, and frustrations over sinking budgets. Even then, we experience unwillingness to try new things or shift church priorities.
In the past decade, we’ve watched a trickle in the decline of church membership turn to a geyser as people woke up to the incompatibility between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the practices of many who claim to follow him. Up until recently, I was certain the death of the institutional church would come because of a mass exodus from the pews. But if the data is any indicator, the sun might set on U.S. churches as we know them because pastors refuse to aid and abet a compromise between factionalism and the good news of Jesus.
For decades, church people assumed their pastors’ commitment to the church would supersede any bruising and bullying that congregants doled out. I am grateful for my colleagues who are putting this myth to rest by resigning from churches that refuse to provide them the support and care they need to thrive in ministry.
My friends leaving ministry haven’t given up on the gospel or the body of Christ. But they also believe that the gospel is only good news if it is lived in the lives of those who claim our shared faith. It was never our job as pastors to keep the institutional church from dissolving. We are not spiritual entertainers. We didn’t take up this work to compete in the marketplace of meaning-making. We don’t build institutions. The institutional church is an experiment and like all experiments, it can fail. When it does, we wait in hope to see what good work God is up to next.