CERTAINTY IS A rare thing in the age of the coronavirus. But there is one thing that we can know for sure: There will be fewer pastors after the pandemic than there were before it. For me, the realization started with reports from friends and colleagues, all gifted and committed pastors, sharing their decision not only to step down from their church but from ministry altogether. This is not an uncommon reality, but the number of reports caught my attention. I was used to hearing this kind of news a few times a year. Now, it was a few times a month.
My observations were reinforced by data. A survey conducted by the Barna Group discovered that toward the end of 2021, 38 percent of pastors had given real and serious consideration to stepping down from ministry permanently. That number was up 9 full percentage points from earlier that same year, meaning that if the trend has held steady, the percentage is likely even higher today.
Then, in the middle of 2021, I felt it in myself: a deep weariness that I had never experienced before, even when I pastored a church while my wife fought cancer. There was a sense of despair as I faced decision after decision that would invariably lead to controversy and criticism: Masks or no masks? Open our doors or close them? How do I navigate social issues in a way that is courageous yet pastoral? I felt trapped between the very real needs of my congregation and a very virulent pandemic that today has killed more than 1 million Americans. I had become part of that 38 percent.
The ‘Great Pastoral Resignation’
WHILE STILL AN unfolding dynamic, it is not too early to imagine how the dearth of pastors might shape the future of ministry and churches. After all, prophecy, or casting our eyes to the future, has always been a key practice of the church. (The prophetic tradition, of course, wasn’t just future-oriented: Prophets also confronted poverty, war, despotism, and oppression.) What broader ramifications could the “Great Resignation,” which has impacted industries across the U.S., have on churches? Probably more than we recognize. Much more.