It’s 2022 – Can I Keep my Pastor from Quitting?

It seems like everyone is quitting their job right now, including a healthy portion of pastors. Including myself. It’s been a long two pandemic years; churchgoers and pastors are exhausted; there are likely many, many more pastoral resignations coming in 2022. I know a number of pastors who are passionate about their work, have strong support systems, and are unlikely to leave. But I know a far larger number of pastors who are completely exhausted, stretched thin, and losing track of what called them into ministry. Is there any way to stop it?

You Can’t Make Anyone Do Anything

The bad news is no. You can’t make anyone do anything, and even if you could, your church wouldn’t be better off if you found a way to blackmail or otherwise guilt your pastor into staying. If you can somehow retain an exhausted pastor, they won’t be able to work at the level you’ve come to expect from them. Sure, they can make worship happen every week, but exhaustion disconnects us from creativity. Your pastor can keep things hobbling along, but they will struggle to keep things healthy.

I quit my pastoral role in June 2021, after the church had done some work to identify its priorities for the next three years. Those priorities included managing its new rental relationship; updating the child safety covenant; and evaluating and most likely overhauling the governance structure. All of these were things that I could do, and all were things that would suck the energy out of me at a point when I already felt isolated and overloaded. I knew I wouldn’t be able to lead the way I hoped, or lead the way I had for the first three years of my contract. I didn’t want to be a leader who functioned at half-capacity. I recognized that I could make a bigger difference in the world, with less strain on my own health, doing something else.

This is the second problem with trying to make a pastor stay: Just as God calls individuals to ministry, God may call them out of ministry. When God calls ministers, God does not specify how or for how long. This is frustrating for congregations, and it’s downright infuriating for pastors. My call into ministry was clear and undeniable and came from outside myself; a word from someone I trusted completely rewrote my future. My exit from ministry was the same—a dear friend made a comment which forced me to recognize that I was more attached to my perception God’s future than God was. I had narrowed my identity and perception to an all-work-and-no-play pastoral role that was not where God believed that I was at my best. And so God called me out of ministry.

Attending to Burnout Before Someone Gets Burned

While leaving ministry is often a calling, it’s often, also, a result of burnout, and there are some things churches can do to make it easier for pastors to stay in their roles.

Pastors often find that loving the people who inside the church does not equate to loving the work environment. The structure of pastoral work is practically designed for burnout: flexible, often inconsistent work hours; undefined goals and vague performance review processes; limited or difficult to take paid time off; infrequent validation or recognition; high expectations to complete products that are minimally used (bulletins, sermon manuscripts, etc.); minimal support structures with excessive supervisory bodies; and often low wages.

Churches that wish to reduce burnout should attend to structure first. Clarify committee roles and responsibilities. Create consistent and affirming review processes. Set an expectation that at the beginning of the year, the pastor schedules at least four full weeks off (at least four). Encourage and enable your pastor to plan for sabbatical. We have significant data that indicates working overtime does not increase productivity; pastors who invest significant additional hours might have closer connections in the congregation and be perceived as “more present,” but that likely won’t create higher quality sermons, better leadership in complex decision-making processes, or creative new ministries. Those will be best achieved by having significant time off for the brain to rest, repair, and be creative.

A burned out prairie with a seed head ready to release new seeds to the ground.

The leadership, pastoral support, or evaluation committee should also work with the pastor to set annual priorities; this allows the committee to have a comparison point during review processes. Be clear about what expectations the pastor can drop–and be consistent.

In one congregation I worked in, I consistently received feedback that I didn’t spend time with a population of the church (seniors) that was not in my job description (which focused on youth and young adult ministry). The review committee encouraged to attend more events with the seniors, without identifying other job responsibilities I could release—a disconnect that fed into the expectation of longer work hours and never-enough-ness.

Churches who are proactive about creating healthy work structures will find their staff able to remain in those work structures for longer.

No Person is Final

A pastor’s exit ought to be sad. If you’re happy to see your pastor go, it’s way past time for them to leave. That sadness, however, ought to be rooted in a relationship, not an existential crisis of church identity.

When I was in seminary, a professor told our large class, “Never think that you are irreplaceable. The church does not need you, in particular, at all times, in order to function. If they do, you don’t have a church, you have a cult of personality. Work at all times to make sure you can be replaced, and your church will be healthier for it.” All pastors leave eventually, and while they leave holes in congregational hearts, it is the work of the congregation to remember that it needs more than one leader. The work of the church is to be perpetually calling out new leaders.

Every church has a responsibility for raising up new pastors. This requires not just mentoring young people, but supporting mid- and late-career adults searching for new, more values-aligned work.

Ministry requires a core skill set, but the idea that it is a professional career with specialized training is overstated. It’s less rocket science than improvisational jazz. Pastoring is work that varies daily from building a miniature barn inside the sanctuary; digging a labyrinth in the church yard; performing music in worship; navigating Social Security Disability paperwork with a congregant; preparing a meal; managing technology for virtual worship; and more. Churches need pastors with an understanding of scripture, theology, and emerging trends, but churches also benefit from pastors with non-traditional education paths. We need pastors who bring their skill sets from entrepreneurship, social work, teaching, writing, organizing, computer programming, music, and other backgrounds.

Any thriving church, by nature of its thriving, is creating leaders with the core competences of ministry. That is, any church that pursues God’s kingdom-building work, nurtures healthy community, and studies scripture and ethics together, is naturally creating a pool of leaders who can do pastoral work.

No person is final. Very few of us ever experience a pastor who stays with us for a lifetime, or even a half-lifetime. Pastors are designed to be replaced. You will feel closer to some pastors than others and that is okay—a pastor is not your personal on-call emotional support (although they can sometimes serve that role in a crisis); a pastor is a community leader who nurtures collective growth. It is okay to have a favorite or most formative pastor. No one else may be able to replicate that relationship for you. But they can replicate it for someone else in the community who is in a moment of need.

Honor the past, and recognize the ways a pastoral change allows God to set you up for the future.

Tithing in the Time of COVID: Churches, Wealth Gaps, and Giving Gaps

Most charities are struggling financially right now. But churches are not most charities. Churches run on a unique revenue model, funded by voluntary contributions from a group of individuals who tend to be socially and economically homogeneous. Which means that the economic state of the church looks much like the country: the haves are having more and more, while the have-nots discover new ways to not have.

The way COVID hit American households is the way COVID hit American churches. We know people with college degrees have been more likely to keep their jobs, and that white workers—who are able to work from home in greater numbers—are more likely than Black, Indigenous, and employees of color are more likely to keep their jobs.

This means churches comprised of educated and white members are likely continuing to meet their revenue projections or, if they fall short, are suffering more from the inconvenience of virtual worship (that is, Zoom’s not-yet-developed in-app “Pay Now” feature) than a lack of member funds. Churches comprised of hospitality, mobility, and service workers (where people of color are overrepresented) are likely struggling significantly to meet budget, and disproportionately relying on denominational emergency support funds or external donor relationships. These are the same churches where pastors are already more likely to be bivocational, and pastors as well as congregants may be struggling with unemployment.

COVID is exacerbating the same wealth disparities we’ve collectively exacerbated for the last several decades. It is critical–faithful–that churches that have remained financially stable over the last six months change their patterns of giving. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Partner with a local church that has greater financial need. Offer ongoing support for the duration of the pandemic by subsidizing a local pastor’s salary—particular of a predominately BIPOC-church. The best thing you can give is unrestricted cash, because churches, like individuals, tend to know what they need most, and adding restrictions to money adds stress to both the relationship and the finances.
  2. Create mutual aid funds for inside and outside the community. Many congregations have off-budget support funds for congregants in need. If you don’t, start such a fund now. If you do, start an additional Community Aid Fund. These are dollars that go to anyone who shows up at the church doors and ask for money, without vetting or paperwork or prayer requirements. People who show up at church doors—who have both the humility and the desperation to ask for money—tend to be people who have exhausted every other possibility, from failing to qualify for disability to reaching the Salvation Army after all rent relief subsidies have been disbursed. While scammers do show up, and tend to show up repeatedly, take it on faith that a one-time cash gift fund, at the pastor’s or the administrator’s discretion, is a faithful gift and an essential part of the social safety net. If you’re concerned about abuse, set an annual cap or agree to “no more than $100 per person” or go read your Bible because Jesus did not vet the worthiness of the people he healed.
  3. Develop ways of communicating this aid if your building is still closed, because a community aid fund is only as accessible as the staff and volunteers who manage it. Put a flyer on the door with a phone number or office hours. Keep masks and PPE on hand for folks in need who come in without safe accessories. Collaborate with other local congregations and direct people where to go and who still has Community Aid Funds available, so that no single congregation gets overwhelmed. If you do get overwhelmed, take it as an affirmation that you are offering the gospel where it is needed. If you run out of money, count it as a success, take a breather, and find a new way to support your neighbors.
  4. Tithe off the top. Contribute 10% of total monthly giving to a charity. Or put it into your external mutual aid fund. If your church is meeting budget goals, or close to meeting budget and expenses have dropped with COVID, commit to giving every month a percentage of tithes receives. Quick distribution maximizes impact, allowing your gifts to get to agencies sooner and minimizing congregational debate and approval of the perennial “What to do with the surplus?” question that will be resolved next March, a year after COVID began. (If you want to be extractive and transactional about it, ask the church’s administrator or facilities manager to calculate the savings the church has gained from sitting empty—in water, electricity, and other bills—and donate that amount every month to an agency directly serving people in need.)
  5. Start a little free food pantry. Don’t start a food pantry—something that requires volunteers, committees, organization, and is likely duplicative of other understaffed and under-accessible food security initiatives that other local churches are operating. Just build a box—a very large little free library of nonperishable goods and encourage a small group to look after it, while encouraging everyone to drop by and contribute goods to it.
  6. Adopt a social service agency. Channel your volunteer time and relationships into one significant partnership that gives you a bird’s eye view of COVID-through-the-lens-of-“X”-agency. As mentioned at the top, most all charities are struggling, and sometimes, viewing COVID through the lens of homeless children, domestic violence survivors, or folks with mental disabilities, in a sustained, collectively committed way yields a bigger understanding of the impact one church can make.  
  7. Support denominational camps and retreat centers. Not the established, endowment-funded ones but the barely-meeting-budget-on-a-good-year camps that pay their staff in kitchen-made retreat meals. These camps are often regional centers for diversity, bringing together congregations from rural, urban, and suburban demographics with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Supporting and maintaining camps through the pandemic maintains pathways of communication and witness across socioeconomic barriers.
  8. Lower the barriers for financial support to Millennials and Gen Z attendees, especially college students. Instead of care packages, send students cash. Give a scholarship, even a nominal one, to every college student. Support early-career Millennials. They are now in the second recession of their decade-long careers (give or take), and many were already at an economic disadvantage from graduating into a recession.

Churches that are financially stable cannot continue “giving as usual.” There is a louder, more plaintive, desperate cry for help, and giving can no longer be usual, it must be abundant.

Consider this: What would you have done differently at the peak of the Great Recession, knowing what you know now, and if the Great Recession was 5 times as bad?

Do that.

Bottom line: Give as much as you can, whenever you can.

Are Self-Driving Cars Even Ethical?

It’s time to talk about self-driving cars. Many technological innovations–Amazon Echo, an iPhone without headphone port, Sarahah–catch us by surprise. But self-driving cars have been under development since the 1980s, and shot into public view in 2009, when Google announced its hope to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020.

Conversations about automated vehicles are so focused on the technology itself that they do not ask how that technology will affect our lives. Several concerns should be part of congregational conversation:

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Global Capitalism, Part 2: How Capitalism Killed American Christianity

This post first appeared at Mennonite World Review.

Capitalism is killing Christianity. When a seminary friend first suggested this theory to me a year ago, I thought it was overblown. I have no affinity for capitalism as an economic system. I’m as much an Acts 2 socialist as the next millennial. But it seemed far-fetched to blame an economic system for church attendance.

Until I began to notice the patterns in my own congregation. About a third of the teenagers in the youth group are employed; they regularly turn down youth trips and even Sunday school because of work. The freelancing and part-timing adults do it too, running to their service-based jobs early on Sunday mornings or right after church. At the same time, I watch families walk into the sanctuary with Starbucks coffee; Dunkin Donuts; bagels; pastries. They duck out before Sunday school to catch an early lunch with friends and out-of-town relatives. Continue reading