“Enduring” ministry

A colleague posted a link to an article entitled, “After the Pandemic, Pastors are Done Enduring Ministry.” I wasn’t sure what to make of the title, but it drew me in.

At the core is another article telling the church how pastors are leaving ministry – and that this trend is not going to get any better, and there will be long term effects. This is not new. Even the author cites multiple other sources related to this.

But the article goes beyond stating the obvious. It’s the word “endure” that caught my attention and is really the focus of the article. Enduring isn’t typically a positive term. Endure sounds like putting up with something for a long time. Have pastors been putting up with things for a long time? Some have, some haven’t.

So which set of pastors are not “enduring” ministry? Those in their 30’s and 40’s. As the author states, “While many factors are likely at work, this group includes parents of school-aged children, some of whom are also caregivers for older relatives as well, both groups negatively impacted by the pandemic. Women in particular have borne a significant amount of the pandemic-related parenting stress.”

It’s the end of the article that made be decide to write this blog post though. The author has three conclusions:

  1. “Increased difficulty for congregations seeking a pastor.” I’m not sure a lot of congregations really understand this. Some certainly do. The reality is that there are more congregations than there are pastors. This means that pastors don’t have to settle for just any old call. It’s a pastor’s market, so to speak. Congregations will have to change if they are going to not only offer a sustainable call for a pastor (especially one with a family). But beyond that, congregations will have to rethink what it means to be a congregation, how it operates, and how it functions. Congregations need to answer questions – why are we here? What is the purpose of this congregation? How are we living into that? What actions can we show that display our answers (show me what you value, don’t tell me)? Some congregations are going to have to face some difficult realities – do they have unhealthy systems and cultures? Do they even know if they do? As the ripple effect of the pandemic continues, it will become clearer as to which congregations are healthier than others, and which have healthier cultures and systems. Those congregations will have less trouble finding pastors. The congregations that are unhealthy and think they can continue in unhealthy ways will face a difficult reality – no one wants to go to an unhealthy culture and system willingly. Nor should they. Unhealthy congregations based on unhealthy cultures and systems should close. This shouldn’t be shocking to say either. Why was anyone enduring unhealthy congregations to begin with? We proclaim life, death, and resurrection. It’s way past time for unhealthy congregations to die off so that resurrection can take place – creating a much healthier expression of ministry in whatever form it takes.
  2. “Increased pressure on struggling congregations to close.” Here’s the key to this point – “the resultant closures are likely 2-5 years down the road.” That’s not very long from now. But it creates a ton of opportunities for the church if we can manage to be theologically creative. If a struggling congregation wants to avoid closing, then the only way to do that is to embrace death. Embracing death for a congregation doesn’t mean that closing is the only option. It means recognizing that the way the congregation is functioning (or not), operating, and existing is not sustainable and letting go of it. It means putting on the theological creativity hat and allowing the Spirit to move about removing things that have died and replacing them with new life. Maybe some congregations should completely close. But even in that, what are the creative ways in which ministry can go on? What about turning a church property into affordable housing in order to continue the legacy of a congregation? What about using the facility and land for the benefit of the community? What about tiny homes on the property for those experiencing homelessness? What about partnerships with service agencies helping those underserved? What about launching a new mission in partnership with existing services? There are so many possibilities if we are willing to let go of our expectations and insisting on how things have to be done. When we try to control things, we end up killing them. But when we let go of control (not that we ever really had it), life can flourish.
  3. “Disruption of leadership pipelines.” Here what this means according to the author, “Especially if it proves true that a disproportionately high number of early- to mid-career pastors are leaving, that means that there will be fewer pastors to develop into leaders for large congregations and denominational positions. This impact won’t be felt immediately. Instead, it will become increasingly manifest in the next 5-15 years.” So we have two “crisis” coming up – closing congregations in 2-5 and even fewer pastors in 5-15 years. This means that not only congregations will need to rethink how they exist, but so will denominations and the leadership structure of those denominations. In my denomination, the ELCA, we have 65 synods. You want to guess how many we had in 1988 when the denomination was formed? 65. We have about half as many members as we did in 1988, but the same structure. That makes no sense and it is not sustainable. It’s wishful thinking that people will come back. They won’t. Denominations need to also accept death in order for resurrection to take place. Otherwise we are shackling ourselves with outdated structures that end up hampering ministry. We have a choice – we can wait until we are forced to change (which means we’ll have fewer options and they will have to be done immediately which usually result in worse outcomes), or we can embrace this as an opportunity and make necessary changes now and the near future. Often the challenge comes down to this – denominations, and even congregations, are afraid of losing people. Never mind that they have been losing people all along. What about the loss of people who should be a part of our churches because of our obsession with not losing people? That is a greater loss in my opinion. It’s a loss in creativity, openness, and life.

The conclusion is this – change is coming. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not. So the choice is this – accept the death of how things currently are (and move towards resurrection), or pretend that death isn’t coming (which will mean just ending with no hope for new life). I choose to face it and to be a part of the change that is necessary so that ministry and mission can go on. I chose to face it because that is what we preach – how can I proclaim life, death, and resurrection and at the same time reject it for the life of the church? I chose to face it because it’s what gives me hope – the best days of the church aren’t in the past. They are yet to come. They are forming. And we are moving towards them. Why would we want to do anything that would hold us back from that?

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