The coming crisis for churches

I’m a part of a few clergy groups on social networking sites. They exist as a much needed resource and a place for clergy to speak plainly with each other. Some folks offer humor. Some tell stories of awesome things that happen in their congregations and how they saw God at work – those are pretty great! And for some, these are places they can receive pastoral care and a listening ear from other clergy – also very needed.

Since the pandemic started, it is has been difficult to read some of the posts, but I read them anyway.

We’re about to hit a triple crisis in the church. The first crisis is churches closing because they can’t or won’t adapt or don’t have the resources to make it through the pandemic.

The second crisis is one that has been building for some time before the pandemic hit – a slew of clergy retirements. This will leave many churches wondering what to do, and many churches finding themselves without a dedicated pastor.

The third crisis is clergy burnout. The pandemic is hitting clergy pretty hard. None of us were trained for this. And the pandemic, combined with such a polarized society, is causing long term trauma. And in many cases, clergy are feeling the effects. And many are just burnt out, or done with dealing with it all.

I feel for these colleagues. And I don’t have any ill thoughts about clergy that call it a day. Each clergy person has to discern what God is calling them to or from. It’s not easy.

In some cases, the stories I have read can leave a person with their jaw dropped. Except they aren’t all that uncommon unfortunately. Especially if you read many stories on these sites over a long period of time.

For many of the clergy that are burning out, the pandemic is just more gasoline on a raging fire. They were in calls that were in toxic cultures to begin with. I’m not talking about difficult calls or even unhealthy one. Toxic calls.

These include meetings about clergy where the clergy person is not invited and decisions are made about them and they are informed about them after the fact. These include people who should be described as abusive because that’s the best description there is. These include so many other variations of the same thing – often multiple layers of such things.

Often the stories include abusive congregants with unrealistic expectations and doing some pretty unacceptable behaviors towards the clergy person. Battles over compensation. Manipulation. Passive Aggressive cultures. Etc.

Now, before I go any further, let me say this – I feel blessed because regardless of how difficult a day I may have, the congregation I serve is a blessing. It’s not perfect of course, but I don’t know of a congregation that is frankly. And I’m far from a perfect pastor. But all in all, we in ministry together and that is a beautiful thing.

But the question remains, what does the church look like by 2025? Or even 2022, after this pandemic has probably subsided (although who knows anymore).

I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t look like it does today. The reality is that there will be churches that close and pastors that either retire or leave their calls. And then what?

I think this is also an immense gift and opportunity for the church to rethink what a congregation is and how it operates. Here’s what I think – the idea of hybrid church will expand. I’m saying beyond the idea of digital/in-person. What if hybrid meant taking a group of churches and linking them together – to share resources, staff, facility, technology, etc. What if the idea of congregation changes as well. Can you imaging having something like an anchor church that is linked to a few other “congregations?” Maybe three congregations are ones with buildings. Maybe one of those buildings gets converted for other ministry use between the congregations? What if one of the congregations is solely online? What if one of those congregations is a house church? What if some kind of social ministry became attached to this as well? They would expand the idea of community, that’s for sure.

I think it is helpful for the church to tap into something it hasn’t done very well in recent times – imagination. That hasn’t always been the case though. Jesus had imagination – he talked about the Kingdom of God all the time. It’s an abstract idea that Jesus took and put words and ideas to, along with action, and he put some skin on it and made it tangible. And the church grew and expanded, thanks to imagination and faith.

Faith is imaginative. It has to be. Faith is declaring what the future will look like and bringing the present into that future. That takes imagination.

A crisis is coming church. We have some choices to make in response. Do we huddle in and brace ourselves for the worst? Or do we go all in on faith, risking it all? Or do we choose something else? Let’s use our imagination that God gave us and answer the call that God has for us. We have been given a gift in this moment. Let’s embrace it.


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