This past week I had four separate phone conversations with pastors in four different regions of the country. While each of these conversations was unique, they all had a hauntingly similar theme. That theme went something like this:
“I’m so tired. This has been the hardest season of ministry I’ve experienced. I’m not sure I have what it takes to get through this, and I’m wondering if it’s worth it.”
Three of those four pastors were seriously considering either resigning or making a vocational change. One has been in ministry for over twenty years, and she simply is losing heart.
I get it. I feel it too.
This has been such a hard season for all of us. But it’s been especially hard for pastors. I’m not trying to sound alarmist here, but it seems to me that we could be on the cusp of a serious crisis, and I’m not sure the church is paying attention. So many pastors, overwhelmed by loneliness and fatigue and feelings of discouragement, are either abandoning their posts or on the verge of doing so.
Several weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in a webinar with Dr. Tod Bolsinger, Vice President and Chief of Leadership Formation at Fuller Seminary. You can listen to a condensed version of that talk here on The Leaders’ Journey podcast (one of my favorite podcasts). Bolsinger talked about a conversation he had with a pastor who was honest enough to admit, “Tod, I think I can learn adaptive change; I’m just not sure I can survive it!”
Bolsinger went on to say that the majority of pastors he’s working with aren’t so much in danger of suffering a “failure of nerve”– a phrase coined by the late Edwin Friedman to describe an unwillingness to upset the status quo. Pastors are mustering the courage to do this. The most urgent danger, Bolsinger said, has to do with a “failure of heart.” A failure of heart gets at the internal struggle of abandoning your call, of giving up on the people and the charge you’ve been given. In short, throwing in the towel and calling it quits.
That bears repeating. The real danger for so many pastors in this critical time isn’t a failure of nerve but a failure of heart. It’s not about whether pastors have enough skills and tools to lead (we’re always growing in this department); it’s about whether we have the heart– the stomach and the resilience–to get through it.
The questions that I’ve been wrestling with lately, thanks to Bolsinger, are two-fold: What key spiritual practices and rhythms are going to sustain me in this season? And what key relationships are necessary to build resilience as things won’t be getting easier anytime soon?
For those of you reading this who aren’t pastors, can I ask something of you? Love your pastor(s) well right now. They’re doing the best they can, and they really do love you. They feel the weight of wanting to lead faithfully and courageously in the face of so much anxiety, uncertainty and polarization. Not only are they dealing with the loss and anxiety of others, they’re dealing with their own loss. There is likely much more going on in their personal lives than you know. So pray for your pastor. Let your pastor know that you appreciate how hard they’re working, even if you don’t agree with every decision being made.
And to my fellow pastors: I urge you to be gentle with yourself. None of us feel like we know what we’re doing or that we’re doing it well enough. There is always more that could be done, and the expectations can be overwhelming. You feel like you’re disappointing people left and right. I get it. They’ll be okay. Not only will they survive the disappointment, it actually may be the very thing they need to grow more spiritually and emotionally mature. “We are workers, not master builders,” Oscar Romero reminds us. “We are ministers, not Messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
I have an index card next to my computer in my study with these words, inspired by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, scribbled on it: “This is your work to do. You may not be the one to finish the work, but you must not abandon it. So lead on.”
While none of us know what things will look like on the other side of all of this or how long it will take to get there, we do have this assurance: Jesus Christ alone is the one who holds all things together, and he will be with his church until the very end. And not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.
May this assurance be just enough for us to stay faithful to the work we’ve been given, to lead on, and to not lose heart.