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.
A wonderful, so vitally important, word, Brian. Thanks for writing it. May our Lord, by his Spirit, empower each and all of us to do as I Thess. 5.11 calls: “Encourage one another, and build one another up….”
Great word Brian. I see it. I have felt it. Paused and prayed for Pastors that are in the midst of the weighty days. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121. Blessings.
Thank you, Brian. Nailed it.
Well said. Thank you.
I’ll join your chorus, Brian,
and I’m no longer an “active” pastor. We need each other, and God, working in the whole mix. Keep leading on, my brother.
“……Let your pastor know that you appreciate how hard they’re working, even if you don’t agree with every decision being made.”
Brian, Thanks for sharing…….. This is so needed in these volatile/divisive times. That line above is key takeaway for me….
Thank you, Brian – this is an encouragement that is deeply felt. You express exactly the contours of the pain. God be with you and with all of us.
Thanks, Brian, for the encouragement in this time of self doubt for so many people, including perhaps especially pastors. Not only are pastors facing roles they feel ill equipped to accomplish, they are facing situations which seems to be missing God’s involvement. To be praising God and giving thanks for situations that seem so far below the norm seems hypocritical. Not only do pastors feel like a fish out of water, but where is their solid foundation? That might be the ultimate disappointment for pastors. Let’s hope we get through these many besetting trials soon so we can give thanks to God again. Thanks, Brian, for encouraging our pastors, as well as many others who are looking for God’s hand in a time of doubt.
Brian, you named it so well. These are very tough times for everyone, including pastors. Your words are true and very important. Thank you. It’s assuring to be reminded that “Christ alone is the one who holds all things together.”
Okay, Brian, time for that coffee.
Ken Medema has an album called Oasis for the Pastor’s Soul. It is a journey through every emotion found here. http://www.kenmedema.com
Thanks Brian… encouraging words for challenging times!
Brian, thanks for your wise words and reminder to those of us who are church members and/or lay leaders (not pastors) to encourage and show love to our pastors during this difficult time of ministry.
Wow! This is a message for our times. Thank you for the encouragement and insight.
Miss you Brian! So thankful that I can still “hear” from you through your words.
I’m grateful for your words, Brian. Well stated and on target.
Thank you for this. It is something we should be thinking about and conscious of. As a lay person it’s good to be reminded of the importance (now more than ever) of offering a stream of encouragement for our rector.
I do want to push back a little bit on these words “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.” As a mother of two who is also full time in the workforce this time has been extremely challenging for me and most women. Women are leaving the workforce right now because they simply just can’t do it all. I’ve never questioned giving up my job before but now it’s something I think about EVERY SINGLE DAY. For women in ministry especially, I don’t feel it’s fair to say they are abandoning their call or giving up on their flock. For many it’s simply acknowledging that they can’t do it all. We should encourage and support this!!! I think we have to be careful about using words that may contribute to unjust feelings of guilt for ministers who need to step back at this time because of a pandemic that is out of their control.