Gary Harrison glanced at his iPhone. He knew well the pastor calling.
He was phoning Harrison for a word from the wise. After Sunday services, an elder had stomped into the pastor’s office. “If you make me wear a mask,” the elder said, “I’m never coming back.” Forty-five minutes later, a second elder lumbered into the pastor’s office. “If you don’t require masks,” the elder said, “I’m never coming back.”
“What should I do?” the pastor asked Harrison, Converge Great Lakes’ new church strengthening director. Harrison already had had at least five similar phone calls in the past year. Church clashes have bruised and drained pastors across the world, not just in Converge Great Lakes’ footprint of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
This pastor’s dilemma is just one example of what he and other Converge pastors are having to contend with these days. And it’s no surprise some are even questioning their calling.
Twenty-nine percent of Protestant pastors in the United States considered quitting in the past 12 months, an April Barna Group study showed. “You take any other industry and say 29 percent of the employees are going to leave, and that’s catastrophic,” said Dr. Bruce Hopler, Converge’s executive director of Church Strengthening.
Even more ominous, pastors are senior leaders in churches, not just employees. Therefore, such deep ruminations among pastors risks a massive leadership vacuum.
What’s expected of a pastor, anyway?
“Pastors carry a unique blend of spiritual responsibility and caring for emotional health while dealing with the leadership of a church ― and controversy within the church,” Hopler said. “There is no position out there that carries that level of responsibility in all those areas.”
Unlike most senior leaders, the church’s needs ― not the pastor’s competency and capacity ― define the role. On the other hand, organizations and businesses hire arbitrators to handle conflict, therapists to support emotional and mental health and CEOs to focus on business and governance.
“Show me somebody who’s got all that,” Hopler said.
“Leading a church is already hard and complex, but 2020 intensified everything,” said Ken Nabi, Converge Great Lakes regional president. “The issues pastors have had to deal with were sudden, seismic and sometimes out of their comfort zone.”
Pastors, especially in churches under 200, were expected to quickly learn technology for live streaming and recording services, uploading files to the internet and preaching in an empty room.
“I’m a pastor, not a videographer,” quipped Harrison, imitating Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy of the first USS Enterprise in Star Trek as Nabi rattled off the pastors’ changing job responsibilities. Hopler, Harrison and Nabi agree most pastors can’t respond to their church like Doc Bones.
In late April, Nabi empathized with a pastor who has 50 people at his church. The church’s website had become useless. Whoever looked after the website quit, and the pastor couldn’t fix it. Then, the videography hindered the worship. Likewise, the pastor couldn’t fix that. Nabi doesn’t blame the pastor. Sometimes, pastors have had to make significant decisions on Thursdays for that very Sunday.
What’s happening in the church and culture?
On the streets around Converge churches, every community tensed again and again in the past 12 months. Many groups seethed and toiled in fierce conflict about individual freedoms amid national and global events.
Pastors seek to lead and serve and love, even as arguments still batter the church and cultural institutions. People in the church and the streets remain divided over masks and hand sanitizer, Christian nationalism and Black Lives Matter.
Until last year, said Hopler, most pastors shaped a broadly centrist position on divisive, secondary issues. Or they were noncommittal ― “let’s pray about that” ― about cultural and spiritual dilemmas.
But now, one faction criticizes pastors for not doing enough while another group says pastors went too far.
According to Harrison, disruption outside the church inflamed divisions in the church until desertions were inevitable.
Moreover, Nabi said many pastors thought they were building disciples when they were building programs. When the disruption unraveled the programs, many in the church drifted away.
“A lot of pastors woke up to the fact that all those people they’ve been training for 20 years were completely clueless about what to do when they didn’t have the security blanket of the church,” Hopler says.
Pastors have an added frustration because communities have real needs that have been exposed. But because of their organizational structures and cultures, the churches can’t serve their communities as they should.
“I think God is using this whole reality to stress-test the church,” Harrison said. “It illustrates that we’re not doing as well as we thought we were.”
Whether each church changes — or doesn’t, Hopler shoots straight with pastors stressed and questioning their calling: They can only work on their own life, faith and heart.
Converge pastors who want to take care of themselves have a simple path to find resources:
First, focus on your spiritual formation and self-care.
Nabi and Harrison encourage pastors to seek rejuvenation for themselves and their families. Take a sabbatical, get sufficient rest, take a day off, date your wife, get enough sleep and be with friends.
Next, make strategic planning happen with your church board.
Finally, enroll in Compass, an excellent resource for pastors and their spouses.
Converge districts across the nation host Compass. Experienced leaders help couples assess their past, grasp God’s future call and form a strategic pathway.
“When they walk away (after Compass), they know what action steps they should take,” Hopler said. “We provide a safe environment for a pastor and spouse to listen to the Holy Spirit and allow their assessment to be born of out of what God is showing them.”
The clarity Compass offers is exactly what Harrison thinks most pastors need. He knows pastors are full of angst and stress, easily resonating with pastors who’ve quit.
“This is a call for pastors to re-examine their mission, vision and values,” Harrison said.
Such self-evaluation can give tired pastors a boost of energy.
Churches have a way forward
Every church needs deeper, strategic changes. A significant reason churches haven’t done well, Harrison says, is their people don’t practice the “one-anothers” of Scripture. Most churches don’t know how to confess sin to one another, love one another, forgive one another, admonish one another and so on.
In all, Harrison says there are 38 such commands in Scripture. Christians who can’t maintain their unity in Christ often end up in the pastor’s office with a complaint.
Simple acts have a powerful impact
However, there’s an opportunity for the church to do better, Hopler, Nabi and Harrison agree:
Put the gospel first.
The three men are inspired by Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. As one story goes, at the outset of the Packers’ 1961 training camp, Lombardi looked at his team of professional football players. Holding up a football, Lombardi said to the men who would go on to win the NFL championship that season, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Every year after that, the coach focused the team on football basics.
“It’s a great time to redefine the church,” Hopler said. “It’s a great time to focus on what you can uniquely do that others can’t.”
Hopler is confident each local church has strengths and qualities people can’t find elsewhere. Most people, he says, want true transformation and meaningful community. The local church, through the gospel, can provide a better way of life.
“It’s a great opportunity for evangelism,” he said.
As people start coming back to in-person worship, Nabi says, now is a crucial time to be hospitable and welcoming to visitors. These people, he explains, may need something deeper in their life.
“Share some life with your neighbors,” Nabi said, addressing church leaders and members alike. “Get together with people. Biblical hospitality can change the conversation dramatically. Highly engaging, relationally safe contexts beat the pants off big megachurch productions.”
People, Nabi says, will always be drawn to a community where they can love and be loved, know others and be known, serve and be served and celebrate and be celebrated. “That’s what the church offers,” he added.
Pastors, leaders and church members must draw motivation for change from disruption of an incredible magnitude. “It’s a whole new game, and I don’t think we have a good analogy or definition of what that game is now,” Hopler said.
The solution, he explains, is for church boards, pastors and congregations to define why they exist. Until last year, boards could be passive to some extent. “Now they have to make massive decisions.”
As for the desertion, said Harrison, the only way to back out of that is to ask, ‘What do I need to be doing differently?’ and then start working toward it.”
The church needs to apply afresh what the Bible teaches about the church’s identity, mission and organization. “We’ve got to get that elemental,” said Hopler, connecting again to Lombardi’s football basics.
He said Converge is working to create 10- or 15-minute teaching tools for boards. These video-based learning management systems will be tested this summer.
In Converge Great Lakes, Nabi and Harrison recognize pastors and church volunteers need training on the technology used in local congregations. They’re eager to support pastors with skill in using cameras, uploading to YouTube, preaching well to cameras in an empty room and so on.
One pastor decided it was time to stop streaming worship services since in-person worship resumed. But Nabi encouraged the pastor not to do so. “That’s the new lobby of your church,” he explained.
Embracing new opportunities alongside established methods is one benefit from the pandemic disruption.
Now, Hopler said, the most high-capacity, well-trained servants in churches across America aren’t coming back. Or they come back, but they don’t want to volunteer anymore. Therefore, there aren’t volunteers to help the church restart after the past 12 months of disruption.
Still, in Harrison’s view, the volunteer shortage is an opportunity.
“Programs are a means to an end,” he said. “But programs have become an end. Now is the time to pull the plug on those things that have become a distraction from the real mission.”
Nabi is positive that pastors and their churches need to take a hard look at their programs. “There is a proper reflection that takes place to say this is a pruning, and we need to revisit, ‘What do we need to accomplish?’”
Hopler has heard the exhaustion in pastors’ voices. He believes many were secretly hoping this year would return to the familiar marathon of ministry.
But, as Nabi put it, “Normal is not coming back. If you’re change-averse, this is really hard on you.”
Harrison’s phone will ring again with pastors calling to seek help solving church clashes. Still, his core advice to pastors remains unchanged: Stay inside your “wired window.” He’s shared this journey so many times he’s crafted the following simple sentence:
“Oftentimes, pastors build a church God never asked them to build, although gifts and passions aren’t there, and they hit a wall,” he said. “They’re operating outside their wired window, and you can’t do that for long.”
Ben Greene, Pastor & guest writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.