Why I am NOT leaving the church

Why I am NOT leaving the church September 6, 2023

An article by Alexander Lang has has been making the rounds on social media.  Lang’s article is a reflection on why he is quitting the ministry and it provides a link to his last sermon as well.
Lang cross references what the Barna Group describes as the preeminent reasons for “the Great Pastor Resignation”:
  1. The immense stress of the job: 56%

  2. I feel lonely and isolated: 43%

  3. Current political divisions: 38%

  4. I am unhappy with the effect this role has had on my family: 29%

  5. I am not optimistic about the future of my church: 29%

But then he goes on to identify the two reasons that led to his own resignation: the burden of knowing the private struggles of so many people and the difficulty of satisfying what he describes as “1000 bosses”.
On one level, it might seem uncharitable to question what anyone says about their experience of a vocational endeavor.  After all, it is what it is.  And if someone is giving an account of why they are resigning from ministry there is an autobiographical character to that account that has an integrity of its own.
But such articles, both explicitly and implicitly, make larger claims when they are aired publicly.  And both the authors of those articles, as well as their readers, talk about their experiences as a rather more objective report on the state of parish ministry.
Because I don’t resonate with the experience that Lang outlines in his article and because I think that there are other ways of framing the task of a priest, pastor or minister, I want to offer a different take here.  (Others will continue to resonate with Lang and I understand that.)
First, focusing on Lang’s reasons for resigning from parish ministry:
I don’t find caring for people a burden and I don’t find knowing things about them that others don’t know an overwhelming experience.  In fact, this responsibility is inescapable if a priest hopes to speak convincingly to the healing power of God.
This is evident in the ministry of Jesus.  People around Jesus approached him for any number of reasons.  Some of them were superficial and self-serving.  Some of the them were born of misunderstanding of what God was doing in and through him.  Others were simply desperate.
But Jesus regularly cut to the heart of the matter.  And he offered them both comfort and challenges that they were not seeking.  His ability to do this was born of an inti
macy with the Father, a knowledge of the human condition, and a willingness to listen to both what was said and what was left unsaid.

The willingness to be an extension of that ministry lies at the heart of what it means to be ordained.  And it is a delight to see miracles take shape in the lives of God’s daughters and sons.  I consider it a privilege and an honor to walk with them and offer the hope that only God can give.

Is it hard to do that sometimes? Is it difficult to see people stumble, struggle, and fail? Is it hard to watch people turn their backs on God’s love? Is it a challenge to walk with people through the inevitable “ups and downs” of anyone’s spiritual journey?  Of course it is.
But any attentive reading of the Gospel, any close reading of the parables which chart the movement of God’s reign in the world, and any honest reading of our own lives should alert a candidate for ordination that this is unavoidable.  If that task or the thought of walking with people in this fashion for a lifetime sounds dry, burdensome, or irksome, it is a certain sign that this is not your vocation.
There may be two deeper reasons why I frame the challenge differently than the way in which Lang frames it.
One, I trust in the goodness of God and I take comfort in the knowledge that God will not let his children go.  For all that I have said about the responsibility of a priest, pastor or minister in the lines above, I do not believe that the well being of the people I care for lies in my hands, nor do I believe that I can choose life for them.  A regular part of my prayers for our congregation are not about what I can do, but about what God is doing in their lives and about their openness to God’s prompting.  In fact, when I do pray about what I am doing, more often than not, I pray that God will work in the lives of those I walk with, in spite of my inadequacies.
The other reason I differ with Lang is that I do not believe that ordained life is about a job description. I don’t shoulder it like a to-do list that is endless and overwhelming; and I am convinced that when you do, it will be. I see the priesthood as an ontological reality, a state of being, a sacramental transformation.  And my response to its demands arises out of the work of God’s grace in my own life.
The difference amounts to this: We can be reservoirs or conduits of God’s grace.  If we are the former, the result is inevitable.  You will draw down on your reserves until they are gone and – as anyone who has ever lived in Texas knows – if you hit a drought, that will happen fast.  Or you can be a conduit and let the grace of God flow through you.
As for the the burden of having a “1000 bosses”…
Can it be difficult to satisfy everyone?  Yes.  In fact, it is impossible.  And I have watched people do that in parish ministry – sometimes because clergy love to love and love to be loved and (let’s be honest) sometimes because clergy are playing to the stands in order to get “a bigger parish” or a “purple shirt”.  (No, I don’t believe that all bishops do that.  Let’s not get sidetracked.)
But when clergy  try to satisfy everyone, when they lose track of God’s calling on the church and on themselves, that effort will hollow you out and burn you up.  And when it is all over, you will have no idea who you are.
I listen as patiently as I can to the people with whom I serve.  In those conversations I work not to lose track of my fallibility. I work hard to remember I can be wrong.  I remember that my sisters and brothers in Christ may see things I have missed.
I also work to maintain a healthy sense of my own worth before God and the will of God for Christ’s church.  I do this, not just for my own sake but for the sake of the work that we do together.  If I treat my spiritual authority as a zero sum game or if lose track of my responsibility for the creative space that is the body of Christ, one of two things will happen.  The first leads to abuse, the second leads to chaos.
Laypeople are not always wrong. We are all members of Christ’s body and ordination isn’t about greater sanctity but a difference in vocation. On the other hand, their reactions – favorable and unfavorable – are often about their own struggles and a specific moment in their own journey. And I pray that God’s abundant mercy will lead us into all that God has for us.
Again, my difference with Lang’s reasoning may have to do with the way in which I frame life in the body of Christ.  Yes, in some superficially bureaucratic fashion, I may have a 1000 bosses – 1001, if you include the bishop.  But I think that is a fundamentally broken way of thinking about the church.
Authority in the body of Christ ultimately resides with Christ and we are baptized into the life of Christ, not an org-chart.  As I have so often said, “There is a God and we are not.”  And, frankly, I look beyond the froth of passing differences of opinion with people to the transcendent work that God is doing in and through Christ’s church.  If we don’t do that, we have little to offer the world than a churchy version of politics under a different guise.
Am I unaware that disfunction in a congregation can make a clergy person’s life hell, burden her or his family, or impose a painful kind of loneliness?
No, I’m not.  And I don’t want to be Pollyanna about the challenges that can surface in parish ministry.  There are not many of them but there are congregations out there that are “clergy killers”.  There are others that are on life-support.
One of the things that I have found myself telling seminarians is that they needed to remember that it is not their responsibility to fix every congregation that they serve or grow a congregation that is already dead (and / or just doesn’t know it yet).
Often clergy find themselves serving parishes whose future was decided long ago.  Their numbers were falling.  They had not awakened to the fact that they were “aging out” and the chance to change the course of events passed them by or they chose not to change.  You can’t forge a new chapter in the life of a congregation that no longer has children, adolescents, or young families, if you don’t have children, adolescents, or young families.  And if you refuse to lift up a younger cohort of leaders, decline is all that parishes of that kind face.  Clergy should also bear in mind that they can’t grow congregations that have passed the point where change was possible — even if bishops, district superintendents, and others insist they should.
I confess that I find the behavior of mainline denominational leaders far more dispiriting than anything laypeople do.  When bishops tell cohort after cohort of clergy that they should build up failing churches – or shoulder two or three vocations – they are often covering for the lack of courage or imagination to do something new.  Those efforts may entail merging or closing congregations.  It may require the development of an imaginative vision for new forms of ministry and ministry in new places.  It will undoubtedly require that denominational leaders begin to devote more resources to ministry at the regional and national level, rather than spend it on denominational machinery.
But an absence of imagination on the part of church leaders doesn’t entail the call of God to do something that is impossible.  Clergy can and should choose a healthy path forward.  That can be done by looking for other places to serve or by embracing the true nature of life in some churches, which may well be about relationships, not growth.
My heart also goes out to those whose families struggle and those who experience loneliness.  I don’t know Alexander Lang.  So, I don’t know if this was the case for him.  But, clearly, for many clergy these are the burdens that drive so much interest in articles that talk about how hard ordained life can be.
Sadly, it is too late to say this to some clergy: But if you are married to someone who isn’t a member of the body of Christ or (at a minimum) deeply sympathetic to ordained life and the demands it makes, then serving a church will be hell.  Sunday services, the asymmetrical demands of pastoral care, the repeated moves, and the public nature of ministry are difficult to navigate unless your spouse shares in the conviction that this life is a divine calling.
This doesn’t mean that you can and should accede to every demand that people make upon you and your family.  Some of those demands can be patently unreasonable.  And – in fact – those demands will often keep you from doing what you really need to do.  But if there is any multiplier of loneliness that is greater than any other, it is the sense that you are on your own at home in an endeavor that those you love find irksome or pointless.
If you live with someone that shares in your sense of calling, the other hedge against loneliness is remembering that they have a calling as well.  For every clergy person who struggles with loneliness at home, there is a clergyperson who has helped foster that loneliness.  This is often done by clergy who neglect their families, who act as if the members of their families are just bit-players in their own vocational journey.
Avoiding this pitfall means encouraging your spouse to pursue his/her own sense of God’s calling on their lives.  It means working out compromises vocationally and geographically.  It means placing priority on your shared lives and abandoning churchy versions of what may be no more than personal ambition.  It also means celebrating what it means to just be – in love, with one another.
Beyond this effort at home lies the greatest cause of loneliness: Clergy themselves.
There is no doubt about it.  Building friendships in parishes where you provide spiritual leadership can be a challenge, both because of the role that clergy play and the assumptions that parishioners bring to those friendships.  And there are a host of considerations that I don’t have the space to discuss here.
But we are not alone in our loneliness.  Loneliness may, in fact, be the central challenge of modern life.  Modern cities, suburbs, and towns are infrastructures, not communities.  The key to building friendships is – as always – dependent on the effort to be a friend.  And the healthy thing to do is to build and maintain those friendships within, without, and across the churches we serve.
Thankfully, one of the few real benefits of social media is the ability to do that across time and space.  But what friendship requires is time and attention.  If for no other reason, do it for your health and well-being.
Oh and what about politics?
In the middle of the pandemic, as we navigated our way through masks and distancing, someone inevitably suggested to me that we take a hard-line and tell everyone to take that hard-line as well.  It’s not necessary to suggest which hardline it was.  We don’t live in a world with one kind of political fundamentalism, there are at least two: one on the right and one on the left.
One of the maybe truly new things about life in the modern world is just how much our politics have taken on a religious cast.  People who once argued that preaching hell-fire and damnation was objectionable now do it on a regular basis in the name of reinforcing their political objectives.
I told the parishioner involved, “I don’t know if you noticed, but we can’t even make people do what Jesus wants them to do.”  The best way to avoid pointless, polarizing political conversations is to preach the Gospel.
Clergy aren’t formally trained in public policy or economics.  They don’t take vows to defend their politics.  There is no sane reason to argue that 52 Sundays a year they were ordained to preach their politics.  And anyone who follows politics closely (and I do, avocationally), knows that there are (a) no simple answers and (b) no perfect candidates.
But if clergy are convinced that life in Christ is the vital key to life, then the best way to equip Christians to live in a democratic society is to do what the church is tasked by Christ to do.  Make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  My guess is that if we do that people will find their way forward.  They did in the Roman Empire, where (in the best of times) their opinion didn’t matter and when they were asked who they belonged to, their answer was “Jesus, the Christ”.
These, then, are some of the reasons that I’m staying in the church and how that is possible.
Is it always easy?  Of course not.
Nothing is, and there is nothing in the life of Jesus, the record of Scripture or the history of the church that suggests that it ever will be.  The church has been larger and more secure, smaller and more fragile.  Life in the church has been safer and more secure.  It has also been far, far more perilous.  It still is.  Ask the Copts in Egypt or Christians in Russia and China.  There are still places where ordained life can cost you your life.  Literally.
That’s a healthy bit of perspective.
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