A Pastor’s Struggle in 2020

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I’m surrounded by a legion of internal voices telling me I am not the pastor I should be. I’m not pastoral enough, not caring enough, not enough of a leader, not informed enough, not read enough, not clear, not decisive, not doing enough. My soul cowers at the possibility that the roaring cacophony in my head is correct. That I’m not enough for this moment. And if that’s true for this moment, then am I for any moment? Our current moment in history has laid bare my insecurities, deficiencies, and anxieties of being a pastor.

I am not alone.

In the middle of a global pandemic, I find myself worrying about another epidemic quietly spreading across North America: pastor burn out.

Already in 2014, Forbes listed “Pastor” as the fifth most difficult leadership role in America. As 2020 sought to make everything worse, it engulfed pastoring into its destructive wake. Pastors now have to navigate new ways of gathering people for worship, adhere to new restrictions of states and cities, and find new ways of providing pastoral care and discipleship opportunities. How we do ministry has demanded deep, profound change—quickly.

But it’s not just the challenge of implementing new methods for ministry wearing on pastors. It’s also the new relational challenges.

As pastors scramble to reimagine systems and structures to facilitate the work of the church utilizing new methods and technologies, they find themselves navigating intense differences of opinions. Conversations about reopening are more contentious than expected because of the politicization of the disease. Conversations about racial equality—which have always been difficult but also ignorable—are now front and center and impassioned. The loss of a shared sense of reality and the prevalence of conspiracy theories threaten our political life together. Dealing with any one of these issues would be a lot to handle for any leader. But all of these issues have collapsed into one moment. As a result, pastors are finding themselves exhausted, frustrated, uncertain, and stretched thin.

The theological and ideological differences are one thing. Churches have always been made up of people who hold differing opinions. What’s changed is the vitriolic fundamentalism fueling modern debates. It’s demoralizing. As a relatively young pastor, I try to learn from those who have gone before. Again and again, I hear that the organizational demands, adaptive challenges, and relational forces facing pastors at this present moment is greater than ever before.

Every conversation I have with counselors, coaches, consultants, and spiritual directors lays bare just how tired pastors are. The pastors I coach are scrambling as they adjust and address. Colleagues have already left their positions. Others are retiring early. Some are talking quietly about it with spiritual directors and family. Churches are closing. I fear that what we are seeing in this moment is just the beginning. What if the real impact won’t be seen for another year or two?

I don’t say any of this to peddle in fear-mongering. Instead, I hope to clearly describe reality with the hope that clearly articulating our current situation will help us avoid a default future that will arrive if we change nothing. A default future where the church is more divided and unable to come together in moments of social crisis with the creativity of the God of resurrection. By understanding our current reality and projecting our default future we find the energy to change course and move toward something new. In this case, a more sustainable vision of ministry for pastors.

In order for vocational ministry to be more sustainable, there are things the congregation and the pastor will need to do.

The Congregation

The congregation needs to leave behind the idea that the pastor is their primary problem-solver. Not only was this a fanciful expectation to begin with, but living in uncharted territory makes this expectation even more unrealistic. No one has lived through a global pandemic, a deep economic recession, extreme popularization, impassioned race conversations all while numbers in Christendom continue to fall. We’ve never been here before. No one has the answers. Expecting pastors to fix everything, or at the very least to make us feel better about this moment is not a fair burden to place on them.

In Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, author Tod Bolsinger defines leadership as “energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.” Notice that it is the community that does the work of transformation. The leader energizes that community. This can be done by refusing quick fixes, asking questions to reveal values, clarifying deep issues in the community, and confronting resistance to change. This is a different kind of leadership. Many churches are used to the pastor as the expert who comes in with the answers. But we are living in a time where that model is outdated. Changing what we expect pastors to be able to do will have a dramatic impact on their well-being.

Inherent in this work is grace. Pastors are doing the best they know how. Their decisions are being made with the whole congregation in mind. Balancing the needs of parents with young children with the vulnerability of the elderly and individuals with pre-existing conditions requires compromise. A friend jokes that leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can handle. Never have I felt the truth of that more than right now. Extend grace to your pastors and leaders as they seek to make the best decisions for a diverse group of people. Remember that as a people called to love our neighbor as ourselves, our personal preferences may often take a backseat to the needs of another. As pastors make decisions and lead, encourage them. Write them a note. Let them know you are praying for them. These acts of kindness are the grace of God.

Pastors

To address this moment, we will have to increase our pain tolerance. Many of us are comfortable as experts and the problem-solvers. We have to leave behind that identity in order to be what our community needs: A leader who energizes and equips the community’s transformation.

One way to grow our pain tolerance is to make good use of spiritual direction, coaching, and counseling. Attending to our souls is not just good practice, it is necessary to a healthy ministry. In his book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli defines resilience as the capacity to maintain [a] core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” The work of exposing our false selves, healing our wounds, and understanding our defensive routines ground us in our identity and purpose. The transformational work of becoming more emotionally mature and resilient is necessary to leading transformation.

Inherent in this work is grace. Pastors need to extend grace to themselves. There are times to work, and times to rest. Times to give, and times to receive. Times to know what to do, and times to admit that we don’t. We preach the gospel of grace every time we stand in the pulpit. May we allow grace to cover us as well.

About the Author

Nate Pyle is pastor of Christ’s Community Church (RCA) in Fishers, Ind. He is the author of two books, Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood and More Than You Can Handle: When Life’s Overwhelming Pain Meets God’s Overcoming Grace. You can find him at natepyle.com or on Twitter @natepyle79.

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