For some pastors, the past year was a sign from God that it was time to quit – The Burlington Recordton
Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described “failing pastor” from Wisconsin, was already thinking of quitting the ministry before COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
After two decades as a pastor, he was, as he put it, fed up with church life.
Then what he called “the fool” – feuds over politics and the pandemic – brought him over the edge. People in the church seemed more concerned about the latest social media conspiracy theories and online conspiracy theories – one church member called him the Antichrist for his views on COVID – than they did about learning the Bible.
Sunday morning was full of fear of what could go wrong next.
He finally decided, “I don’t need this anymore.” Weddle stepped down as a pastor, walked out the door and didn’t look back.
The past eighteen months or so have been difficult for pastors like Weddle. Already overwhelmed with the day-to-day worries of leading a congregation at a time when organized religion is declining, they increasingly find that the divisions of the nation have found their way into the walls of the church.
The clergy also felt isolated, cut off from contact with their communities and unable to do the personal service that drew them to the parish. Instead of preaching and visiting the sick, they had to become video producers and online content creators.
Chuck DeGroat, professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at the Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, said pastors have long had to mediate disputes about theology or church practice, such as the role of women in the church or the so-called “adoration wars” of recent decades. They are now facing additional pressures from the pandemic and polarization, with people willing to leave their churches over mask politics or discussions about race.
“I hear from pastors that they just don’t know what to do,” he said.
A recent survey of Protestant pastors by research firm Barna Group found that 29% of respondents said they had “made real serious considerations about quitting full-time ministry within the last year.”
David Kinnaman, President of Barna, said the past year has been a “melting pot” for pastors. Churches are fragmented by political and social divisions. In addition, they are frayed, because âthe bond between people and the local churches is dwindling.
“The pandemic has made the challenges facing the churches clear,” said Kinnaman.
Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, whose affiliates include approximately 2,000 churches and a million Christians, is concerned about the pressures clergy have been facing since 2020.
Last summer, the council interviewed clergymen and found that about a quarter said they were considering or leaving the pastorate due to the stresses of ministry during COVID.
In a recent follow-up survey, Parker said, about a third of respondents said they were considering their options or considering leaving.
Parker said that unlike previous crises like floods, tornadoes or other disasters, pastors cannot escape the effects of COVID-19 once the pandemic is over. In the event of a flood, she said, a pastor could stay in her church, help them clean up and rebuild, and then eventually move to another church that didn’t survive the disaster.
But COVID affects everyone.
“So where are you going?” She said. “From the church.”
Brandon Cox has enjoyed serving as pastor until last year.
In 2011, Cox and his wife Angie started a new church called Grace Hills in Bentonville, Arkansas. Cox described Grace Hills as a âCelebrate Recoveryâ -style church inspired by the support group formed at Saddleback Church in Southern California where Cox once worked.
“We had a fantastic time through 2020,” Cox, 46, told Religion News Service in a telephone interview.
The trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 elections and race billing in response to George Floyd’s death hit like a “wrecking ball”.
Grace Hills suspended personal worship at the start of the pandemic, causing people to leave. More left if the church reopened and masks were required. When Cox and a black pastor gave a Sunday sermon together after Floyd’s death and said yes, black lives matter, it caused more turmoil. No matter what Cox did, someone was angry.
“It was kind of adamant,” said Cox, who stepped down as a pastor at Grace Hill in late April. “My wife and I were just at the place of exhaustion.”
Speaking to RNS nine days after his last Sunday as a pastor, Cox said he had not given up Christianity – he hoped to find a new church in the coming months – but pastoral service was no longer for him.
Leaving the ministry brings challenges. After 24 years in professional service, Cox felt he didn’t have many career opportunities. For now, he plans to work for a local real estate company.
“I’ve kept telling people, ‘You’ll be amazed at how many jobs you are not qualified for,'” said Cox.
Even before COVID, the demands of the job weighed on many clergy.
Rev Emily Reeves Grammer served as pastor to several Methodist churches in the Nashville area for a decade before leaving the pastorate in 2019. Grammer, who has two children, said balancing the demands of service and family life was daunting.
Grammer, 36, said she loved being a pastor. But she was concerned about the long-term sustainability of her calling as a pastor, as the Methodist Church seems to be heading for a split.
“I am really concerned about the ability of many Methodist churches to continue serving full-time clergy,” she said.
As she pondered the future, she spoke to older pastors who said it was too late to change jobs. The advice she got was this: if you want to go, do it now. So she quit her church and went back to school to become an English teacher.
âWhat I love most about the pastor is getting people together around a text and making meaning out of that text,â she said. Teaching literature, she said, will enable her to do the same.
Charlie Cotherman, pastor of Oil City Vineyard Church in rural Pennsylvania, said that in his part of the world, pastors who had strong denominational ties and relationships may have weathered the pandemic better than pastors who were alone.
Cotherman, who leads the rural ministry project at Grove City College, said most of the pastors he works with have done pretty well during the pandemic. Some had the advantage of being in small communities with low COVID infection rates so they could quickly return to personal service.
Still, he said, COVID has taken its toll. In some churches, when the services went online, members, especially families, left and simply did not come back.
“Some of these small rural churches have a few young families,” he said. “It was a really difficult thing for them to lose even one of them.”
Before leaving the Service, Weddle started a blog on FailingPastor.com detailing some of his concerns about the Service. Weddle said he did his best for 21 years. But being a pastor turned out to be an almost impossible task.
âUltimately, you want people to grow in Christ – to be caring, to give meaning to the Bible, and to apply it to their lives,â he said. âAnd you know, for thousands of years it has been very difficult to get people to do that. So the job is inherently frustrating. “
Leaving the ministry was a relief.
âI went to church,â he wrote recently. âFor the first time in 21 years, I don’t have to do anything in a church. I don’t have to worry about who’s not there, or why, or who’s going to be crazy next. I don’t have to regret all afternoon and evening for screwing up my sermon. “