I hung up the phone after talking to another co-worker who had called to tell me he was quitting his job as pastor of a nearby church. He was joining the administrative staff of a local university. He could have retired or started his own non-profit organization. He could have taken a job in the “real world,” as church professionals call it. Either way, it was one of many – too many – conversations I’ve had recently with ministers leaving the ministry. Although there has been much talk about the “Great Resignation”, little has been said about the crisis of ministers leaving their churches and then leaving the ministry altogether.
In the Great Resignation, people reevaluate their lives and quit their jobs. How many restaurants have you been to recently that closed part of their dining room or limited their hours of operation because they didn’t have enough help? Churches are the same way. Pastors have been beaten pretty badly during COVID-19 and they are not going to take it on themselves or their families anymore. I have spoken to many pastors who have promised to get their churches through COVID-19 and now that things are calming down they are coming out.
Something broke during COVID-19. Things were already frayed because of the inflamed political atmosphere, but we could hold debates. We used to talk about problems. We might disagree, but not anymore. Now the person not voting for your candidate is a terrorist, white supremacist, or racist socialist (you can fill in your favorite slur). Friends have become enemies and many of us have gone from “you can’t talk to them” to “you can’t talk to them”.
Then COVID-19 hit. We were told that a pandemic was now hitting all continents and that we had no defence. Early predictions predicted that millions of people would die. Many people died. Many more people got sick. Hospitals were overwhelmed and we shut down our lives. Schools and offices were closed. Restaurants and retail stores have closed and yes, churches have closed for weeks, months and even years.
Many churches have moved their services online. It had mixed success. Many people have become familiar with our online services. Many people started to fully commit, but gradually drifted away. Stress has invaded us all. Parents had to work from home and homeschool their children. Only essential workers were allowed to go to work and most of us were told we weren’t essential. That was an interesting fact for most of us to hear. Many of us have cracked under the pressure. Addictions exploded. Suicides have increased, as has domestic violence. Social media was a cesspool of slurs and accusations. Everyone was angry and it was everyone else’s fault.
People did what they do when they lose control of their lives. They came to church — and they brought all their anger with them. Members I thought were friends accused me of being a coward in the face of government mandates to shut down. I have been accused by others of ignoring science and putting everyone’s life at risk. Why was the church closed? Why was the church open? Who gave me the power to do this? And of course, I was going to answer to God for all of that.
To be honest, the pastors were doing their best. No one has trained us to handle this kind of situation. We took courses in theology and biblical languages. We didn’t have lessons on how to lead a church through a global pandemic. We watched the same reports like everyone else. We were trying to decode the statistics at the same time as everyone else. Sometimes we got it right. Sometimes we didn’t.
But that didn’t seem to matter to some people.
A well-known colloquial phrase warns of death by a thousand paper cuts. No one rushed to the pulpit and beat her with a tire iron. The attacks were more subtle. Small comments slipped into informal greetings. Phone calls were not returned. Invitations that remained unanswered. The confirmations piled up to show that we didn’t have the friends we thought we had. A friend of mine once told me that a good knife fighter would cut your arms and legs off and wait for you to bleed. (I don’t know how he knew this or why he thought I needed to know.)
But that’s what the last two years have looked like. None of the injuries were fatal per se. There are just a lot of small cuts. And now that we’re coming out of COVID-19, many of us realize we’ve lost a lot of blood. Your pastor might not tell you, so I will. Your pastor is suffering. Too many pastors have already bled. Others will follow.
Your pastor loves the Scriptures. Your pastor loves people. Your pastor has not been trained to handle COVID-19.
So what can you do? First, don’t hold your pastor accountable for things he has no control over. If you’re angry, that’s okay. Vent all you want, but don’t expect your pastor to fix the CDC, COVID-19 infection rates, or whatever your local governments have decided.
Let your pastor do what your pastor was called to do. And if you can’t protect your pastor from all the little cuts, at least make sure his wounds are taken care of. Yes, pastors are called to care for their flocks, and most love doing what they do.
But sometimes churches have to take care of their pastors. This is one of those times. Heal their wounds. They will be better pastors when healed.