COVID-19 is becoming an increasing threat to America’s churches. Participation is falling. Finances are dropping. Ministries are coming to a halt. And, according to some studies, the growing pressures are leading many church leaders either to leave their positions or start planning to. But for most pastors, now isn’t the time to quit.
In his latest blog Southern Baptist leader Thom Rainer says the situation is critical:
The vast majority of pastors with whom our team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches. It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime. Some are just weeks away from making an announcement. They are looking for work in the secular world. Some will move to bivocational ministry. Some will move to marketplace ministry.
Many pastors I talk with are on the verge of dropping out. Some already have. Others are just going through the motions until they can find another job. I recently blogged on the unique pressures many pastors are struggling with right now that are leading them to consider quitting.
When the pressure gets too much for too long, many pastors are checking out
Why? According to Rainer pastors are struggling with a number of different pressures. They’re weary from the pandemic. They’re discouraged by the infighting among church members about the post-quarantine church. They’re discouraged about losing members and attendance. They don’t know if their churches will be able to support ministries financially in the future. Criticisms against them have increased significantly. Their workloads have increased greatly. And when the pressure gets too much for too long, many of them are checking out.
Pastors leave their churches for many reasons. God’s call. Family issues. Congregations so brutal that to stay would endanger yours or your family’s emotional and or spiritual well being. Sin–on the part of the pastor or the congregation or both.
But a pastor shouldn’t quit his church because it’s too hard to stay.
I’m not judging those who quit or trying to make them feel guilty. Goodness knows, I can barely handle my own life much less try to get involved in someone else’s. Whatever an individual pastor decides about his future at a particular church is up to him. And there are times when mental health issues (which can be as real in ministry as in any other vocation), exhaustion or anxiety become so debilitating that a pastor has no choice but to resign.
But one thing I’ve learned through the years is that there’s no substitute for staying the course through hard times.
And that’s the piece of the pastor resignation epidemic that Rainer and others don’t get. The fact is that serving as a pastor has never been easy and those who think it should be haven’t taken the time to read through the biblical position description. Jeremiah prayed that his eyes might become a fountain of tears to weep for his people’s sin. Ezekiel was so bitter about the stubborn bunch of people God sent him to that he refused to even speak for the first week he was there. Paul grew so exasperated with his critics in the church at Philippi that he wished they would emasculate themselves (I’m not sure that’s a viable pastoral leadership technique in the modern world). Five of the seven churches that John writes to in the book of Revelation were dealing with congregational sin that would make any pastor’s head spin. But none of those men quit.
Maybe toughness is what pastors today need more of
The quality that stands out in those men was toughness, the spiritual wherewithal that says when times are hard, people are stubborn or apathetic and the church isn’t going well, by God’s grace, I won’t give in. I won’t give out. I won’t give up. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and I’ll go to work and I’ll love God’s people and speak truth to them and I’ll rebuke the devil and I’ll do what it takes—however long and hard it makes me work—to lead my church well. Maybe toughness is what pastors today need more of.
That’s what Paul means, I think, when he tells the church at Colossae, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
A pastor friend just retired after a long and fruitful ministry and shared with me recently the vision for toughness he’d carried in his spirit for over forty years. It came from the Baptist preacher JP Allen, in a sermon he preached to the students of Southwestern Baptist Seminary when my friend was a student.
“Men, remember your ministry will not be judged,” Allen told the young pastors, “by how you do when your people are cooperative and the culture is receptive and the Holy Spirit seems to bless everything you do. You will be judged by how you plow when the dust of the field is in your nose, the heat of the sun is burning down on your neck and all your friends are down at the creek swimming and having a good time. Will you keep plowing or won’t you? Each of us will be judged by whether we keep our hands on the plow and keep plowing no matter what.”
Pastor, your church needs you in this COVID-19 era more than ever before. God hasn’t changed. Your call hasn’t changed. Your future hasn’t changed. Don’t let the fear and anxiety of the culture rob you of the job God set you aside to do.
Pastor, now isn’t the time to quit.
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