Earlier this month, Alexander Lang’s blog post “Departure: Why I Left the Church” lit up clergy social media. To date, it has garnered north of 380,000 views. The day it hit, I saw it on the Facebook feeds of three pastor friends within a span of 15 minutes. Each share has generated numerous comments and much (at times, heated) discussion.
Lang’s post also has spawned numerous counter posts, including four opinion pieces published by Baptist News Global, defending congregational ministry and outlining why the ordained authors did not abandon the traditional, institutional church when the going got tough.
This response has been quite a study in contrasts. Many former pastors, myself included, saw their own histories reflected in Lang’s testimony and analysis. Others found his assessment too cynical. Still others flatly dismissed him, effectively (in some cases, literally) calling him a cry baby. A few even questioned the validity of his ministerial calling. Ministry is hard, they said. If you expected it to be anything else, then the problem lies with your expectations.
The dust around this blog post has largely settled now and I have no interest in kicking it up again. The truth is our individual experiences will determine which side of the debate we favor. I have chosen to take an indefinite leave of absence from the pastorate; however, I don’t begrudge those who remain and who find fulfillment in the institutional church as we know it.
What I take exception to — and want to call attention to — is the repeated characterization of Lang’s departure, and the reasons he gives for it, as “burn-out.”
I know what burn-out feels like. As a graduate student in my late 20s, I was burned out after completing two master’s degrees within the span of six years. I love learning and I love the university setting. However, I arrived at a point where I needed a break from reading books, writing papers, attending seminars and sitting exams.
I enjoyed all those things (well, not exams so much) and I still do. Now in my late 40s, I’m back at university pursuing a Ph.D. But 20 years ago, like the wick of a candle that’s been burning too long, I was saturated. It all got to be too much. It wasn’t enjoyable in the way it had been, and I had lost my sense of motivation. I needed to do something else, get a change of scenery, exercise different muscles.
For some former pastors, that’s an accurate description of why they chose to step away from institutional pastoral ministry. They got saturated and no longer could hold a flame. That’s part of what Lang describes. But that part was just his lead-in, the tip of the iceberg.
The focus of his post is the larger underlying structural roadblocks and disillusionments that led him to conclude he no longer could continue in traditional ministry. Other former pastors cite many of the same things and more: Unreasonable expectations, a nearly impossible job description, constantly changing goalposts, ideological entrenchment, political grandstanding, gaslighting, the perpetual undermining of new initiatives from within, internal factions actively attempting to oust you from your job. These are not saturations that lead to “burn-out.” This is not having too much of something you love. These are forms of institutional sabotage.
“I didn’t burn out in traditional, institutional pastoral ministry so much as I burned up and crashed down.”
I didn’t burn out in traditional, institutional pastoral ministry so much as I burned up and crashed down. In some churches, I burned up in the toxic atmospheres of congregations that had failed to deal with the lingering fallout of past dysfunctions. Congregations that said they wanted things to be different (better), but then actively opposed change. Congregations that turned me, my wife and our girls into the scapegoats for their stress and dissatisfaction. There were days where it felt like the driving sentiment was: If we just beat this pastoral piñata long enough, then what we want will come spilling out.
In other churches, I crashed down because my calling to the gospel ministry collided with the intractability of congregations that wanted little more than a manager for their Jesus club, even though they advertised for a pastor, a shepherd for their faith pilgrimage. Congregations that wanted to play church rather than strive to be the church. Congregations that weren’t seeking anything higher or deeper; they just wanted to feel comfortable.
In each case, these traditional, institutional congregations “called” me to be their pastor, then made it virtually impossible for me to follow and live out that calling. I finally came to realize I was essentially trying to fly a car. Even when the Spirit moved and we caught some air, achieved lift off, others along for the ride made it clear they had no desire to leave the ground. They created drag and commotion until they forced a landing. We just want our customary, leisurely Sunday drive, thank you very much.
Seeing and understanding this distinction between burning out, burning up and crashing down matters for at least two reasons.
“Burn-out centers the departure on the person who leaves rather than on the structures, dynamics and circumstances being left.”
First, burn-out centers the departure (generally interpreted as failure) on the person who leaves rather than on the structures, dynamics and circumstances being left. When misapplied, the label is a subtle form of victim blaming.
I didn’t burn out of the church any more than an emotionally abused friend of mine burned out of her marriage. I didn’t burn out of the pastorate any more than Florida teachers are burning out of the public schools because the state has criminalized teaching inconvenient history.
Second, denominations and other pastoral support systems cannot provide appropriate advocacy, training or intervention for clergy when they’re addressing the wrong problems.
Denominational clergy retreats are lovely. Workshops on self-care, understanding your leadership style and time management are edifying. But when you’re swimming in sewage, learning to breathe more rhythmically isn’t really what you need help with — and it’s not going to prevent you from getting sick.
When your teammates keep grabbing your ankles and pulling you under, fine tuning your backstroke isn’t going to help you complete the race. What you need help with is getting rid of the interference. What you need help with is cleaning up the water. If you can’t remediate the contamination or stop people from trying to drown you — and others can’t or won’t — then the only feasible option for your health and well-being is getting out of the pool and finding another place to swim.
In fact, walking away when it’s clear you and your gospel message are not welcome is what Jesus instructed us to do.
“Certain elements of American church culture have normalized suffering for pastors.”
One factor enabling and perpetuating this cycle of clergy burnup is that certain elements of American church culture have normalized suffering for pastors — and many pastors have internalized this assumption.
The reasoning seems to be, “Well, they crucified Jesus and Paul warned us we’d suffer.” All true. We proclaim Christ crucified. The Apostle Paul not only says we should expect to suffer for the gospel, but also that we should count it as joy when we do.
However, (a) Paul wasn’t singling out clergy and (b) he wasn’t talking about the body of Christ inflicting suffering on anyone, especially not one part of the body inflicting suffering on another.
Whenever church members in Paul’s orbit tried to leverage their doctrinal legalism, personal grievances or social status to dictate form within the congregation, Paul clapped back hard. He had zero tolerance for any such posturing.
And no matter which theory of atonement you affirm, none of them hold that Jesus took suffering upon himself in order to pay it forward. Thinking anyone should suffer because Christ suffered is twisted. Period.
Another factor is that denominational leaders often know which congregations in their ranks are toxic or intransigent and yet say little and do less. They sit on their hands and watch as these churches call and then proceed to burn up or grind down yet another pastor, yet another member of the staff.
“Continuing to sit idly by and allow toxic and intransigent churches to devour and disillusion the next generation of clergy … is a moral failure on the part of those who know the truths but keep silent.”
In some cases, denominational polity ties their hands. In others, fiscal realities or political currents give them pause. Be that as it may, the legacy waste of toxic congregations isn’t an asset to anyone, least of all Jesus. Continuing to sit idly by and allow toxic and intransigent churches to devour and disillusion the next generation of clergy not only is a detriment to the future of the denomination and its public witness, it’s also a moral failure on the part of those who know the truths but keep silent.
A little Pauline clapback from leadership now and again would go a long way toward boosting clergy morale.
Ministry is hard. There is no need to debate that or sugar-coat it. But the truth of the matter is ministry isn’t what Lang, myself and scores of others are walking away from. Challenging as it is, ministry is rewarding.
We’re actually walking away from the same things many congregants are walking away from. We’re walking away from churches and theological systems that really aren’t interested in ministry. Churches that define ministry as something other and lesser than the gospel of liberation and love. Churches whose stagnant, toxic water is making us physically, spiritually and mentally ill. Churches whose obstinate inertia is preventing them and us from going where Jesus bids us to go.
Thus, I would urge my fellow clergy and the wider church to listen more carefully to the stories and testimonies of former pastors before giving them a label. And I would urge denominational leaders to work on countering congregational delinquency and dysfunction more than developing initiatives for clergy self-care.
Pastors don’t need to develop thicker skin or more robust coping strategies so much as churches need to (re)focus on loving God and loving neighbor. We will not stem the rising tide of the nones or slow the great pastoral resignation until we do.
Todd Thomason is a gospel minister and justice advocate who has served as pastor of churches in Virginia, Maryland and Canada. He holds a doctor of ministry degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a master of divinity degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In addition to Baptist News Global, Todd writes at viaexmachina.com.
Why I’ve stayed | Opinion by Tyler Tankersley
I left the pastorate while still loving it | Opinion by Cody J. Sanders
Sometimes, ‘resignation’ isn’t the reason clergy walk away from their ministry callings | Opinion by Mary Kate Deal
Who exactly is the pastor? | Opinion by Paul Gilliam