A pastor who works to encourage other pastors recently posted on Facebook that he personally knows 28 pastors who have left the ministry in the past year.
That’s one graphic illustration of what the season of our discontent has wrought in the American church. Between the pandemic and the politics, many pastors discovered they couldn’t win for losing. Nothing they did or said was agreeable to everyone. And they, in turn, became the identified source of the problem to disgruntled church members.
Get ready: There’s a second wave coming.
Many pastors and churches that survived the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election will yet emerge into new bouts of conflict they didn’t see coming. We’re already hearing the stories as churches regather for in-person worship, committee meetings and parking lot conversations.
Church conflict that has been suppressed for more than a year is now bursting forth with greater intensity. The problems that were there before the pandemic have not gone away; they just got shoved underground for a season and now are erupting with a vengeance.
Here’s one way to think about this issue from what we know of how families operate. The divorce rate for couples who experience the traumatic illness and/or death of a child is extraordinarily higher than the national average for all couples. On the surface, you would think the opposite would be true: Couples that endure such an unspeakable trauma surely would grow closer.
But that’s often not what happens. If the marriage was troubled beforehand, experiencing trauma does not wipe away those problems. And even if the marriage was good, the emotions that rise up through family crisis may become destabilizing. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, and there’s seemingly no way to put the pieces back together again.
“Many pastors and churches that survived the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election will yet emerge into new bouts of conflict they didn’t see coming.”
During a severe family crisis, couples usually hold it together because they are so focused on the main issue at hand. All energies are focused on the medical issue, the mental health issue, the grief, the recovery. Much like a football team out to defeat a rival, everyone comes together under intense pressure to push through toward the goal.
But when that forced unity is no longer demanded — when the thing applying the pressure to the system resolves — it may be like viewing a landscape recently flooded by a hurricane. With the pressure removed, the old and new obstacles come into plain view.
And yet the frustrations we feel because of the past year most likely are not healed inside ourselves, whether we acknowledge that or not.
Which creates another danger — toxic transference. By that, I mean when we can’t deal with our own anger and frustration or lack of ability to get our way at home or work, we transfer our rage to church, or in too many cases, to pastors. The ways laity or staff act out at church often are not about the presenting issue. And that was true long before the pandemic.
Here’s yet another way to think about the bigger issue: When a high school or college or graduate student pushes and pushes to get to the end of an academic year, or when a couple prepares and pushes to get to a wedding day, or when anyone has a huge deadline at work that demands intense focus for months, it is all too common to cross the finish line and then succumb to a viral illness simply out of fatigue.
For such people who have been living on adrenalin, the sudden absence of an intense goal allows them to let down for the first time in months and become vulnerable to illness.
This is why some churches that hunkered down during the pandemic will emerge into new seasons of conflict and illness.
“The stew of beefs people have within the church has been kept on the back burner in a pressure cooker. And now it’s time to let off the steam.”
The sources of that conflict could be the prominent things we’ve been trained now to think about: political divisions that spill over into church and theology, how the pastor and church responded to the pandemic, the influence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, the national reckoning on racial justice, disagreements on LGBTQ inclusion.
But other old-fashioned sources of conflict also may be at play: The pastor’s leadership style, the need of some lay leaders to get their way no matter what, concerns about church finances, internal staff dysfunction, bullying, pastoral tenure.
Most likely, churches that emerge now into conflict could point a finger at a mixture of many of these things, not just one. What has happened over the past year is that the stew of beefs people have within the church has been kept on the back burner in a pressure cooker. And now it’s time to let off the steam.
From one vantage, the current period of transitioning between online church and in-person church could be the most dangerous because the perceived wounds of the past year are fresh enough and the systems to deal with conflict are not likely ramped up yet. Pastors are extremely vulnerable at this moment.
Added to that, some pastors have delayed retirement plans or rethought retirement plans entirely because of the pandemic. They may have determined to exit earlier than planned or to stay a bit longer to ensure the church recovers from this unprecedented period. They may be confused about what they should do. And in a church, there’s always someone ready to tell an indecisive pastor what to do.
There’s a sage bit of wisdom counselors give those who are grieving in normal times: Don’t make any major life decisions for a year after the trauma you’ve endured. In most cases, that’s good advice for churches too. Give some time to let things settle as the church comes back together. Be gracious with one another as if you’re all learning once again how to be and do church.
“Be gracious with one another as if you’re all learning once again how to be and do church.”
Obviously, there are some exceptions to this advice, especially when faced with gross incompetence of either staff or lay leadership, bullying or other forms of intimidation. Remember that sick people always look for weak moments to insert their agendas for control or retribution. This is one of those times, so beware.
And remember that lazy workers — and yes, that includes some ministers and church staff — thrive when no one’s watching them closely. After 15 months of working out of sight, a new level of accountability is emerging. This, too, could be a bumpy ride at the intersection of reality and expectations.
Once again, we find ourselves at a perilous juncture where old bad habits so easily mix with the new unsettledness of post-pandemic life.
Emerging from a traumatic time always looks attractive from inside the trauma — and it is often a good change in the long haul. It’s the short haul and the transition times that are dangerous. Change doesn’t come easily, whether entering a pandemic or exiting one.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. A veteran journalist, he also spent 17 years as executive pastor of a local church.
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