Over the past few months, a slew of articles has come out talking about the Church’s experience with the Great Resignation. Barna published the results of a survey of clergy opinion on the issue. Baptist New Global published a four-part series on the topic, and Scott Thuma, the Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research offered some initial results of a multi-year study that the Institute is conducting. In our work at the Center for Healthy Churches, we have also experienced a significant increase in the number of congregations working with us through pastoral transitions. Sometimes, trendspotting in the American Church can be over-hyped, but our experience is that the current outflow of ministers from congregational service is a significant phenomenon impacting thousands of American congregations.
Having said that, however, I’d also say that while the Great Resignation is a significant phenomenon for many congregations it isn’t necessarily a uniform phenomenon. With that in mind, here are some insights and suggestions to help congregations understand and respond to what’s happening.
Part of the Great Resignation is Generational. For approximately fifteen years beginning in the late 1940s, the United States (and much of the world) experienced what has come to be known as the Baby Boom. The first Baby Boomers started retiring about a decade ago but the high-water mark for Boomers reaching retirement age just happened to coincide almost exactly with the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic two years ago. While some Boomer ministers initially postponed their retirements in the early stages of the Pandemic to provide continuity to their congregations, as the Pandemic now drags on into its third year, a pent wave of retirements is now sweeping over congregational life in the U.S. One denominational employee commenting on this wave remarked recently that nearly a quarter of the congregations she supervises are currently looking for a pastor, almost two/thirds of which are due to retirements.
Should We Call it the Great Resignation or the Great Frustration? The Gallup Organization published its own examination of the Great Resignation recently. Though the focus of the article was on the business world, not the Church, the insights are still applicable. The key insight, according to Gallup, is that the Great Resignation is less a generalized trend toward unemployment in all organizations than a specific response to disengagement in the American workforce. In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic was more an inflection point than a specific cause of resignations. The pandemic simply put in sharper relief the lack of engagement that so many workers felt. According to Gallup, the keys to engagement are things such as clarity about one’s role, a sense of deep community with others, encouragement and praise, opportunities for growth, and a sense that one’s work is meaningful. The upside for American congregations is that many of the factors that lead to engagement in work are things that the Church is, in theory at least, equipped to offer. Studies indicate that meaningful work, personal growth, and a sense of community are among the leading factors that lead people into vocational ministry. On the downside, in recent decades many ministers are commenting on the growing lack of clarity around what defines success in congregational ministry. Should numerical growth, spiritual growth, or goals such as community engagement, working for just outcomes, etc. be the main focus of ministry in the Church? The assumption of American Christians about how their congregations should respond to Covid (especially with the heightened anxieties of the moment) often exacerbated this lack of clarity and led to exhaustion, confusion, and disillusionment among some ministers.
Despite frustrations, ministerial resilience endures. While some ministers retired, and others have walked away frustrated, overall statistics indicate an enduring resilience amidst present challenges. The single most encouraging statistic I came across in my own survey of those researching this present moment of challenge was from the Hartford Institute. Ministers were asked a series of questions such as “was the past year the hardest year you’ve personally experienced in ministry” and “have you personally considered resigning as a result of the difficulties you’re facing in ministry right now?” And yet, according to Scott Thuma, despite the enormous challenges facing congregational ministers nearly two-thirds indicated that they’ve never considered another career than ministry, and more than three-quarters of ministers never considered leaving their current congregation, nor doubted their call to ministry. This should not be seen as an indictment of those who have or did. The challenges facing congregational ministers were enormous before the pandemic and have only increased since it began. Rather, this is an indication that for most ministers, a powerful sense of calling and a deep enough sense of engagement in their current context is overriding the stresses and pressures that they face.
While that resilience is encouraging, it shouldn’t mean that we should simply sigh, grit our teeth, and move on. Discontent can be cumulative, and resilience can have its limits. So, what might we do as the Church to lean into this challenging moment for ministers with a greater awareness of the contributing factors? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be prepared to hire young but do it smartly. The stats say that we are saying goodbye to a huge generation of older ministers who have given decades of meaningful service in the Church. Given the much smaller size of Generation X, this means that there are far fewer mid-life ministers to fill the roles being vacated by those retiring, which often means hiring young or not at all. Younger ministers bring strengths to the table that a congregation can use such as energy and creativity. Furthermore, younger ministers are often more open to adaptation because they don’t have a deep investment in old habits and methodologies. But the data indicates that simply plugging younger ministers into vacated roles is not enough. Congregations need to have systems in place that provide clarity, opportunities for growth, and ongoing encouragement for younger ministers who are still developing their gifts and expertise as ministers. Toward that end, have you considered offering a coach for the younger members of your staff team, an external mentor, or both? Some lead pastors consider this as part of their role in leading a staff team, but not every lead pastor is gifted in mentoring or coaching. And some ministers are in small enough systems where there isn’t another minister to offer that kind of wisdom or guidance. Organizations like ours can help with that, as we have several certified coaches and a variety of ministry mentors on our team.
- Work Toward Clarity. Among the many challenges of postmodernity and the end of Christendom in the United States, is an end to the enduring consensus about what constitutes success for American congregations. In the 20th Century, it was fairly straight-forward—growth. But if the vast majority of congregations in the U.S. are declining numerically what does that mean, that the vast majority of congregations (and the ministers serving there) are failures? And, if numerical growth is not the highest goal, or simply one goal among many, then what are the other goals? In our organization, we believe that each congregation has its own unique identity and vision. As a result, your staff team has to embody and reflect on that identity as well as know, embrace, and carry out that unique vision. We also believe that isn’t enough for the staff team alone to have that clarity. One of the biggest challenges and opportunities for American congregations is to revisit the question of exactly who you are and exactly what God is calling your congregation to do to contribute to God’s kingdom. Gaining consensus about that within your congregation isn’t merely about calling and retaining gifted ministers for your staff, it’s bigger than that but it also will have the added benefit of being a powerful draw for gifted ministers when you have staff openings.
- Acknowledge the challenges and encourage your minister(s). These are anxious, challenging times for the Church requiring courageous leadership. Asking congregations to make changes requires courage. Speaking into the political challenges of the moment requires courage. Walking by faith in every form requires courage. So what is the source of courage for ministers? A lot of people overlook this simple idea, but the root word of encouragement is courage. To encourage someone is literally the act of putting courage into them. Most of us find time occasionally to say an occasional encouraging word to each other but what I’m suggesting is something more substantial and more intentional. The challenges we face in the 21st century Church are significant, and they’ll require substantial adaptations for the Church to successfully carry out its mission, and one of those adaptations almost certainly must be finding consistent ways to encourage ministers that are specific to both the minister and the context in which they serve. Minister appreciation days and recognitions on anniversaries are a good place to start but a terrible place to stop.
At the Center for Healthy Churches, it is our great privilege to walk alongside congregations that are asking good questions about the best practices for carrying out their unique missions. Working with congregations that are developing clarity or seeking new leadership is how we spend some of our greatest time and energy (and receive our greatest joy). If you’d like to know how we could help your congregation with that, let us know by reaching out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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