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The Blessings and Burdens of A Pastor
Thoughts on Alexander Lang's article
Church social media has been talking over the weekend of this post by former Presbyterian pastor Alexander Lang as he discussed not simply leaving his call at a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, but leaving the ministry altogether. This brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me that I want to talk about here.
But before I go into this, I want to say something: I think it is okay to be critical of this article. There are things that Lang wrote that are up for debate. What is NOT okay is being dismissive of his thoughts. Lang’s thoughts and feelings are real and many pastors in congregations large and small are going through some rough patches. None of us really know what he or any pastor goes through emotionally. You can be critical of the essay, but for God’s sake, don’t dismiss the person. Again, there is much to debate in this article, but speaking from personal experience you need to take his feelings with the utmost care. In short, don’t be an asshole.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I want to talk about the article itself. As I read Lang’s concerns and complaints about his time as a pastor one thought came to mind: none of this is new. Pastors have dealt with low salaries and backstabbing church members since the church began. And yet, something is different here. Lang’s words may convey things that have been problems for years and may just come with the job, but the context is different.
There has been a spate of articles lately about how America is becoming less churched and that is having an effect in the pews and pulpits of churches. Daniel K. Williams writes about conservatives who stop going to church and how their views intensify and give rise to Christian nationalism. Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. writes about how he stopped going to church but misses the community that church gave him. Ryan Burge talks about religion being a “luxury good” that drives distrust. Jake Meador writes about how American life in the 21st century defined by individual accomplishment and “workism” doesn’t jive with the communalism of church life.
It might seem that Lang’s article has nothing to do with any of these other articles, but I think they do. Church is on the decline in our culture and it is hitting everyone- evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant and the like. Church is becoming less central to people’s lives and that includes communities where this seemed impossible such as the black church. I think that this “dechurching” has all sorts of problems for society as a whole, but I think it can have problems for pastors especially. People don’t see the church as vital to their lives as they once did. Church has become one more thing you could be doing on a Sunday morning. But I think the thing that is different is that in our modern context, pastors are facing these challenges alone.
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I can’t speak for what things were like for pastors 30 or 40 years ago, but I’m going to guess that there were opportunities for pastors to talk to other pastors or to have some confidant to talk to in order to process their emotions. In the past, bishops and other regional leaders used to be pastor to the pastors, but they are busy now trying to keep the ship of the local region afloat and don’t have time to chat with a local pastor, even if that pastor leads a large congregation.
Lang shares the story of evangelical pastor Dan White’s decision to leave the ministry and how that influenced his own decision:
In the podcast, Dan describes going on a long overdue vacation. After sleeping 14 hours the first night, he came downstairs and poured himself a bowl of cereal. His hands were shaking so badly that he could barely hold the spoon. When the shaking didn’t subside, he had a doctor perform a battery of tests. As the doctor interpreted the results, he explained that they found no diseases, but Dan's brain looked very similar to someone who had come back from a warzone and is experiencing PTSD.
A psychologist then asked Dan a series of questions about the losses he had experienced in the church. He ended up counting 180 different lost relationships due to death or people leaving the church. These are all losses where he was never given a chance to mourn, but had to continue to be the leader in his community regardless of how emotionally painful these severed relationships might have been. The result is that Dan internalized all this unprocessed trauma, which was contributing to his neurological condition.
When I heard this podcast, I was on sabbatical over in England in 2022. I was in the middle of trying to discern if I wanted to stay at my post or leave the pastorate all together. When I listened to Dan speak, I felt like someone was finally putting words to my own experience. As the pastor, I felt like a punching bag and no matter how much abuse was thrown my way, I simply had to grin and bear it. Dan ultimately left the church and said it was the best decision he ever made.
It’s sad to hear a pastor say that leaving the ministry is the best decision he ever made, but it makes sense to me. I pastor a small church and in the wake of COVID, a number of people left the church. I can tell you as much as I can tell myself that this happened to other churches and other pastors, I took it personally. To this day I wonder what I might have done wrong. I’ve also shouldered accusations that I initially brushed off, but again they sting and in spite of the harsh words, you are still there to offer a word of grace to them. You take all this in, and combine that with not being able to talk to anyone about it and can hit a point where you can’t take it in anymore and the result is leaving the ministry.
Lang is or, was a pastor at a time when pastors are unsure of what they are to do in a time when people don’t have the church and God as centered in their lives. Lutheran theologian Andrew Root shares that the main goal for a pastor in a secular age is very different from how pastors operated in earlier times. It is about helping people find God in a time when we aren’t interested in finding God:
Though we might behave otherwise, what confronts the pastor inside a secular age in this new era is not primarily the question of how to sustain an institution, grow a budget, authentically reach the “nones” or double membership.
These pursuits lead only to increasing fatigue and despondency. Instead, the pastor’s most pressing calling and deepest question has become, How do we help those who no longer need a God encounter the living God in their lives?
This question has its own inner dynamic energy, and pursuing it opens us to the Holy Spirit’s work to shape us in life-giving ways.
When I read Lang’s essay, I can sense he was involved in all the “business” parts of being a pastor that have to get done. But I also didn’t sense the holy in his writings. I didn’t sense God anywhere.
Having worked in a Presbytery office I am aware of all the perfunctory work that goes into being a Presbyterian pastor. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be engaged in that work. But to use Andrew Root’s view of the church in our modern age, he was trapped in the immanent frame. Root is drawing on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s view that we live in an age where everything is immanent and material. But God and things of faith are transcendent, beyond space and time. The Christian life is more than being the moderator of a session (church board). We live in a time when it is far easier to NOT believe in God acting in our lives than to believe that God is real and does act. I can only speculate from afar, but I think Lang and many others are trying to be pastors in a frame where God has been shut out. I think it’s that disconnect was distressing and presented itself as a burden.
Again, I sense this at times in my own ministry, where I can become engaged in the minutiae of the job and act as if God doesn’t exist. And I can see it in the lives of those I serve as they can at times act is if God isn’t there in their lives. This is a sign of the immanent frame that in some ways affects all of us.
I think the challenge is to really get back to basics and start acting and believing that God is alive and afoot in the world. To borrow a line I heard growing up in the black church, it is about witnessing to a God that “woke me up this morning and started me on my way.”
It’s also about relationships. In response to Lang’s article, another article by United Church of Christ pastor Molly Baskette has been making the rounds and what struck me about her article is the community that has surrounded her over the years that has sustained her in ministry:
Maybe I’m a minister because I’m called by the Lord. Maybe I’m a minister because I want to help people. Maybe I’m a minister because I wanted to help my family, and couldn’t that much, as it turns out, so I found spaces to work in where my gifts are (largely) appreciated and taken advantage of. Maybe I’m a minister because I really wanted to be a witch but they won’t give you a salary and benefits to do that.
All of the above is probably true. And I’m a minister because Mrs. Jahne modeled a gentle, enduring love for me when I needed it most. I wanted that–to offer and receive it–for the rest of my life.
All in all, it’s been a glorious gig. There are the Look-At-Them-Now transformations of people I’ve walked with: from closed to open, from broken to healing, from addicted to sober, from bound to free. And all the garden-variety miracles that happen every day: the deep conversations at coffee hour, more profound than any I have pretty much anywhere else in life, with 7 year olds and 87 year olds. The hands at work, every second Tuesday, baking cookies and making PB&J for sack lunches for our homeless neighbors. Group awe. The role I have in helping somewhat organized people parlay a little bit of money and time and will into enormous, beautiful, lifesaving things.
The actions of a second-grade Sunday School teacher has allowed Baskette to remain a pastor amid many challenges. It was God reaching beyond the everyday immanent frame to connect with her in the good and bad times.
Being a pastor is not easy. Like Baskette, I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years and that is only by the grace of God. I think I remain a pastor not because I’m good at raising money or I preach the best sermons, but because of a God that reaches beyond the church board meetings to remind me that I am God’s child and in turn tries to tell others they are loved by God in a time when it is far easier to believe otherwise.
As institutions like churches continue to be distrusted, pastors will face the strain of wondering if there is any point to their calling. I think if we want to work at keeping people in ministry there is a need for pastors to be grounded more in vocation than in a job description, for congregants to reach out and care for their pastors, for middle judicatories to find ways to pastor their pastors and for everyone to be more focused on being present to experience God in a world the believes God isn’t there.
I want to close this out by sharing a quote from Katherine Willis Pershey, a Disciples of Christ pastor who serves a United Church of Christ congregation as an associate pastor. She sums up what it means to be a pastor in this day and age:
Being a pastor is both gift and risk. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t believe it is what God is inviting me to do with my life. I couldn’t do it without mentors and companions in ministry. I couldn’t do it without a congregation as encouraging and kind as First Congo.
I hope Alexander Lang will find healing as he leaves the pulpit. I also hope he can find a community that can help him stay connected to God. That is my prayer for him and all of us pastors who wonder if this was such a good idea. Being a pastor is an honorable and downright odd calling. Thanks be to God.