Churches and Ministers at the End of the Pandemic

Chris Xenakis

Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

Recently, two questions, one about whether clergy have been leaving the ministry at accelerated rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other about just how many pastors have left, have come to the fore of researchers’ attention at the Barna Group, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR), and the United Church of Christ (UCC).

This controversy started back in November 2021, when the Barna Group reported that “38% of U.S. pastors [had] thought about quitting” their ministry positions during the preceding year. “This percentage [was] up 9 points (from 29%) since Barna [had] asked church leaders [the] same question at the beginning of 2021” (November 16, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-well-being/)!

The Barna Group concluded that pastors were “in crisis and at risk of burnout.” Moreover, some ministers [were] faring worse than others. Forty-six percent of “pastors under the age of 45” said they were “considering leaving their churches or ministry [positions], compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older.”

Clergy in Mainline denominations were “more likely to consider quitting than those [in] non-Mainline denominations (51% vs. 34%).” And women in ministry were “more likely than male pastors to consider giving up ministry,” or leaving their ministry positions.

Pastors who contemplated quitting said that they were less healthy spiritually, physically, emotionally, vocationally, and financially, than pastors who were not contemplating giving up ministry.

A lot of people got excited about the Barna findings. “Nearly every conversation I have” is about “how exhausted clergy are and how many are thinking about quitting the ministry,” Dr. Scott Thumma, director of HIRR, wrote recently (Scott Thumma, “Is a Great Resignation brewing for pastors?,” Religious News Service, March 18, 2022).

The theme of clergy burnout and resignations was likewise the subject of “innumerable newspaper and blog articles.”

Dr. Thumma himself wondered if this was a real crisis or a made-up one—so in the summer of 2021, he conducted his own survey of] 2,000 pastors, asking them “if they considered the previous year [to be] the hardest year in their ministry experience.” Nearly 30% said they did.

Roughly 40% said they saw “a rise in requests for food and monetary assistance, and increased demands for psychological and spiritual counseling” in 2020. Seventy-five percent reported “some level of conflict arising from how they handled COVID-19.”

Nevertheless, 63% of the clergy Thumma surveyed said that they had “‘never seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry.’”

Even the fact that 37% of these ministers had entertained thoughts of quitting—a result that paralleled Barna’s finding—did not mean that a real crisis existed, Dr. Thumma noted; thinking about leaving a church “in the [midst] of a trying year of ministry does not automatically equate to actually leaving”—let alone to quitting the ministry altogether. Only 3-5% of pastors entertained thoughts of leaving fairly often.

Fifty-two percent of the pastors said “that their ministries [had] continued through[out] the pandemic without disruption. More than half added new social outreach efforts, and more than two-thirds (69%) embraced new opportunities for ministry.”

Dr. Thumma added that the clergy who responded to his survey were “highly resilient.” They scored significantly higher on the Harvard Flourishing Measure, an indicator of life satisfaction and well-being, “than national averages of respondents.”

The director of HIRR concluded that there was no crisis. “Overall, our data doesn’t show a mass clergy exodus. It does [suggest] that a small percentage of religious leaders are rethinking their choice of vocation.”

Source: Photo by Julián Amé on Unsplash. Image of a woman standing within ornate wooden double doors, wearing all black including a black face mask covering her nose and mouth.

UCC researchers at the Center for Analytics, Research, Data, and Development (CARDD) and on the Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization (MESA) team, seemed to agree with Thumma (Taylor Billings Russell, highlighted the Rev. Jeff Nelson’s report “Special Report: The Pandemic’s Effects on Ministry `Resignations,” Vital Signs & Statistics, April 18, 2022). Their findings from a July 2021 Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) / Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey showed that “clergy [had] clearly faced a difficult time during the pandemic but [were] not leaving their positions or their ministry as a result.”

Analogously, the Rev. Jeff Nelson, the UCC’s Minister for Ministerial Calls and Transitions, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic did not seem to affect denominational Search and Call [processes] (“Special Report:  The Pandemic’s Effects on Ministry Resignations,” UCC Statistical Profile, pp. 58-59, 2021).

Rev. Nelson pulled the records of completed pastoral searches from the UCC Data Hub from March 2020 through April 2021 and compared them with records from 2015 to 2019. He found that, on average, 1,198 UCC pastors had left their pulpits or retired each year between 2015 and 2019. But the number of ministers who left or retired during the pandemic was much lower. “There [was] no consistent trend since March 2020 to indicate that [more UCC] ministers [had] left their ministry settings” during the pandemic.

Here’s my take on all of this. First, all researchers acknowledge that, in Dr. Thumma’s words, “the past two years have been trying. Religious leaders have had to learn new ways of doing their jobs: delivering their sermons virtually, conducting online committee meetings, and substituting Zoom for face-to-face encounters. They also had to decide whether to encourage vaccinations, to close or reopen church building[s, and] to enforce mask mandates,” all the while navigating “issues of race and politics.”

This is undoubtedly true. But I also believe that more than one thing was going on in American churches since 2020. In addition to the toll that COVID-19 has taken, postmodernism, political polarization, and the post-Christian temper of American society have been at work, eroding the foundations of church and ministerial authority. These trends have changed the church and ministry far more extensively than the pandemic has. And they began doing so long before any of us ever heard of COVID-19.

When we look at our churches and their ministers in this broader context, we see that “the clergy are ‘graying’—pastors are much older as a cohort than they were in the early 1990s—which reflects a crisis of enrolling, equipping, and elevating younger leaders.” In part, this may be because “churches are struggling to connect with and retain Millennials and Gen-Z’ers” (“Introducing the State of the Church,” Barna Group, February 3, 2020).

There has been a growing shortage of pastors for some time, now. In the UCC, there are far more pastors leaving their pulpits or retiring than there are Members in Discernment (MIDs) preparing for ordination.  Fewer young people [are] going into the ministry. Several seminaries have already “downsized” or closed.

Relatedly, more second and third-career people, in their 40s and older, are becoming MIDs, getting ordained, and beginning their first call as pastors. These are gifted ministers with inspiring life stories, but many may end up having shortened ministry careers. And we know about the dramatic increase in the number of “Nones” in American society.

Source: Photo by Terren Hurst on Unsplash. Image: of a small group of folk gathering in an informal space.

Dr. Thumma noted that “those pastors who thought most about leaving the ministry led declining churches, and had little staff support while facing significant conflict.” He’s right, but this problem is hardly negligible—there are a lot of ministers and churches in this situation today. Consider:  Five years before the pandemic, the 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey told us that the UCC was “a denomination of small churches”—80% of our churches had fewer than 100 in Sunday morning worship, and 50% had fewer than 50 in attendance every Sunday. I suspect that these conditions still exist today;  many UCC churches are led by part-time pastors who have little staff support.

The 2015 FACT survey also told us that such churches often struggle with their finances, and evidence of a declining willingness to embrace change. They are challenged by technology and do not minister to youth and young adults well. Many are culturally and theologically conservative, are uncertain about their future, and have few members engaged in evangelism and outreach (http://uccfiles.com/pdf/FACTs-on-Smaller-Congregations.pdf).]

I will add anecdotally that an increasing number of UCC churches today seem to have open or empty pulpits. Here in the Susquehanna Association of the New York Conference, a number of UCC ministers have left their churches and/or retired during the pandemic; as a consequence, we now have just as many UCC churches without settled pastors as churches with pastors. To add insult to injury, Associational pulpit supply lists are drying up. And I am hearing similar reports from other Associations in our Conference.

Where do we go from here? It’s hard to say. As Sarai Rice of Congregational Consulting Group has wisely noted, “the church we’ve known—the church many of us graduated from seminary thinking we knew how to serve—[is rapidly] disappearing. We used to think we knew what our job was, but the things we know how to do aren’t working anymore. We’re in a constant state of chaos, and no matter what we do, someone will always get upset” or angry (“Church Was Already Hard,” November 7, 2021).

Rice advises us that the best that we can do in such circumstances is to “be grateful for what has been, be loose with what is, [and] be generous with what will be.”

May Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic prayer occupy our minds and hearts: “God, give us [the] grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other, living one day at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking this world as it is, not as we would have it, trusting that you will make all things right if we surrender to your will, so that we may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next.  Amen.

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