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‘When God’s Call Is Bigger Than a Building’

Invitation to a Changed Life

As the visioning of the congregation continued, [Arlington Presbyterian Church] members connected the crisis of their own congregational life to the life of the surrounding community. In 2012, APC realized they needed to set their priorities within their call from God to the neighborhood.

We really needed to stop asking ourselves questions and start knocking on our neighbors’ doors in a sincere, committed, and organized effort.

It wasn’t enough to do the intellectual discernment processes or for the congregation to assume they knew the needs of the neighborhood.

We were challenged to pay attention not to what we thought needed to happen, what we imagined the community needed, but to listen to what our neighbors had to say — to get to know and be in relationship with our neighbors and hear them.

Congregants rode buses up and down Columbia Pike [in Arlington, Virginia]. They talked with local business owners, teachers, domestic workers, any and all who make up the infrastructure of Arlington County. On Saturday mornings, church members set up tables in the church’s parking lot, located right next to a bus stop. They used the community-organizing strategies of listening sessions and one-on-one meetings to listen to the deep wisdom of the neighborhood.

One day in one of the villages there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him in prayer and said, “If you want to, you can cleanse me.” Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, “I want to. Be clean.” Then and there his skin was smooth, the leprosy gone. (Luke 5:12-13)

APC listened. They heard of people covered in debt and exorbitant rent. They heard of people longing to be healed from weary commutes, financial uncertainty, and living away from family and kinship. They listened as neighbors shared hopes, dreams, and ideas for their future, a future they wanted to be in Arlington County.

This relational work allowed a guiding question to emerge for APC: What is breaking our hearts in our neighborhood?

The stories of the neighbors broke the heart of APC, binding the well-being of APC up in the well-being of the neighborhood. Jesus pulled the congregation into the neighborhood streets, and they practically tripped over the need for affordable housing as they listened to story after story.

The stories signified the emerging incompatibility with the old and the new: as we began to think about jettisoning our 1950s building, we also started to rid ourselves of the 1950s version of Christianity that had captured our thinking. Our ministry shifted from “if we build it, they will come” to “we will go to the neighbors and build.”

It wasn’t about what we could do for our neighbors; it became about how we heard God’s invitation in their stories. How their stories became our stories together. …

For More of the Story, Go Around the Corner

There is a plaque on the outside of Gilliam Place [apartment building], created by an unknown entity, that says “Here stood the Arlington Presbyterian Church.” The plaque names how APC played a significant role in the life of the South Arlington community. The end of the plaque reads, “The Church property was sold in 2016, and the buildings were demolished in 2017.”

The end. It reads like a church obituary.

Not to be outdone by a building plaque, several APC folks want to put up a sign at the bottom of the plaque that reads, “for more of the story, go around the corner …”

Creating new wine for a new wineskin hasn’t been easy, and God isn’t finished with us. Right now, APC stands in the tension between our previous stories and the ones we hope will guide us forward. As we claim these new stories, we see ourselves sharing life and evolving with those in Gilliam Place.

I now realize how our new space has allowed us to begin living a new future together with our neighbors that would have been inconceivable in the old building.

We are still dynamically breaking open those old models of church. We stand in the community, asking questions about new ways and new directions.

We commissioned a new hymn to honor this new era of APC at Gilliam Place. We sing these words often in worship:

We have been called to listen and called to act, we have been called to tear down and called to build, and we’re still people on a journey, our work isn’t done. Keep us faithful in the way of love.

This hymn is a reminder that God is not done with APC even after this miraculous story. We’re still people on a journey, drinking new wine in a new wineskin. For all of this — for the old wine and old wineskin, for the new wine and new wineskin — we give God never-ending thanks.

Excerpted from “Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition,” edited by Mark Elsdon © 2024 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The Rev. Afi Dobbins-Mays proved resilient amid adversity throughout her first pastorate, serving two rural United Methodist congregations outside Madison, Wisconsin. But in 2022, a decade later, no amount of grit could keep her in ministry. By then, she was demoralized and needed a change.

She had overcome racism, aimed at her as a Black woman, including when individuals in her nearly all-white congregation had repeatedly refused to meet with her. Congregants had rallied behind her, raised awareness of the issue and helped bring in a diverse group of new members.

“There was a beautiful culture in that church,” she said.

But then her conference relocated her to a “critical mission site” (i.e., not financially self-supporting) in inner-city Milwaukee, where the stressors were many and the supports few.

Half the congregation of 60 quit the church upon her arrival, unwilling to have a woman in the pulpit. Grant funding was promised but fell through, she said. And when regional United Methodist decision makers called during pandemic hard times, it wasn’t to show support.

“They said, ‘What’s the reason why your church is not financially solvent right now?’” she recalled. “‘Why is it that you guys aren’t on your feet?’ It felt like a punitive conversation. They started cutting the money back.”

What does rallying to support a pastor look like in your congregation?

woman speaks to a group
Afi Dobbins-Mays speaks at a book signing event for retired ELCA pastor Kenneth Wheeler at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

When a second congregation was added to her Milwaukee charge, her pay remained the same: about $43,000 plus benefits. She informed her district superintendent that she needed to earn at least $60,000 plus benefits, she said, but was told that wouldn’t happen in Milwaukee or anywhere else.

“I started looking into other options, because I didn’t really see a viable pathway to grow in my career after that conversation,” Dobbins-Mays said. “I didn’t feel supported in ministry.”

She worked briefly for a food bank before accepting a three-year position as assistant to the bishop for authentic diversity and leadership in the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She finds satisfaction now leading workshops on racism and oppression. And in a cause close to her heart, she’s helping launch a new ELCA camp next summer for children with an incarcerated parent.

Dobbins-Mays is one of a number of clergy who have left their jobs in parish ministry because of factors including managing institutional decline. And though there might not be a real “great resignation” of pastors, those like Dobbins-Mays can offer insights into the stressors affecting pastors in the U.S.

Expanding discontent among clergy surfaced in January when the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) study reported findings from a fall 2023 survey of 1,700 religious leaders. More than half (53%) said they’d seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry at least once since 2020. That’s up from 37% surveyed in 2021.

A closer look reveals that mainline clergy are the group most likely to consider leaving. Those particularly at risk include pastors serving congregations of 51 to 250 worship attendees with no ministry colleagues on staff; those in congregations that foresee struggling to survive — or closing — in the near future; those mired in congregational conflict; and those who say their congregations are unwilling to change to meet new challenges.

“The pandemic was a collective trauma both for the clergy and for the church,” said Scott Thumma, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR) and the principal researcher for the study. “Both of them suffered. And both of them, our research is showing, are collectively responsible for overcoming some of these challenges that lead to pastors thinking about changing congregations or leaving the ministry.”

The report is quick to add context to the percentage of pastors who have seriously considered leaving. Congregations are not seeing a collared exodus. Considering leaving and actually leaving are not the same thing. Numerous factors keep pastors in parish ministry, even if they’re not thrilled about it.

What are the stresses in your congregation? Who feels that stress most acutely?

“There’s not a spike in clergy retiring early or in their departure, at least through 2022, in the data from some of the denominations,” Thumma said in a webinar on the report. “I don’t think we’re going to see the ‘great resignation’ that many people have talked about.”

Nonetheless, those who have left in search of greener professional pastures might shed light on what needs fixing. That’s the expertise of Todd Ferguson, a Rice University sociologist of religion and co-author of “Stuck: Why Clergy Are Alienated From Their Calling, Congregation and Career … and What to Do About It.”

Ferguson names four factors that have led to a number of pastors leaving parish ministry: managing institutional decline; navigating conflict or division along political lines; feeling they couldn’t be their authentic selves in the congregational leader role; and facing disillusionment with a drifting mission.

A lack of resources

Demoralization doesn’t afflict just those who become burned out in ministry, as Dobbins-Mays did. Fallout from mainline decline is taking a toll also on people who still feel called but can’t make it work in today’s resource-constrained local settings.

Take the Rev. Loren Richmond Jr., a 41-year-old ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Richmond reluctantly began transitioning out of parish ministry in 2021 when he took a full-time job in local government. He now works for the Aurora Housing Authority, where he coordinates services for elders and veterans.

Do you see the four factors Ferguson describes in your congregation?

Loren Richmond Jr in a staff photo
Loren Richmond Jr., left, stands with other staff including senior pastor Sandi Dillon, right, at a Christmas Eve service at Washington Park United Methodist Church.

“I needed to make more money,” Richmond says flatly. “I don’t know if it’s feasible financially [to do parish ministry], at least at this stage of my life. And that’s really hard for me. I’ve committed 20 years of my life to this.”

The numbers just weren’t working. Having bought an average-priced house for his family of four in the Denver metro area in 2021, when interest rates were still low, he’s now paying down a $3,000 per month mortgage. Even with his wife’s income, they couldn’t swing it on his $45,000 salary for a three-quarters-time associate pastor and youth director position. He now earns $61,000 plus benefits in his government job.

Who is responsible for identifying and deploying resources in your congregation? Is the duty shared?

candle light service

His departure from ministry came despite creative attempts to keep pastoring. After starting his government job, he continued working at Washington Park United Methodist Church in Denver on a reduced, quarter-time basis (10 hours a week). Yet even with his church duties scaled back, he was constantly thinking about the next sermon or next youth activity, until he couldn’t do it anymore. He gave his final sermon Jan. 14, 2024.

“After eight hours of work and two hours in the car, there was not a lot of stamina left, even to sit at the computer and do something church related,” Richmond said, holding back tears in a Zoom interview. “That’s really what it came down to. I found myself out of gas, mentally exhausted trying to manage it all.”

Growing divisions and threatened authenticity

When Ferguson says pastors leave ministry to escape feeling trapped in a political tinderbox, he could be talking about the Rev. Christi Tennyson of St. Louis. She left ministry in 2021 to become a fundraiser for Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services.

Christi Tennyson portrait

Now 48, she was first licensed to pastor in 2015 and has been ordained in the United Church of Christ since 2018. She says she became a progressive thinker while reading the Bible deeply for the first time at Eden Theological Seminary.

“I’m not going [to] preach politics, but what I would preach were Christian values,” Tennyson said. “I tell people, ‘The whole crux of every world religion is — I’m going to use a bad word — don’t be an a——.’”

Before the pandemic, her approach to politics and liberal theology wasn’t a problem at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, a purple, aging congregation of about 55 in rural Labadie, Missouri. They knew each other. Serving 19 hours a week in the parish, she’d joined them in mission projects, such as hosting bluegrass concerts and a huge Halloween festival every year.

“They were really good at mission in their tiny town,” she said. “I loved the people. I still love the people. I miss them.”

But the pandemic pushed them apart, literally and relationally. Worshipping solely on Zoom for a year created a chasm that never closed.

“I felt I had lost the connection to my people,” Tennyson said. “I’m a hugger, and when you’re just looking at people over a screen, you lose the conversations that tell you what’s happening in their lives.”

With relational ties weakened, political differences felt sharper as in-person activities resumed. She listened as parishioners expressed negative views of various types of people, including immigrants, high-profile rape victims and women who’d had abortions. She came to think her “love your neighbor” preaching wasn’t making a difference. Their values were too far apart.

“I just felt like, ‘What am I doing?’” she said. “They listen for an hour a week, and then they leave and they’re spewing hateful rhetoric. … It was soul crushing.”

Along the way, trying to be authentic and forthright without alienating conservatives was a never-ending concern. She felt she had to hide who she was: a self-described “foul-mouthed sorority girl” who’d once had an abortion that saved her life. Her flawed humanity was a strength in the pulpit, she said, but always having to walk the fine line of congregational diplomacy was “exhausting.”

“A lot of times, pastors are hamstrung, because if enough people don’t like what you say, you will lose your job,” she said. “There was always fear on some level that I would say the wrong thing and make the wrong person angry and I would lose the job.”

Feeling burned out, Tennyson didn’t consider moving to a new church, because by the time she left in 2021, parish ministry didn’t fit her life anymore. Her marriage was heading for divorce. She expected that another congregation would not accept the spiritual authority of a recently divorced woman. She also didn’t want to feel judged for dating. And then there was the matter of money. Becoming a single parent meant she needed to earn more, but most UCC parish ministry jobs in her area aren’t full-time with health benefits, she said.

Now a successful fundraiser, Tennyson feels called to her new vocation. She’s grateful that she can pray daily with colleagues and do something to make the world better. In her new role, she’s a frequent guest speaker in local churches but no longer bears the weight of churchgoers’ expectations. She appreciates not having to manage what she calls “the church nonsense.”

Disillusionment with mission drift

On paper, the senior pastor position that the Rev. Alexander Lang accepted in 2013 was a plum. He preached to more than 500 in weekly worship attendance, worked alongside 15 staff colleagues and oversaw a budget over $1 million at one of greater Chicago’s most prominent mainline churches, First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights.

When a pastor does leave your congregation, do leaders ask about the forces that contributed to the decision?

First Presbyterian service
Alexander Lang preaches his final sermon as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

“I don’t think that I could have found anything better in terms of a church,” Lang said.

But Lang wasn’t getting to do what he entered ministry to do, which was to “build community and create the kingdom of God on earth,” he said. Instead, he was devoting half his time to fundraising, committee meetings and other institution-supporting endeavors. After 10 years, he left the position this past August.

“The church is not really a church anymore; you have to treat it like a business,” Lang said. “Which is unfortunate, because if I’d wanted to run a business, I would have gone to business school.”

Signs of decline, such as a 50% drop in worship attendance over his decade in Arlington Heights, only increased the pressure he felt to keep the institution afloat. Along with that came pressure to assuage demanding parishioners and sometimes endure what he regarded as emotional abuse.

“There were people who felt like, ‘Because I helped to pay your salary, I can treat you any way I want,’” Lang said. “They felt like they could berate me without any real thought to what that means to me as a person.”

Alex Lang

Lang became convinced that he’d need to leave ministry in order to live out his vocation as a change agent. He’d tried on several fronts, from delivering provocative sermons to laying groundwork for new social enterprises. But the large-scale change that he believes is necessary was a tough sell.

Lang is now an aspiring tech entrepreneur, seeking angel funding for a product he isn’t discussing publicly. All he learned about business in the church might be transferable to his new venture. At least that’s the hope.

Thumma, drawing on his research, has some advice for congregations hoping to keep their pastors from leaving ministry. First, he says, churches and clergy need to recognize that the last four years have been traumatic and the effects are still being worked out. Second, churches should try to find ways to reduce levels of conflict and find ways to appreciate the relationship between the clergyperson and the congregation.

“It’s pretty clear what creates a hospitable environment and reality for a flourishing congregation and what doesn’t,” Thumma said. The challenge is that it requires working constructively together.

The recent HIRR report said it well: “What is positively associated with fewer thoughts of leaving is … being in a church with a bright outlook for the future, one that has less conflict, is more open to change and adaptation, and cultivates a good, healthy [relationship] between the members and pastor.”

Who are the hopeful people in your congregation and community? How can their voices and influence be strengthened?

Questions to consider

  • What does rallying to support a pastor look like in your congregation?
  • What are the stresses in your congregation? Who feels that stress most acutely?
  • A Rice University sociologist has identified four factors that push pastors to leave parish ministry. Do you see these factors in your congregation?
  • Who is responsible for identifying and deploying resources in your congregation? Is the duty shared?
  • When a pastor does leave your congregation, do leaders ask about the forces that contributed to the decision?
  • Who are the hopeful people in your congregation and community? How can their voices and influence be strengthened?

Recent research released by Barna Group reveals a demographic trend that may not bode well for the stability of congregations. As a significant percentage of pastors near retirement, the pipeline of younger successors appears insufficient to take over their leadership responsibilities.

According to the 2022 Barna Resilient Pastor research, one-quarter of pastors said they hoped to retire within the next seven years.

In addition, the age of pastors in America has been trending upward for decades. According to the 2020 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study, the average age of religious leaders has increased from 50 in 2000 to 57 in 2020. A 2017 Barna study found that the median age of a Protestant pastor was 54 at that time — up from 44 in 1992.

“As a generation of clergy ages and prepares to step down, it is not clear that churches are prepared for the transition,” Barna reported. “If this trend goes unaddressed, the Church in the U.S. will face a real succession crisis.”

According to Ashley Ekmay, a lead researcher for Barna, one of the most significant questions arising from the study is whether pastors are exhibiting to younger people that entering the ministry is worth it. “The data seems to indicate that the answer to that question is no,” she said.

Much of that sentiment can be attributed to the fact that a rising number of pastors are considering quitting themselves — and not just to retire. “As of March 2022, 42% of pastors said that they had considered quitting full-time ministry in the last year,” Ekmay said. “That is a very jarring thing to state.”

Numerous factors seem to be contributing to pastors’ current state of mind about leaving the ministry, Ekmay said.

“There’s this collective ache among pastors,” she said. “When we asked them about burnout and whether they were considering quitting in 2022, they pointed to numerous things that were making them feel that way. Divisions in the church were a huge factor, especially from increasing polarization in America coming off George Floyd’s death, masking during COVID and Trump’s presidency.

“The pastors felt like they had to take a side, but no matter what side they picked, they were on the wrong side,” Ekmay said.

When addressing succession planning for the church, Barna found that 38% of 584 pastors surveyed personally made it a top priority to equip, nurture and identify leaders to take over their role upon retirement. However, nearly an equal number of pastors — 40% — indicated they had “thought about the need but have too many other ministry concerns.”

Whether or not they had invested in succession planning, a significant number of pastors responding to the Barna study said they anticipated difficulties in finding younger successors. As of 2022, only 16% of Protestant senior pastors were 40 or younger.

According to the survey, which was conducted in September 2022, 75% of pastors said they “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed with the statement “It is becoming harder to find mature young Christians who want to become pastors.” Nearly 35% of the respondents strongly agreed with that statement — up from 24% in 2015. More than 70% of the pastors also said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “I am concerned about the quality of future Christian leaders.”

More recent pastor interviews related to Barna’s research series seem to indicate that the succession challenge may not be going away anytime soon. An additional factor seems to be emerging, suggested by the early findings of the 2023 study, which is scheduled to be released in spring 2024, Ekmay said.

“We’ve noticed that there seems to be a contagion effect,” Ekmay said. “When we asked, ‘Do you know anyone else who has quit the ministry?’ we found that those who knew someone who had left were giving more thought to leaving themselves.”

concept art

Interested in more research relevant to Christian leaders?

Learning to preach is a lifelong vocation with fresh challenges to face and new opportunities for growth. Beginning to learn the preaching art is a big job, with many skills to develop in sharing God’s word with God’s people: exegeting biblical texts, discerning and framing theological themes, addressing cultural issues, acknowledging congregational dynamics, grounding contemporary relevance in Christian history, offering authentic personal witness without becoming the center of sermon attention. Each of these dimensions in sermon crafting is learned only in incremental steps and over time. Integrating them all requires effective orchestration — a skill of its own.

In introductory homiletics courses or in early attempts on their own, beginning preachers may inevitably focus on generating one sermon at a time. This practice tends to produce a series of “one-offs” — each independent of, or even in isolation from, each other. The preaching that results does justice neither to the organic evolution of parish community life nor to rich elements in the unfolding trajectory of salvation history.

What can preachers do in sermon crafting to foster in listeners a tangible sense of communal spiritual continuity? How might they develop a “Spirited” conversation that enables members, on returning to church each week, to pick up where they left off (even if they miss Sundays here and there)?

Here are some strategies we’ve sought to employ in service of that objective:

  • Rather than taking the lectionary readings assigned as disparate texts, we try to think about what precedes and follows each text and how, on a given day, they may be in intertextual interplay. We look for themes we can focus on for a month, a liturgical season, even a year.
  • We seek to be open to the Holy Spirit in the lives of our church communities, making connections with the sacred texts. This is different from eisegesis or reading something into the text.

    We don’t decide, for example, “Well, it’s the pledge campaign season, so we need to throw stewardship in somehow,” or try to tie in how to raise money for a new air conditioning unit when the Old Testament reading is Nathan confronting David about Bathsheba. Instead, as we prayerfully consider the collection of the day’s readings and seek themes, we pray about what’s going on in the life of our church — individual instances and broader patterns.

  • We try to be aware of, and open to, the Spirit in the lives of individual parishioners. We try to avoid finding a story to “plug in” to a sermon for that Sunday. Rather, we pay attention to how an encounter with a community member or an event in our own lives or the life of a parishioner might beautifully illuminate a text. Of course, when telling someone else’s story, especially if recognizable to others in the congregation, we need to have received their consent.
  • Some teachers of preaching advise against reading old sermons because it could constrict fresh vision. We find, however, that such rereading can have the opposite effect — sending us in a different direction entirely or deepening a dimension that was implicit in the sermon preached before. With multiple lectionary texts, every Sunday offers many thematic variations and angles of approach.

    Reading old sermons can be especially helpful when difficult pericopes arise. Some of us were taught that if one of the readings is difficult (such as Jesus talking about divorce), we “must” preach on that, because it is what people will hear and wonder about. When preaching to the same people for a decade or more, however, that would mean never preaching from other readings for that Sunday or other themes present in the collection.

    When we are with people long term, we can be open to what the Spirit nudges us toward, acknowledging when that does not engage the difficult text and perhaps letting people know that a previous sermon on that text is available for those who want or need it. Copies or recordings of such sermons can be made available for later reference.

  • Weaving in the developing story of the parish — especially when viewed in light of an unfolding issue in the ministry of Jesus, an Old Testament drama, or an early church issue wrestled with in Acts or the Letters of Paul — can bring together broad connections rather than simply making a point.

    It can convey the sense of spiritual growth as a process both extended and communal, whether it’s the struggle with a building program, the investment in a local food bank or tutoring ministry, the progress of a Christian education program, or a socially/politically challenging local issue in which the parish has a stake.

  • We find it often appropriate and helpful to briefly reference previous sermons and to point ahead to what forthcoming sermons will be addressing — all aspects of a story in process.
  • Being candid about our own vulnerabilities and challenges as well as pressing but unresolved issues in parish life can serve as an invitation to reflect on the physical and emotional layers of experiential problems and theological principles. When done with care, such preaching can reframe what may feel insurmountable when faced alone as occasions for mutual insight, support and resolutions, however partial or temporary those may be.

While most preachers know that it is inappropriate and ineffective to preach at their congregations, not all preachers know that they are not so much to preach to but rather with and for their congregations.

Professor Fred Craddock often reminded his fellow preachers that good preaching does not tell listeners what they want to hear; it enables people to say what they most deeply need to say. When strategies like those listed above are regularly worked into the sermon preparation process, listeners will experience preaching they hear as a window on their shared world, as a voice that resonates with and validates their own individual and communal voices.

Preaching becomes not so much a series of points to ponder as a set of reference points for shared spiritual journey — an invitation to participate in continuing Spirited conversation.