Why Pastors are Quitting

Since my book Faith After Doubt came out, I’ve been receiving a steady stream of emails from people thanking me for helping them understand what they’re going through. I’m hearing from many, many pastors too. Here’s an excerpt from a recent email:

I wanted to reach out and say thank you for putting Faith After Doubt out into the world.
The last handful of years I’ve read very little in the realm of Christian theology/ecclesiology/whateverology. I just couldn’t handle too many excursions into such waters while trying to keep faith in Jesus and pastor a church in TRUMP’s America. One touch-point I’ve held onto is the daily reflections from the CAC. When I read one last month with an excerpt from your book, it felt like the right message at the right time for me.
As I started reading, your narrative of moving through the stages felt almost autobiographical. I have been hovering between Perplexity and Harmony for some time now. I think the radical revealing of the white evangelical church in the 2016 election was when I first started asking the question, “Is the church in America a net gain for compassion in the universe?”
Since then my own spiritual journey has been deepened through long excursions of silence and solitude in wild places and by perspectives rooted in the natural world like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry. It’s been a liberating and life-giving opening up to other ways of knowing and being. At the same time, my sense of connection and belonging to the church and my pastoral vocation within it has been deeply strained. This past year, the pandemic and the politicization of responses to it, anger about restrictions, the Black Lives Matter movement, the most divisive and hateful election in our history, and our denomination coming to a breaking point around LGBT inclusion have all formed a confluence of stressors at a time when we’re missing most of the tools I’m used to utilizing to build community… There are many days where I think, “If you gave me a viable exit strategy and handed me a ripcord, I’d pull that thing so fast it would make your head spin!”
I trust you that there is a good and beautiful field in which Harmony is Reality on the far side of perplexity. I’ve already been making excursions there! I just don’t know if I can dwell there and remain a pastor. As you clearly know, that is a pretty sobering thought to engage when I have invested my whole life up to this point in this work.
On page 185 you frame two questions, “In this chapter, I hold out hope that our religious institutions can take on this mission of moral and spiritual development. But I have to admit that sometimes I feel I am hitting my head against a closed box. How do you feel about the possibility of some significant sector of organized religion taking on this vital task? If religious institutions don’t do so, who will?” I’m going to sit with those questions for this next season of life.
My honest knee-jerk response is, “I don’t know Brian, and I’m too fucking tired and beat up to care.” My second response is, “I don’t know Brian, but I remember what it felt like to be immersed in shame and fear-based Christianity, I know that the difference between that and where I am now feels like the difference between death and life, I want to believe there is a way to shepherd others who are brave enough to make that journey, and I want to hope the church as we’ve known it can evolve to aid that work.”
All that to say, by being vulnerable and transparent with your journey you have given this fellow pilgrim a sense of solidarity and some more tools to make sense of my own life and faith. I really don’t know if I’ll stick it out as a pastor for the long haul, but using your definition of Harmony, I think I have a pretty good chance of sticking it out with faith.
As I read emails like these, I remember a moment years ago when my wife and I were sitting in a hospital conference room. One of our children had just been diagnosed with cancer, and two doctors were explaining the protocol our child was about to begin. They were going over the list of chemotherapeutic agents and the side effects, asking us to sign off for each one. It was dizzying.
Then one of the doctors added this: “I don’t know anything about the two of you and the state of your marriage, but I can tell you that a high percentage of couples with a child with cancer who are married at the beginning of treatment are separated or divorced by the end of treatment. These next few years are going to be hard on your whole family, but that little child in the bed around the corner needs loving parents like never before. So if your marriage is strong, please do all you can to keep it that way. And if it’s not strong, please do what you can to strengthen it now, because the strain you are about to experience won’t be easy.”
The doctor’s sincere concern brought tears to my eyes, and those same tears come to my eyes as a read the emails that come in, especially those from pastors whose churches are being torn apart in a dozen different ways, and whose own strength and well-being are being shaken in the process.
If you’re a pastor and you’re part of the spiritual resistance to Trumpism, QAnon, white Christian nationalism and supremacy, and the rest, I want to offer you the same counsel the oncologist gave my wife and me that day. If you’re spiritually strong, please do what you need to to keep it that way. And if you’re spiritually struggling, now is the time to do something about it. The next few years aren’t going to get easier … so now is the time to find a spiritual director or coach (or both), ask for a sabbatical, spend time with people and books and podcasts that encourage you, and be a friend (and pastor) to yourself.
If you need to “pull the ripcord,” then do so without shame or guilt. There is no shame in being wounded in a tough, protracted battle. Sometimes, a short-term retreat is necessary for a long-term advance.
And if you are inspired by the vision for “a good and beautiful field in which Harmony is Reality on the far side of perplexity,” all the more reason to find a group of peers who can support, encourage, and befriend each other on the journey to that place.