In the mid-2010s, America entered what I call the “negative world.” What this means is that for the first time in the 400-year history of the United States, elite American society came to have a publicly “negative” view of Christianity and its teachings.
This has had profound effects on the nature of Christian ministry. One of them we already see clearly: greater pressure and stress on pastors. Negative world ministry requires pastors with Pauline toughness—both mental and emotional—as well as new approaches to structuring ministry.
We see the increasing stress levels in surveys on pastoral burnout. Last November the religious polling organization Barna released survey results showing that almost 40 percent of pastors had thought about leaving the ministry in the past year. The level of people thinking of leaving the ministry increased by nine percentage points in less than a year, with younger pastors more likely to consider leaving than their older brethren. A quarter of pastors rated themselves as “unhealthy” in terms of well-being. David Kinnaman, president of Barna, noted that pastoral burnout was a rising concern even before COVID, suggesting that the end of the pandemic won’t resolve these problems.
Pastors aren’t just talking about quitting. They actually are quitting. The Washington Post has described an exodus of clergy in the last two years. Even very high-profile pastors have stepped down from their pulpits. Jason Meyer, successor of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has resigned. So has Abraham Cho, successor to Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s East Side location in New York. These are pastoral dream jobs at some of the most prestigious evangelical churches in the country. Yet these men stepped down voluntarily, without any moral scandals or improprieties.
What’s driving this increased pressure? Many factors. The negative world has created increasing levels of pressure from outside the church, such as the very real risk of being “cancelled” for saying the wrong thing. But the negative world has also led to a culture war within evangelicalism as various ministry strategies have deformed in the face of growing secular hostility. Teachings on many issues, including race, are causing divisions in churches just as they are in schools and other institutions. Both Meyer and Cho resigned as they were experiencing pressure and controversy in their ministries on the topic of race. The pandemic has added to the pressure. Matters such as whether or not to hold in-person services, or whether to require masks, have become topics of dispute. But they have also become political questions, and thus suffer from the same polarization we see throughout our society.These pressures are affecting not just the evangelical world but the church more broadly, including Catholics and mainline Protestants.
This makes controversy and pressure from angry parishioners almost impossible to avoid. If you require masks, some parishioners will protest. If you don’t require them, the other parishioners will. Consider what has happened to David Platt, senior pastor of McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia. When President Trump made a surprise appearance there, Platt welcomed him and prayed for him. Even though praying for political leaders is a direct biblical command, Platt was attacked for this. Most recently, he’s come under fire for being too woke. His church is also being sued over its internal election procedures. The point isn't that “both sides” are wrong in these disputes, or that pastors are right, but that it is now impossible for pastors to avoid high-pressure and often high-stakes conflict situations.
This means pastors will need to have the mental and emotional toughness to survive in a world of greater conflict. We see these characteristics paradigmatically in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians, he recounts the various physical trials he was forced to endure, ranging from flogging to shipwrecks to being stoned and left for dead. He also recounts his mental and emotional strains: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” But he soldiers on through it all. We see his toughness on display again in 2 Timothy. Though imprisoned as a common criminal, facing execution, and deserted by his friends, Paul continues his mission. He preaches the gospel at his trial, writes a letter of exhortation to Timothy, and models through his own behavior the instructions he gives to his younger protégé.
In America today, we thankfully don’t face the same kind of physical persecution that Paul did. Yet while pastors today may not be called on to endure the physical trials that Paul suffered, tougher mental and emotional trials are already a reality for them.
This means that going forward, mental and emotional resiliency under high levels of conflict and stress will need to be a vocational consideration for people entering the ministry. Pastors will also need to take active steps to mitigate or manage stress. As just one example: Having peers and mentors, and staying close with them, will be more important than ever, as will good relationships with elders (or other similar roles, depending on denominational governance structures).
It also means that pastors should be looking for ways to reduce non-mission-related stresses. Many pastors have sizable families and are poorly paid. Taking tough stands that might put their ministry job at risk can be doubly hard because of financial stress. Operating under a bi-vocational model—adding a part-time, outside career—can help reduce that pressure in some situations.
For example, Presbyterian pastor C. R. Wiley, who possesses strong handyman skills, has acquired several rental properties over the years. He has said that this brought him freedom of conscience. “In 2004 I found myself in a situation in which I had to choose between my pastorate and my conscience,” he told me. “The doctrine of divine providence and the gift of persevering faith were there to help me, but it didn't hurt that I had 18 tenants by then. That was important because I also had a stay-at-home wife and three children under the age of 10.”
Not everybody can build a real estate portfolio, but there are other options—such as retaining a part-time occupation on the side (recall that the Apostle Paul often worked as a tentmaker during his ministry). Or entering the ministry later in life, after building marketplace skills and saving enough money to serve as a protective cushion against job loss.
The details will be different for each man, but the reality of higher stress and conflict for ministers in the negative world is here. That’s why understanding that the times have changed is so important. Each person who pursues a call to pastoral ministry will need to find a path to finding the mental and emotional resiliency to stand fast in the midst of it.
Aaron M. Renn writes at aaronrenn.substack.com.
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