Rev. Dr. Eric Atcheson sounds like a decent guy. I don’t know him personally, but we share a few things in common. He’s a pastor with a decade of experience. Married with a young daughter. Likes football. Enjoys writing and authored two books. He just quit the ministry.
The website of his Alabama church describes him this way. “Pastor Eric is an award-winning preacher and public speaker, and he enjoys unpacking Scripture with inclusive and dynamic preaching that inspires, guides, and even challenges, but never threatens. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and going on walks with his family at one of Birmingham’s many parks or nature preserves.”
May 1, 2022 was Pastor Eric’s last Sunday at Valley Worship and the last Sunday in pastoral ministry.
The Great Resignation
His church sounds decent. “Valley Christian Church… is a congregation that serves as an open and inclusive fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, and we proclaim that faith in our acts of worship, fellowship, and ministry. We believe in extending hospitality towards all those who come to our worship as visitors seeking spiritual community in a Christian church.”
Eric joins a growing list of what some observers call “the Great Resignation.” Pastors leaving their church and in some cases like Eric, leaving pastoral ministry. The reasons are varied. His twitter thread gives some background to the experience of leading a congregation through covid, but the issues are much broader and deeper.
I share his thoughts because a pastor you know is perhaps on the contemplative side of a similar decision.
“Covid was a massive shock to the wider church—which was already frankly in a state of deep disrepair—but what covid really did was bring to the surface a lot of toxicity that was bubbling just underneath, which we clergy tried desperately to fix, or to at least keep at bay.
That was a tough enough task pre-covid. Clergy are expected be prophetic but not in a way that offends anyone, to always be available but also find time to raise model families, and to lead but only from a position of servanthood. It’s a fine—and often exhausting—line to walk.
Covid threw accelerant on all of that, like gasoline on a fire. Overnight, clergy had to also become professional IT techs as our churches—many of which had fiercely resisted technology to that point—were forced into the world of online worship, video streaming, and the like.
Over the course of weeks, clergy had to become public health experts not only to safely lead our churches, but to act as a needed counterweight to the council chair or lead elder or board president whose brain got cooked on a diet of lies about ivermectin, masks, and vaccines.
I’ll never forget what a trusted colleague said to me as we both wrestled with that reality: your people are going to be angry with you no matter what you do by now, at least let them be angry with you for saving their lives. And man, what a choice to have to consciously make.
Across all these fault lines more clergy became punching bags for other hurt or emotionally ill-equipped people. We became the targets of truly appalling behavior by those we were called to love, and especially by those whose behavior has long been enabled by their church.
With each act of mistreatment, covenant between us and our churches was broken. With each insult at us, we fell further out of right relationship not only with the churches we serve, but with our vocation of ministry itself. The trust that made the vocation possible was gone.
Without that trust, the ministerial vocation is finally no longer worth it. The very real joys of church ministry are no longer worth the deep woes. Why stay in jobs requiring odd hours, uncommon levels of stress, and increasingly frequent acts of deep disrespect? We’re not scrubs or rubes. Yet we’re treated like hired help, spiritual chamberlains for people who consume increasingly vast amounts of disinformation and resent having that challenged.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: we get our congregants for one day a week, maybe two. Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, etc. get them the other 5-6 days. And for claiming to be pro-church and pro-Christianity, those outlets are actively harming the fabric of the church.
All of that means that instead of inviting people to grow in faith, we are increasingly expected to keep people in a state of stasis in which their prejudices are never challenged, they are never asked to self-reflect, and they are fed a steady diet of echo chamber sermons.
Almost every denomination that I know of has swung hard from a clergy surplus a decade ago to a clergy shortage now. And its terrible stewardship to invest so much in training a minister (again, i.e. me) just to burn them out in just over a decade.
And I’m mourning that. I lament the loss of this flawed but glorious vocation for myself. I’m well-trained, experienced, talented, skilled, and gifted for ministry. Much is being lost here, and even as I look forward to what comes next, I am also grieving what is being taken.”
Is Eric’s experience widespread among pastors? There is more than less in the shared experiences of pastors I observe.
Are pastors leaving the ministry? In the last eight months ten of my colleagues voluntarily exited their positions. You be the judge. Two were hired by another church, one planted a church, two retired, and five sought employment in other fields. And May, June – the typical months of resignations – are still to come.
Is there a looming clergy crisis? No. The crisis is here.
Pastors, like Eric, are hard to find. What do you think of your pastor? What is your pastor feeling? Thinking? Pray for her or him.
Please join the conversation at the bottom of this post. Thank you.
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