The Wounding of Small Congregation Pastors

Dear Ones,

I Zoomed last week with a group of small congregation pastors. The occasion was just a yearly check in. On changes, decisions, innovations through this unsettled time.

It’s a great group. All had been recognized by peers and parishioners as beloved, good pastors. All treasured memories of that holy shoulder tap (or headlock) leading them to ministry. All had left behind other work in the name of love. With unlikely choices against bigger salaries, more prestige. All worked creatively, faithfully, earnestly. 

Everyone of them had that courageous-vulnerability that results from being all in. All in for the Church. All in for the people they served and led. All in for the kingdom of God. 

Of course, there were also differences among these pastors. Different denominations. With different parish demographics. Some urban, suburban, rural. Different ages and lengths of ministries. Some theological differences.

And yet. 

What stood out was one particular, painful similarity. 

Each had been deeply wounded by a congregation in the last year. For each there was some unexpected what-just-happened traumatic moment when things became damaging, toxic, or vicious.

They weren’t expecting this similarity. It wasn’t the point of the Zoom. But there it was. Each one. Unmistakeable. Unthinkable. Wounding.

For some the wound occurred in a single, confrontational meeting (We just can’t accept a pastor who ignores confirmation during COVID). For some the wound revealed itself over months (After the mask policy, they wanted to approve all policies, then my worship order, then my sermons). For others the wounding was a behind-the-scenes plot to redirect financial decisions (I learned that during quarantine, there had been lots of conversations without me).

Sound familiar?

If not, give thanks. You can quit reading. Because the kingdom of God is among you!

But if it is familiar, see if any of these sounds familiar, too:

  • I guess I just lost their confidence.
  • As the divides in the community deepened, the divides in the church did too. 
  • They needed to blame someone for not knowing how to keep them together.
  • They are so afraid the pandemic means the end for them. And it might.
  • I feel so alone and absolutely exhausted.
  • I’m forced to constantly adapt with people who resist outside change. Now they resist me, too.
  • I never thought I would be attacked in a meeting like that. I get physically sick now going into the building.
  • The subtle sexism is getting bolder.
  • They think that broadcasting with a talented tech team will save us. And they blame me for not being “successful enough” to afford one.

These are the things I hear from small congregation pastors. After the wounding. And the reality is I’m hearing them more frequently.

In high-anxiety times, people act out. Against whatever is easy to grasp. Like dirty socks on the floor. Or like the pastor’s decision to  . . . well, you can fill in the blank. Because the real source of anxiety is out of sight, reach, control. 

Even for church folk who should recognize a call to Holy Saturday living–somewhere in the messy middle between death and resurrection.

By now you’ve heard that pastors are part of the Great Resignation–that wave of workers leaving their jobs out of frustration and weariness. The Barna Group reports 38% of Protestant pastors in the U.S. considered leaving ministry in the past year. For pastors under 45, the number jumps to 46%.

It’s an astounding number of faithful, don’t-need-much, send-me, all-in folks. Ready to leave. 

But the ready-to-leave impulse also seems different somehow among small congregation pastors. Perhaps because their jobs are so different. 

Each is a  jack-of-all-trades and a staff-of-one. A peculiar mix of set-apart-for-ministry and my-personal-pastor. Each is a direct phone call away from everyone’s living room and anyone’s hospital room. Each serves in the kind of intimate setting that allows for both close relationships and deep wounding. And the result can be a kind of pastor-isolation that takes the courage right out of courageous-vulnerability. Leaving only vulnerability behind.

This isn’t something that can be solved with five easy steps. Or maybe even fifty. But my plea is simple. Pastors, know you are not alone. And Church, as we reckon with the Great Resignation, let’s not treat it as a broad-brush leadership crisis. Let’s listen to small settings for differences. Let’s tend to those precious God-tapped small-setting pastors who aren’t simply frustrated and weary. But wounded.

Send this to a lay leader. Pray. Listen. Share what you hear in the name of love.

Thank you for your ministry,