“Return to Sender” or “Some Churches Just Don’t Want Pastors (at Least Not the Pastors the Seminaries are Producing), and Some Pastors Just Don’t Want the Churches We’ve Produced”

2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.





28 thoughts on ““Return to Sender” or “Some Churches Just Don’t Want Pastors (at Least Not the Pastors the Seminaries are Producing), and Some Pastors Just Don’t Want the Churches We’ve Produced”

  1. Very well said. I left a call (reluctantly) because the church couldn’t pay me. I struggle with a need and a desire to return to a congregation but the reality that I won’t easily find a congregation as open and welcoming as my last. And bishops hesitate to place me in a setting that is more theologically and socially conservative than I desire. But I struggle because I think if I were to be called to such a place that I would be unhappy (although no where in scripture is happiness – for clergy or for those they serve – a mark of the call of God).
    I’m not sure what the answer is. I also believe that the Spirit can change hearts and minds (mine as well as a congregation’s) but we in both sides hesitste to take that leap of faith

  2. I think you’re right to a point, Tim. Generally, I think there’s a disconnect between the types of pastors that churches are expecting and the types of churches that pastors are being called to. And I think all parties are guilty of being part of the problem. In addition to the thick(er) skin that you mention, I think a measure of humility on the part of pastors would go a long way too; a recognition that maybe we don’t know *everything* that’s best for this particular faith community that we’ve just been called to. I won’t speak for all ELCA seminaries, but at least one seminary fails in offering an honest counter-narrative to the social justice-driven groupthink that occurs here. The reality is that there are very few faith communities that look like or think like many of the candidates that we’re recruiting to study here, or are willing to engage the exact same conversations to the same degree that these same students are. The recognition for me is that conversation is paramount and listening, crucial.

  3. I can surely empathize with your remarks, and believe that pastors have an unnecessarily difficult and demanding calling/job. I also think it is equally difficult to be part of a congregation and watch the stress build on the face of a much admired and well liked Pastor who faces belligerence and the calm assumption that the “way we’ve always done it” is the way it should always be, world without end. And I don’t think it is enough to excuse these attitudes by saying things like in a changing society, we need the church to be the stabilizing factor that does not change.
    Unfortunately, Jesus was all about change. What I think the church is missing in the need to be relevant to modern society is the concept of discipleship. If I am truly trying to live a Christ-centered life, I will encourage those changes that nurture the fruits of the spirit (which certainly includes kindness and gentleness to all, including pastors!!!) and embrace the fact that my primary “job” as a Christian is to let the love of God pour through me and fall on all those whose lives touch mine.

  4. I went to a conference for small churches. One woman, from elsewhere, asked how long I’d been in my present call. Over 10 years. Why did you stay so long? Our pastors only stay a couple of years. I thought, and finally said, well, they are most always kind to me. She looked as if I’d slapped her. She’d never considered the value of kindness.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written post. I considered becoming a pastor and ultimately decided not do so based on the counsel of a well-known pastor who said that the call to be a pastor is a communal one–your friends and church should call that out in you and treat you as a pastor long before you begin the seminary process to become one. She said that being a pastor doesn’t require just a love for God’s word or a passion for justice and a transformed world; you have to love AND have patience with God’s people more than you love anything else. I happen to be friends with a number of clergy in my current community, and I honestly don’t see that in them. They love justice; they love Jesus’ radical Gospel; they love their dream for the community of God, but I don’t see a forbearing love for the people of God. I know their congregants must feel it, too. I know that I love God’s word far more than his people, so it was a good choice for me not to pursue ordinated. I appreciated learning how it feels on the other side.

  6. This is a thoughtful post. I’m glad you wrote it. I want to echo some of the sentiments that were given here in the comments and simply say that seminaries aren’t alone in producing ministers. The average age of a seminarian at my school, American Baptist Seminary of the West (I am the Director of Admissions, full disclosure), is thirty-seven. Many of our students go to school part-time while working full-time. Our curriculum is based in a contextual model of seminary education. We are by no means unique in the Graduate Theological Union for offering such an education. So, the formation of the pastor takes place for decades in the local congregation itself before the student arrives. The student then spends most of their time working in a ministerial context. Semiaries don’t produce ministers. The Church en toto does.

    So, to widen the conversation, who is callinig these folks to ministry? Why? Is it the congregation? Is it an individual sense of call? I love what Karen Gonzalez wrote about what makes a pastor. How prophetic can the call be and still be a pastoral call?

    Finally, what of “public theology”? What I mean is if the three – five years of seminary education is to help prepare ministers for ministry, how do we craft a curriculuum that helps equip individuals for public ministry in any possible context from the pulpit in Anytown, USA to the streets of Ferguson (which is Anytown, if Anytown takes a good look at itself)? It’s very challenging to say the least.

    Again, great post. Thanks for writing it.

    • Here’s a question or three: do seminaries exist solely for the purpose of training people for pastoral (local congregational) service? If so, does that model suit the current American religious reality? If not, how do we shape a diverse curriculum to meet the needs of individuals and communities who depend upon us to train their leadership?

  7. Thanks for your writings. I began Seminary at age 50, a cradle Catholic woman with a call to priesthood. My first congregation was a clergy-killer that had chewed up and spit out two female pastors before me. (So the question is, why was I even there?!!!) They were a club who really didn’t want a pastor. At my present location, I’ve got a passive-egressive person whom I ‘caught in the act’ of passing outright lies about me. (As I predicted, she accused me of eavesdropping). I’m saddened and find myself crying over Jerusalem, as Jesus did. I find Social Jesus outside, rather than inside, the church walls. Looking forward to retirement and will not be a part of this crazy, dysfunctional, sick scene that we call ‘church’ once I leave. Makes me sad.

  8. I had been asked to help out with our “Teen Class”. I had asked them to assist or even lead worship next week and they wanted to share with the congregation what they had learned about the Bible. I thought this was a great idea. I was also asked by the teachers (a husband and wife team who have been very involved in the congregation for decades)(sidenote: I started here in 2013) to “make sure the facts they had learned were accurate”.

    At lunch last week, they were sharing the “facts”. Some of them were not facts and I corrected them. That was met with a ton of passive aggressiveness and childish behavior. I’ll admit I didn’t really help that much. Though I tried to move us back to reconciliation before the end of the lunch.

    At Sunday School yesterday, I was there to listen. Before the conversation started the teacher knee-capped me saying, “I was going to tell them what to do/say?”

    I talked with the kids asked them what they wanted to do and then the teacher suggested that I and her husband go in the hall. I obliged where I was met with a printed letter from the wife.

    I had a good conversation with the husband, then we went back in and “the kids” decided they were going to do far less than I had requested/encouraged.

    It was unfortunate that they got caught in the middle of my disagreement with their teacher.

    I say all that to say this…I really needed to read this post today. Thanks

  9. In my first year of church council, we were in a search for a new pastor. Our interim was unfortunately a nightmare situation. Everyone on council was asking for a pastor that would produce a change. We found a pastor that promised he would make changes. The problem was everyone had a different idea of what they wanted changed and everyone was unhappy if the pastor changed something they felt should be left alone.
    The problem from the seminaries is simply that they don’t train (or at least it didn’t appear so in our case) on what should be changed and how to change things effectively.
    Is this because the teachings of Jesus haven’t changed, or is it because the teachers don’t have to deal with the changes?

    • Hey Robert, Most of my colleagues would, I think, agree that we do know what to change, and even how to change things, but that by and large, humans don’t like change…and so they will buck it.

      Change starts with you (and me and every individual). That is what must change first. Until that happens, the pastor will always be bad at change…because we are the only ones who can change ourselves, allowing God to work in us to change us. And that is scriptural.

      No amount of schooling, though, will train a pastor to deal with the pain of having people who are supposedly asking you to lead them be hurtful and hateful toward you. You should hear some of the stories…

      • Timothy;
        I agree, “change” only happens when individuals want the “change.” However, over the years since my time on council I’ve worked with a company that teaches how to create effective change. I, now, truly believe that leaders can be taught a better way to institute change into their organizations. Hindsight is always 20/20, but by using the methodologies, I can see how our Pastor would have been able to create effective change in our congregation. There will always be those detractors, but sometimes part of a change is to lose those preventing the change.
        The sad part is the politics of it all. Sometimes those not willing to change, are not because they whiled some power over the congregation. Even though that dynamic has no place in a Christian community, alienating them, can put the Pastor in a bad position. It can also paralyze him. Then the next question should be, can that congregation be saved? Note, not should it?

        I agree with you, no amount of schooling can train a pastor to deal with the pain of hurt and hateful actions towards the pastor. Sadly, I don’t need your stories, because I saw enough of it first hand.

        I am, though, convinced that pastors can be trained properly to instituted change. Hopefully being to avoid and, or minimize those situations.

  10. After 21 years in the ordained ministry, thirteen of them in my current pastorate I have decided to retire a year earlier than anticipated because I am exhausted. There was a 3-page letter signed by a “concerned committee.” I was led to understand that “almost the whole congregation” was dissatisfied with my leadership. I live in a small but wealthy town with a lot of programs and fundraising organizations that I, as the pastor was supposed attend/participate in. The problem is that they cost money which the church is not willing to cover. There are just so many $75 – $275 dinners and programs I can pay out of my pay-check. But it was seen as not being willing to “be active in the community and put the churches name out there…” When I handed in my resignation the majority of the congregation were shocked and upset when they learned about the letter – the person who signed the letter on behalf of the “concerned committee” apologized to me for allowing herself to be used and the folk asked me to reconsider…but as I said, I’m exhausted. They and I need to move on… but I don’t think I can pastor another church.

  11. This is a fascinating perspective. I recent left the world of professional Christianity because of many of the things you’ve put forth here, but at the bottom of my critique, I wonder if our struggles might have something to do with the whole artifice of American Christianity, in that it’s mostly about what you get from God (in my case a salary and meaningful work, in the congregations’ case: Heaven, a sense of meaning, blessing, etc.). I quit to find out if any of us can still believe in God without getting “paid” for it.


  12. What’s the difference between social justice and social Jesus? Did Jesus ask for labels and glorification? Does there have to be preaching and prosylitizing? What is “growth in faith” and why would that not be possible through serving/loving others? It’s something you are feeling strongly but not clear about. Personally, anyone preaching at me while I am trying to do or receive good works is a huge turn off. I don’t think Jesus needs stickers or catchphrases or PR, it can create a barrier depending on how it’s done.

  13. I think realistic expectations for pastors are to…
    1) understand and expect that your leadership is not what the congregation expects or desires (no leadership is actually desired at all – it’s not just a church thing).
    2) give up the false hope the congregation is actually going to change. They aren’t. Give up that hope.

    If pastors want to function better, they’d be wise to primarily work on their own functioning, who they are, what they believe, preserve their self/integrity in close relationships, expect sabotage, and not be dependent upon others.

  14. Very thoughtful post. I have a friend who attends a church in a large city that has a fairly new Pastor that is ruffling feathers. My friend is dismayed but is hanging in. I plan to send this to her. My husband changed careers and went to seminary. One thing we (and our friends of a similar age) observed were the youngest students – those who went straight to seminary from college w/o living and working as an adult. We called them puppies. Yes you need those youth pastors that still find sleeping on the floor for a lock in fun but ministry goes far beyond and some seasoning in the world would really help. I would like to see some outside work experience as well as elected church leader experience so that you have an inkling of both sides of the work. Unsigned notes are NOT a good thing – yet if you don’t hear some grumbling then it has gone completely underground and that is worse. When I was in the military it was said when you don’t hear the troops complaining then you were in trouble. I think this can be true for the church as well. It is a different time for the church. One issue with matching to churches comes from a Pastor seeking their first call. They are graduating, they are told to get out of the student housing and so many feel they have to jump at the first offer. But this also can happen when a Pastor has to leave again there is the urgency that can hide red flags. It can be a tough situation for all. As with so much a lot can be helped by education and more education. While a PNC must work in confidence it doesn’t mean that they can’t be helping the congregation prepare for new faces and ideas. The church is changing – I think that we will become leaner and meaner and then will grow again.

  15. I am reminded of that famous old story about Henry Ward Beecher. He found a note on his pulpit one morning which simply said, “Fool!” He remarked that he had often received critical notes that were unsigned, but this was the first time someone had skipped the note and signed the page.

  16. Backward, Christian soldiers, ranks in full retreat!
    Fighting rear-guard action; yesterday was sweet.
    Hold those precious memories, ‘gainst unnumbered foes,
    Certify their relevance, ignore your present woes!
    Backward, Christian soldiers, ranks in full retreat!
    Fighting rear-guard action; yesterday was sweet.

    Cast away the heretic, please avert your eyes,
    Nothing here to witness; nothing to surprise.
    Close your ears to all appeal, close your minds as well.
    True believers all agree, the world has gone to hell.
    Backward, Christian soldiers, ranks in full retreat!
    Fighting rear-guard action; yesterday was sweet.

    Backward, Christian soldiers, watch the world recede
    While a host of angels witness human need.
    Hunger, famine, conflict, all cry out in stress;
    Put your house in order, don’t leave such a mess!
    Backward, Christian soldiers, ranks in full retreat!
    Fighting rear-guard action; yesterday was sweet.

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