Empty pews, meet empty pulpits

The pandemic stomped on many pastors' very last nerve—and a lot of them are quitting their jobs

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Even in the best of times, pastors have a very difficult row to hoe. With every passing year, their job just seems to get harder, pay less, demand more of them, and feel more thankless. Yet there always seemed to be roughly one quintillion more aspiring pastors than there were churches needing the position filled.

Well, now, amid the general Great Resignation/Big Quit trend, that last truth is changing at lightning speed. Pastors are leaving their positions in record numbers–and there just aren’t enough trained, educated candidates to replace them. Today, let me show you why pastors were always poised to join the workers participating in the Big Quit, and what their mass resignations could mean.

The Big Quit, at a glance

Some people call this trend the Great or Mass Resignation–or my favorite, the Big Quit. Whatever name one gives it, it’s a popular choice. During 2021, according to Mother Jones, a full one in four workers in various fields quit their jobs. Others organized movements aimed at improving workers’ conditions. Still others retired early.

As a result, tons of employers have tons of jobs they need filled. And as a result of employers’ growing desperation to fill those jobs, wages have been rising. This is true especially for the lower-paid workers in the leisure and hospitality fields.

Minimum wage in Idaho has been $7.25 an hour for years. However, this past May, McDonald’s announced that it was raising its entry-level pay to $11-17 an hour. A current listing for entry level crew member work in Boise advertises a $13/hr starting wage. As well, I’ve heard anecdotally about other area restaurants offering eye-watering signup and referral bonuses.

That’s how hard it is for even a giant employer to find workers these days. People have left so many of these jobs already that restaurants everywhere are having trouble finding enough workers.

Apparently, the Big Quit has even been affecting pastors.

Pastoral burnout on overdrive

Last May, Bob Smietana wrote an article for Religion News about pastors’ impending Great Resignation. He called it, “For some pastors, the past year was a sign from God it was time to quit.”

The article ties together a lot of stuff: the pre-pandemic stresses that were already weighing greatly upon pastors, the burnout they already faced, and then the pandemic that added so many other worries and hassles to pastors’ plates that many of them decided it was time to walk away for good.

Smietana also mentions a Barna survey of pastors from January 2021. In this survey, 29% of responding pastors said they had seriously considered quitting within the past year. By October, that number had risen to 38%. At that link, we also discover that 24% of their respondents rated their well-being as “unhealthy.” Unsurprisingly, respondents who rated themselves as having less well-being overall tended also to be the ones thinking about quitting.

(Of course, we’re talkin’ about Barna Group here. This business exists to sell products. In this case, in their own post about their own study, they offer not one but two Barna-made or -associated products for worried pastors to purchase. Buyer beware.)

But y’all, we don’t need to take Barna’s word for this

I don’t know how accurate Barna’s numbers are. But I do know that anecdotally at least, it sounds like the career landscape is shifting rapidly here. As one newly-liberated pastor wrote recently on Reddit:

It’s also important to know that times are tough to find good ministers right now. No one wants to deal with church drama anymore. There is a MASSIVE exodus of preachers and I’ve officially join the ranks.

R/MaliciousCompliance

Washington Post ran a story over the holidays that touched on the Big Pastoral Quit as well. They couldn’t add many hard facts to the story (and they briefly described that Barna study in a way that suggests to me that this inclusion was grudging at best). But they did agree: “some research and anecdotes suggest this period is a crisis for American clergy.”

Perhaps most illustrative of all, though, the leader of a church consultancy group in Houston declared to the Houston Chronicle, “I’ve never seen more people [in pastoral jobs] ready to check out.” In that same story, we learn the tale of two job postings:

At Memorial Baptist Church in Pasadena, two staff positions remain unfilled, while applicants are dwindling. Lead pastor Jason Havner said roughly 50 solid candidates applied for the vacant youth leader position when it was last open a few years ago. But he’s received only a handful of applications since advertising the job earlier this year, he said.

Houston Chronicle

To me, that right there tells quite a poignant story. It’s the churchy version of that super-short story about baby shoes.

Pastors are now the hunted, not the hunters

Years and years ago, I heard a great many complaints about the job-hunting process for newly-trained-and-certified pastors. These bright-eyed and bushy-tailed seminary graduates emerged by their truckloads out of school, then got to work finding work.

To get that work, those aspiring pastors fought and clawed and scrabbled their way through countless meetings run by church hiring committees. (At least, if they were lucky. More often than not, the committees never replied back at all.) They mailed reams of resumes. They sat through endless interviews. Churches glared down their noses at the candidates they got. These committees all sought to hire the best employee they could for the smallest pile of money and perks.

And this perception seems to be accurate. I found an August 2020 blog post over at The Gospel Coalition that describes exactly the same situation–just from the perspective of a job-hunting pastor at the time. Of the recession years in particular, he writes bluntly: “Churches weren’t hiring.”

But even he didn’t realize just how wide-open the market would become just a year after he wrote this. The anecdotes and limited data point to a sea change in how the pastoral job market operates.

How this trend is likely to affect Christianity generally

Of course, church attendance is already predicted to return to somewhat-normal as churches reopen and start doing business as usual again. But nobody expects it to return to its earlier levels. Instead, researchers are suggesting percentages like 70% or 80% of pre-pandemic levels. (In January, Christianity Today split the difference and went for 75%.)

Even that sounds extremely hopeful. A more nuanced survey from last fall–alas, from Lifeway–found that only 30% of church leaders were even willing to claim attendance had bounced back to 70-90% of its former levels. Another 13% claimed they had gotten back 90-100% of their 2020 attendance, and 9% even claimed they had even more people attending services in 2021 than in 2020.

(It’s very clear to me that Lifeway didn’t fact-check their respondents’ answers. Check out pp. 13-14 of their writeup, and then just try to tell me they didn’t have any problems with self-reporting bias.)

And almost 3/4 of those respondents said they had fewer than 100 people attending, so these were mostly small churches in the first place. These may struggle to stay open in the months and years to come, unless they can find a way to revive their membership rolls.

So if suddenly there are a ton of churches needing pastors, lowered attendance will likely help even out at least some disparities.

Otherwise, part of me wonders if churches will have to lower their standards somewhat. Back in the 1990s, my then-husband Biff was trying to slip into a ministry job (which he called being a “professional Christian”) despite having no formal education for one. And he had a chance, back then. On-the-job training was enough at the time to become a Pentecostal minister. I don’t think that’s the case nowadays, at least in denominations and similar formal groups.

It’s a devastating career shift for ex-pastors, regardless

If tons more pastors take the Big Quit, though, that trend represents a lot of human misery–both before and after the resignation. This trend will affect the pastors involved far more than it will churches.

We’ve already talked about the misery pastors experience before those resignations. Now, though, we must look to the misery they will find afterward.

Though they will doubtless feel greatly relieved at walking away from such a stressful, thankless job, an ex-pastor now has to figure out what to do for a living. Unfortunately, most of them have educations that prepare them almost exclusively for pastoring.

If one in four pastors quits (which is the percentage of workers that seem to be leaving in the secular world), that is a lot of difficult-to-use seminary degrees getting churned out of pulpits. If some doctors decide that medicine ain’t for them anymore, there’s still stuff they can do with that education. I’ve even known lawyers who chucked that profession and found ways to use their skills to support themselves. (Apparently, teaching yoga draws upon them well. Who’d’a guessed?)

But ex-pastors seem like they’d have it rough. And I’m not even talking about ex-pastors who also deconvert along the way, which would then knock out any potential for networking afterward with ex-colleagues.

On that note, I thought this post from N.T. Wright’s site was sadly funny. Its writer just sounds absolutely out of his depth before finally managing this gem: “For some reason, most of the pastors I know personally who have left the pastorate became salesman [sic].” Then, he punts to networking and asks readers to offer their own advice. A post on this site devoted to ex-pastors sounds a lot more compassionate, though they land in much the same place. This link sounds helpful too.

And yet it still sounds like a net positive to leave

If this whole Great Pastoral Resignation thing turns into a big major deal, and churches end up having to scramble to fill positions with fewer and fewer candidates to go around, then they will only have themselves to blame for it.

Worse (for those churches), if today’s bright-eyed, bushy-tailed seminary prospects realize just what awaits them as pastors, they might just opt out of the whole idea and go do something else for a living–thus further reducing the number of candidates for these roles.

But look at what the secular Big Quit is accomplishing for workers. Already, it is making conditions slightly better for at least some workers. Because workplaces now need workers more than those workers need them, workers are gaining more power to negotiate. And that is leading to higher pay, among other things.

If pastors manage to use that situation to get better pay and working conditions–and improved treatment from congregations–it would only benefit churches in the end.

Sympathy for the devil pastors

Of course, no sensible people watching this situation unfold will ever or could ever think that any gods are involved with any of it. They’ll just realize yet again that the actual behavior of Christians, all too often, contradicts their own claims.

But that’s not the point. Churches are full of people who behave exactly like people. Sure, I criticize some aspects of religion. But I know that most pastors are just people doing their best.

In my heart of hearts, I’ll always sympathize with people who make the dire mistake of thinking that anything divine inhabits Christianity, and from there make the even worse mistake of trusting congregations to play fair and even follow their own group’s rules. It’s not in me to delight in the misery of basically-nice people.

Churches have, in the past, been able to operate without little care for laws, mores, ethics, boundaries, or even basic human compassion. And that’s exactly what has happened with their pastor situation. They’ve been able to mistreat a great many people with utter impunity.

Maybe, at last, that will change a tiny bit.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...