Covid has placed extraordinary strain on church leaders, and record numbers are considering quitting the ministry. When we’re tempted to complain, here’s some things that Paul Friend would encourage us to avoid
Those of us who have been in church leadership for some time know that we will never keep everyone happy. We know that we won’t get everything right; that we need to show grace and humility and apologise when we have made mistakes. However, over the last few weeks, I’ve been shocked - though sadly not surprised - to hear about the increase in hurtful comments, emails, letters of complaint and criticism of decisions that church leaders have received this year.
A recent survey of pastors in the US found that 38 per cent had considered quitting ministry in the last year, up nine per cent from the beginning of 2021. This isn’t just leaving for a new post, but leaving ministry altogether. I suspect things are not much different in the UK. So what is going on?
Be a voice of support, not discontent; a voice of appreciation, even when we disagree
Covid restrictions and lockdowns over the last 18 months have had a huge impact on us all. And it seems that everyone has an opinion on everything. It also seems that church leaders have been an easy target for people to let out their anger, frustration and disappointment over everything Covid has thrown at us. Here are three things it can be very easy for us to fall into, that I’d like to suggest we must fight to avoid:
With so many churches offering online services, it has never been easier to compare your own church to what others are doing, or to find one that does things exactly the way you think they should be done. But being constantly told that your decisions are wrong, especially when you have spent hours trying to understand ever-changing guidelines and considering everyone’s perspective, is hard. It has often felt like a no-win scenario each and every week. And whatever you decide, it will, by default, be divisive. Singing with masks or without masks? Coffee or no coffee? And let’s not get started on communion. It has been a minefield. Comparison is so easy, but it can be unhelpful and demoralising for leaders.
Obsessing over the details
Every church should have accountability structures. There should always be a forum for complaints, discussion and response, and not having this can be dangerous. Having said this, I wonder if we’ve started caring a bit too much about the fine detail of each and every decision? We need people to speak out when they feel things are grossly inappropriate, but having a strong opinion on every little detail - and complaining about each one - is often not helpful.
And how we raise issues is really important. Are we full of grace, or angry and defensive? When we don’t trust leaders to make the right decisions, we often find that the issue is our own baggage rather than their untrustworthiness. (It goes without saying that issues relating to unhealthy leadership should be dealt with through the right channels every time).
Let’s face it, if you are going to move churches, now is the time to do it. Most leaders I’ve spoken to have shared that they have lost some people and gained others. Perhaps people have been a bit more disconnected relationally, or maybe the draw of worshipping closer to your home is attractive. Whether for good reasons or not, many people are taking this opportunity to move churches. For leaders, the challenge is to avoid taking this personally and, while grieving the loss of relationship and investment, choosing to love, release and bless those moving on.
I’ve been shocked by the increase in hurtful comments, emails and criticism of decisions that church leaders have received this year
For those thinking about moving churches, it may be tempting to use this moment to let out all your frustrations. Or, perhaps even worse, not even communicate that you are moving on at all and just cut off relationships. This can be very hurtful and unhelpful for both sides.
So what do we do instead?
What church and ministry team leaders need this Christmas is not an email about how they could do better, but a heart-felt thank you. Whether it is a note, present or card, find something that communicates your support for them and your thanks for their hard work. I’d like to encourage you to choose to be a voice of encouragement, not criticism; a voice of support, not discontent; a voice of appreciation, even when we disagree.
After 15 years, I recently stepped down as chair of the leadership team at my local church. Fortunately, this is not as a result of extreme criticism or unhappiness at the church but a sense that God has opened a new chapter for us as a family. Having moved to a new area, we will be looking to find a church to belong to and serve in. It has been the support, thanks, appreciation and love of those who chose to encourage me that kept me going through discouragement, and so I have resolved to being an active encourager of the leadership in our new setting.
Finally, one of the more alarming findings from the Barna research was that 46 per cent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full time ministry, compared to 34 per cent of pastors over 45. If we want to ensure we have leaders in the church in the long term, we need to be particularly praying for, and actively encouraging, our younger leaders.
Now is the time for the UK Church to give our leaders a break. Let’s be a voice of encouragement, support and appreciation this Christmas.