Stuck pastors: How ministry can alienate your own faith

June 2nd, 2022

Peter,[1] a 62-year-old pastor at a large Evangelical Covenant Church, knew the moment when something felt extremely wrong in his ministry. It wasn’t his congregation, which was thriving with bustling worship services. It wasn’t his spiritual life, which continued to be robust. It happened one Sunday morning while he was preaching. He simply stepped out of the spotlight. This is not a metaphor. Peter moved out of the brightness of a literal spotlight. 

His church’s worship service were carefully choreographed events. There were spotlights, stage directions, and even a haze machine. A little piece of surgical tape was taped to the floor to show Peter exactly where to stand while he preached. 

One Sunday morning, Peter moved away from his mark and walked over to the side of the stage to make a teaching point with someone sitting on the front row. The entire stage crew waved to him from their tech booth in the back of the worship space. “Get back into the spotlight!” they silently yelled as they motioned for him to move. Peter wanted to connect more authentically with one of his congregants while he preached, but his tech team wanted him to follow the choreographed movements that were planned for the service. 

And that is when Peter realized that his church was getting in the way of him being an authentic spiritual leader. He could not follow his calling to lead others to a deeper faith in Christ because of the performance expectations that his congregation had. He described his feelings about his ministry, saying, “It just wasn’t authentic. It wasn’t real transformation. It was a job.” This “job” was to make sure that one hour on Sunday was a perfect performance. So, Peter was in a troubling position. He had a strong calling to spiritually lead others to Jesus, and yet he was deeply dissatisfied with ministry. He felt “stuck,” and he didn’t know what to do.

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Stuck Pastors

There are other pastors who feel “stuck.” They are called to nurture people’s faith in Jesus, and yet their careers as pastors get in the way. Josh Packard of Springtide Research Institute and I interviewed over 40 of these “stuck pastors” from Canada and the United States to find out what is going on in ministry for our book Stuck: Why Clergy Are Alienated from Their Calling, Congregation, and Career…and What to Do about It (Fortress Press, 2022)Others who study pastors take a psychological approach and explore how some clergy experience burnout. Still, others use a theological lens to talk about how some pastors go through a loss of a faith. Burnout and deconstruction happen, but that is not what we found. The pastors we spoke to were passionate about their calling. They wanted to guide people to Jesus. They just felt that they couldn’t follow this calling while being a congregational leader. 

We are sociologists, trained look at how large social forces affect our everyday lives. That’s the approach we use to show how modern ministry does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, a pastor’s ability to live out his or her calling is influenced by these social forces that are outside of their control. 

Producing a Product

One of these large social forces is the marketplace, shaped by both capitalism (society is built around things being sold) and social Darwinism (only the fittest groups survive). Pastors are leading their congregations in a spiritual marketplace where ideas and experiences are bought and sold. Churches with the most attractive experiences gain more members, while those that can’t produce this risk their congregations closing down. Through our in-depth interviews, pastors told us that they felt like they had to produce a product that was sold. Their worship services felt manufactured, because if they were not expertly-produced events, people would move to another congregation that had that experience. Thomas, a 38 year-old Baptist pastor pointedly told us, “If you can’t manufacture an experience, you lose your job.”

Adam, a 37-year-old youth pastor, felt this pressure to manufacture, too. He described to us that his large congregation was frustrated that there were only 100 teenagers in his youth group. They pushed him to recruit more by creating more extravagant youth meetings with more free giveaways, more lighting, more celebrity guest speakers. This frustrated him, because he felt the transformational spiritual experiences occurred when there were fewer teenagers. Yet, he told us “I knew I needed to maintain a certain level of production within my ministry.” Jeff, an American Baptist pastor, described it as acting. He said, “So there’s an element of worship in which you’re doing theatrics. You’re a stage presence. You’re an actor.” These pastors felt a strong calling to lead others to Jesus and nurture their spiritual lives, but the expectations that every worship service was a perfectly orchestrated event led got in the way. This led them to feel “stuck.”

The Pressure to Be Perfect

The stuck pastors told us that worship services were not the only thing that was being sold on the spiritual marketplace. They felt like their own faith was on sale. Their lives had to have the gloss of perfection because they were the spiritual leaders. This put profound pressure on these pastors because they knew that they were not perfect. Nancy, a 67-year-old Episcopal priest, shared with us, “It’s difficult to share your own doubts and fears because people count on you to have the answer.” Charles, a pastor with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said, “There is a dynamic that you can’t be yourself. You’ve got to be the superior person. You can’t smoke, you can’t cuss. That’s a really bad dynamic.”

The Alienation of Faith

The pressures to be perfect and to manufacture an excellent worship experience create what sociologists call “alienation.” It’s the idea of separation or of lacking authenticity. When a church has a beautiful, meaningful worship service, the leaders are the ones behind the scenes who “see how the sausage gets made,” as one of our stuck pastors told us. They know all the logistics that went into making this production happen—from lighting cues to music selection to tweaks in the sound system. This production seems just that—a product. Pastors can feel a separation from authentic worship when they only help produce worship for others. Similarly, when pastors feel the need to always be perfect, they told us they felt inauthentic. They knew they were not perfect, but they did not feel like they could share this with their churches for fear of losing their jobs.

Because the marketplace mentality saturates North American Christianity, pastors feel like they have to create a spiritual product that is competitive with that of other churches in order to survive. These worship services may be meaningful and beautiful for the church members, but for pastors, there is a cost. That cost, the stuck pastors told us, is the alienation of their own faith. In many ways, the role of a pastor is getting in the way of being spiritual leaders for these ministers. Yet, at the heart of their stories is their sense of divine calling. These pastors have been called by God to lead and to serve. This sense of calling is strong, but given how the pastoral role can hinder spiritual development, many stuck pastors have had to renegotiate what living out this calling looks like. That is what we explore more in depth in our book Stuck: Why Clergy Are Alienated from Their Calling, Congregation, and Career…and What to Do about It.

[1] All names are pseudonyms. 

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