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May 11, 2022

Engaging in Conversations: Challenges of Life in Today’s Church

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At the National Gathering, I indicated that the Executive Staff (myself, Lisa Johnson, John Terech, and Nate Dreesmann) would be reaching out to have individual conversations with every ECO Pastor/Head of Staff in the coming weeks and months. (If you have not yet gotten your invitation for this conversation yet, it’s coming! We are trying to stagger these invitations over time as we seek to fit conversations into our travel schedules and regular responsibilities.) At the same time, we are also talking with each of the 22 different presbytery councils. It has been so wonderful to talk with each of you and we look forward to continuing to connect. 

Obviously quite a bit of time is being dedicated to these conversations, and it has been inspiring to hear wonderful ways God has been at work in a challenging season. Our conversations at times have also been heart wrenching as we listen to the struggles and challenges that pastors have faced personally and in the churches. I could write pages upon pages about what I have learned and observed so far, but I thought that in this article I might mention a few reasons we have heard why pastors still feel drained after the challenges of the last couple of years. Believe me, I know it is not just pastors – there is widespread exhaustion and built up anxiety. But since my focus is the life of the church, I feel better prepared to address this challenge coming from pastors specifically.

  • In a culture with heightened anxiety, pastors seem to be the recipients of people’s anxiety. Sometimes pastors will naturally take on and absorb the problems and challenges of others, and other times they become the outlet on whom people unload their built up frustrations. 
  • Pastors are seeing their congregants take one step back from previous participation and engagement in ministry. Highly involved elders are needing to resign their positions, regular volunteers are taking a break, and those on the margins are taking a step out of the church. Since the church is primarily a volunteer organization, this shift in participation is leaving significant holes and gaps that the pastors and staff often have to fill (or spend a lot of time trying to find new volunteers). Pastors then don’t have the time and energy to push forward when there are so many “holes to fill.”
  • Pastors are having personal challenges just like everyone else. Those in the congregation have experienced death, loss, anxiety, and family problems. Pastors are not exempt from these same struggles.
  • Pastors have had to take on new skills and leadership for which they have not been equipped. I was talking to a pastor whom I feel is one of the best at leading contentious conversations and he said to me, “Do you have suggestions on how to have difficult conversations?  I feel like I am having hard conversations that I just don’t know how to navigate.” Again, this is a pastor that I think is really adept at being a non-anxious presence and lowering the tension in these types of conversations and he’s just finding it becoming increasingly arduous. 

The challenge for me is that I don’t have the solution. But my hope in at least addressing these issues is that those in the congregation might be able to think and pray how this might apply to their church body and find ways to seek unique solutions in their context. If you are a church leader, perhaps you might pray about some ways that you can support your pastor and help narrow the vision and focus of ministry to those specific things that are vital for the life of the church and your community at this time. Perhaps you may help encourage others around you to re-engage in ministry in order to move the church forward. Maybe this even looks like serving in a different way than you or others have in the past, or intentionally investing in those who have been previously minimally involved. God may be working in new and unexpected ways! 

While may not have solutions, or the energy to even look for new ways God is working, we do know that being rooted in the Lord is vitally important. Rest in God, knowing that no matter what, He is in control of all things and holds all things together. May this summer be a time for you to take time to recharge and to listen to where God is leading you. I am so grateful for each and every one of you and your faithfulness and ministry in your churches across ECO! 

In Christ, 

Dana 

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