(RNS) — Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise-cracking, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described “failing pastor” from Wisconsin, was already thinking of leaving the ministry before COVID and the 2020 election.
He was, as he put it, fed up with church life after two decades as a pastor.
Then, what he called “the stupid” — feuds about politics and the pandemic — put him over the edge. People at church seemed more concerned about the latest social media dustup and online conspiracy theories — one church member called him the antichrist for his views on COVID— than in learning about the Bible.
Sunday mornings had become filled with dread over what could go wrong next.
He eventually decided, “I don’t need this anymore.” Weddle stepped down as pastor, walked out the door and hasn’t looked back.
The last eighteen months or so have been difficult for pastors like Weddle. Already stretched with the day-to-day concerns of running a congregation at a time when organized religion is on the decline, they’ve increasingly found that the divides facing the nation have made their way inside the walls of the church.
Clergy also felt a sense of isolation, cut off from contact with their congregations and unable to do the kind of in-person ministry that drew them to the pastorate. Instead of preaching and visiting the sick, they had to become video producers and online content creators.
Chuck DeGroat, professor of counseling and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, said pastors have long had to mediate disputes over theology or church practice, like the role of women in the church or the so-called “ worship wars ” of recent decades. They now face added stresses from the pandemic and polarization, with people willing to leave their churches over mask policies or discussions of race.
“I’m hearing from pastors that they just don’t know what to do,” he said.
A recent survey of Protestant pastors by the research firm Barna Group found that 29% said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.”
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, said the past year has been a “crucible” for pastors. Churches have become fragmented by political and social divides. They have also become frayed, as “people’s connectedness to local congregations is waning.
“The pandemic was a great revealer of the challenges churches face,” said Kinnaman.
The Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, whose member organizations include about 2,000 churches and a million Christians, has been concerned about the stresses clergy have been under since 2020.
Last summer, the council surveyed clergy and found about a quarter said they were considering retiring or leaving the pastorate due to the stresses of ministry during COVID.
In a recent follow-up survey, said Parker, about a third of respondents said they were considering their options or thinking about leaving.
Parker said that unlike past crises, like floods, tornadoes or other disasters, pastors won’t be able to escape the fallout from COVID-19 once the pandemic is over. If there’s a flood, she said, a pastor could stay at their church, help them clean up and rebuild and then at some point move to another church that hadn’t been through that disaster.
But COVID affected everyone.
“So where do you go?” she said. “Out of the church.”
For Brandon Cox, serving as a pastor had been a joy until last year.
In 2011, Cox and his wife, Angie, had started a new church in Bentonville, Arkansas, called Grace Hills. Cox described Grace Hills as a “Celebrate Recovery”-style congregation, inspired by the support group ministry founded at Saddleback Church in Southern California, where Cox had once worked.