(RNS) — Alex Lang thought he was done with the pastorate for good.
On Sunday, Aug. 27, Lang bid farewell to the congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where he’d served for a decade.
His final sermon done, Lang sat down and typed out some thoughts on why he left not only First Presbyterian but the pastorate altogether. Lang posted that essay a few days later on his website, thinking his few hundred regular readers might be interested.
He was partly right. His regular readers were interested. And so were about 350,000 of Lang’s colleagues.
Lang’s essay, entitled “Why I Left the Church,” went viral — and prompted a national conversation among clergy about the pressures of the profession and how they talk about those pressures. Over coffee and in Facebook posts and denomination offices, Lang’s essay became the topic du jour for clergy around the country. Some resonated with his concerns, while others saw his leaving as a lack of faith.
“I’ve done more than 50 articles,” said the 43-year-old Lang during an interview at his home outside of Chicago. “Usually nobody cares.”
His more recent essay became a blank slate for people to write their own experiences on. Many of those experiences are difficult — as pastors have become burnt out caring for people’s souls amid the decline of organized religion known as the “Great Dechurching” and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Alex raised issues that are relevant and resonated with clergy serving congregations and other institutions,” said Rev. Craig Howard, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Chicago, which First Presbyterian is a part of. “These issues include isolation, organizational calcification, burnout, and bullying.”
After reading Lang’s essay, Howard said he emailed other clergy in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the Chicago area, inviting them to meet up and talk. That meeting, he said, led local leaders to work on some resources to help pastors with spiritual care and mental health issues.
In his essay, Lang talked about the burden of knowing his congregation’s secrets and their sorrows — which became, at times, more than he could bear.
“What you don’t realize is that, over time, the accumulation of all that knowledge starts to weigh you down,” he wrote. “Your mind is a repository for all sorts of secrets and, if you’re human, you feel sympathy and empathy for their suffering.”
That portion of Lang’s essay resonated with the Rev. Devyn Chambers Johnson, co-pastor of Covenant Congregational Church in North Easton, Massachusetts. She said it’s hard for congregation members or those outside the church to understand that part of a pastor’s life.
While helping professionals like therapists or counselors also support people in crises, they don’t do so on the scale that a pastor does, something she said her husband and co-pastor, Ryan, helped put into perspective.