The reality of higher stress and conflict for ministers in the negative world is here. That’s why understanding that the times have changed is so important. Each person who pursues a call to pastoral ministry will need to find a path to finding the mental and emotional resiliency to stand fast in the midst of it.
In the mid-2010s, America entered what I call the “negative world.” What this means is that for the first time in the 400-year history of the United States, elite American society came to have a publicly “negative” view of Christianity and its teachings.
This has had profound effects on the nature of Christian ministry. One of them we already see clearly: greater pressure and stress on pastors. Negative world ministry requires pastors with Pauline toughness—both mental and emotional—as well as new approaches to structuring ministry.
We see the increasing stress levels in surveys on pastoral burnout. Last November the religious polling organization Barna released survey results showing that almost 40 percent of pastors had thought about leaving the ministry in the past year. The level of people thinking of leaving the ministry increased by nine percentage points in less than a year, with younger pastors more likely to consider leaving than their older brethren. A quarter of pastors rated themselves as “unhealthy” in terms of well-being. David Kinnaman, president of Barna, noted that pastoral burnout was a rising concern even before COVID, suggesting that the end of the pandemic won’t resolve these problems.
Pastors aren’t just talking about quitting. They actually are quitting. The Washington Post has described an exodus of clergy in the last two years. Even very high-profile pastors have stepped down from their pulpits. Jason Meyer, successor of John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has resigned. So has Abraham Cho, successor to Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s East Side location in New York. These are pastoral dream jobs at some of the most prestigious evangelical churches in the country. Yet these men stepped down voluntarily, without any moral scandals or improprieties.
What’s driving this increased pressure? Many factors. The negative world has created increasing levels of pressure from outside the church, such as the very real risk of being “cancelled” for saying the wrong thing. But the negative world has also led to a culture war within evangelicalism as various ministry strategies have deformed in the face of growing secular hostility. Teachings on many issues, including race, are causing divisions in churches just as they are in schools and other institutions. Both Meyer and Cho resigned as they were experiencing pressure and controversy in their ministries on the topic of race. The pandemic has added to the pressure. Matters such as whether or not to hold in-person services, or whether to require masks, have become topics of dispute. But they have also become political questions, and thus suffer from the same polarization we see throughout our society.These pressures are affecting not just the evangelical world but the church more broadly, including Catholics and mainline Protestants.