The challenges of being a pastor in an ever-changing world

Glenn Packiam

Glenn Packiam, author of The Resilient Pastor and Associate Senior Pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, speaks to Christian Today about the pressures on today's pastors and how they can thrive in spite of them.

CT: We've seen pastors who are falling and others who are committing suicide. What do you think is going on?

Glenn: I think it's a combination of things. Certainly there are always high expectations on people who serve in this role but especially when you think historically, or of priests in older or more traditional denominations, they have tended to see themselves as standing in a place where they are speaking for God and representing God to the people.

The flip side of this is that people can project all of their objections about God onto the pastor. We are definitely seeing a shift in attitudes towards God and towards religion. There's antagonism for sure, but there's also indifference. I don't think we are where we were 10 years ago with this angry New Atheism but I think with young people today, it's just a sense of indifference and seeing God as an irrelevance.

As a person in ministry, you bear the brunt of that. You're either on the receiving end of people's anger with God - or their disappointment or disillusionment with the institution you represent - or at the very least, you can feel their indifference.

As a pastor you can then struggle with questions like 'does what I'm doing matter?' And 'why does it matter and can it make a difference?' Combine that with all the different expectations of what a pastor should be: you have the priestly role but then they're supposed to be theologians, but then they're also supposed to be trained counsellors and therapists, and then political commentators and social activists!

All of those things are good things but they become impossible when you stack all of them on top of one individual.

CT: In one section of your book you talk about how a significant part of the pastor's role can be taken up by mundane administrative tasks! How well does pastoral training equip pastors for the day to day reality of the role and these less glamorous but necessary tasks?

Glenn: For my book, I created focus groups with pastors in the UK, US and Canada, and many of them said we weren't really trained for this! We weren't trained in how to run this almost charity, business, non-profit-type organisation!

To make it worse, not only were they not trained for it, but in some seminaries or ordinational training institutions, there was a kind of looking down on leadership - a sense of 'oh, that's from the business world' or 'oh, that's secular'.

But even theologically-speaking, there's a problem with that attitude, because if this is God's world then there are principles that we can learn from other fields. Theology is not the only way that God reveals himself. The reality is we're not just preaching the word or administering the sacraments. We are also having to figure out how to run an organisation. For better or worse, that's our context today.

CT: Throw into that mix Covid-19. What impact did that have on you when you suddenly found yourself in a global pandemic? Did you feel an additional pressure with all of the changes?

Glenn: Absolutely. Initially there was a surge of adrenaline. You think: ok great, we can do this or we can do that. And everybody thought it might last a few weeks or a couple of months at the most. But as it dragged on, we started to feel the fatigue of that and realise that we could not survive on the adrenaline rush of crisis management.

I think what was also difficult was having to change and revise plans all the time because the situation was changing and there was constantly new information coming out. Pastors had to figure out how to go online and how do we do it well so that it's not just a broadcast. Thank God for tools like Zoom that enabled people to be interactive and use breakout rooms but talk about skills we weren't trained for! Now we're all sort of TV evangelists and Facebook experts!

But what was also difficult was that while in other times of crisis there tends to be a kind of rallying together, what I heard from so many pastors about their experience with Covid-19 was that every layer of the pandemic became another reason for division and for people to disagree about something.

In the pandemic, people weren't able to gather together physically but at the same time, they were also divided over this issue - and about face masks and so on. And as a pastor we also lost the ability to convene and console and help people serve one another. The draining part of this on pastors has been: how in the world do we help our people be unified?

But when I look back to other times in Church history, like the plagues and the schisms and the wars, all of the things that pastors through the centuries have had to shepherd their people through, then we can take comfort that Jesus has been with his Church in times of hardship and we can learn from their wisdom and how they've navigated it.

CT: Data from Barna showed that at the height of the pandemic, a significant number of pastors were thinking about quitting. Does that line up with what you yourself were hearing on the ground from pastors in your orbit?

Glenn: I worked with the Barna team to create a study for this book and then they followed up a little bit later with a series of their own questions. In January 2021 that figure was 29% and by the time they asked the question again in October, it had risen to 38%. My own particular question for the book that I asked in October and November of 2020 was about vocational confidence and whether pastors were more confident about their calling now than when they first entered ministry. Barna had actually asked that question five years earlier so we were able to track it. What we found was that this number had gone down. Fewer pastors are confident of their calling now than when they first entered ministry compared with five years ago. And more pastors are less confident of their calling. So although I didn't ask specifically about quitting the ministry, the responses to my own question showed that vocational confidence is shaken.

CT: Do you think pastors sometimes doubt themselves or put excessive pressure on themselves to 'do it all'?

Glenn: Absolutely and in one chapter of the book I talk about learning to accept our limitations. A pastor's own spiritual rhythms are important to cultivating our life and love for God but part of doing that is recognising that we are not the Messiah! Those spiritual practices like the sabbath or solitude are so important because they remind us that we can't do it all, because we are not the head of the Church! But it's also important that we don't stigmatise pastors for seeing therapists or counsellors because we are so used to being the caregiver but we are human too and we need someone to help us pay attention to our mental, emotional and spiritual health.

CT: When we talk about being a resilient pastor what is the essence of that for you?

Glenn: I think the essence of it is about recalibrating and returning to Jesus and the presence of God. The late former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told the story of going for a physical and his doctor putting him on the treadmill. Sacks asked him: are you testing me to see how fast I can run and the doctor says no. And then he says: are you testing me to see how far I can run? And the doctor says no, just keep running. And his heart rate increases and he wonders what's going on. But when he finishes, that's when the doctor tells him: I'm measuring how quickly your body recovers.

And so resilience, for me, is about that sense of recovery and recalibration back to our first love, back to Christ himself, back to the awareness that it's the presence of God that makes a difference. For us as Christians, resilience is a work of grace. It's not something we can muster up on our own but it comes as we surrender ourselves again and again and again to Jesus. It's His presence, His spirit that breathes resurrection life into us again and again.

CT: How important to a pastor staying resilient are the people around you and even perhaps the congregation?

Glenn: It's hugely important. It's about having the right relationships around you and that means people you're working with and people in your congregation. But it needs to extend beyond that. Pastors need other pastors as their friends.

In the book I draw on the Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for the kinds of friendships we need in our life. If you're Frodo, you need a Sam who's going to be like a brother and close companion. And you need some other peers like the hobbits, who may not necessarily be fighting in the same frontline as you but you can compare notes. I have three other pastors from around the country I get on a Zoom call with once a month just to talk about how things are going, what challenges we're facing, and what we're reading.

And then we need the sages, the Gandalf-type figure who there at just the right moments to give you some sound advice - and we probably need a few of them, not just one!

Then you need an authority. In the Church of England, for example, you might have your bishops. But in whatever church you're in, it's that authority that gives you accountability.

Finally, you need a healer. There's that moment in the Lord of the Rings when Frodo gets stabbed by the dagger and poison goes in. You need someone to heal that wound - and that's the therapists and counsellors.

But also I think that as pastors we don't always think very deeply about the kinds of relationships we have. We just think 'oh, I've got a lot of people around me', and because our work is relational, we fool ourselves into thinking we have loads of friends. We may have loads of people who are marginal friends but oftentimes it's not reciprocal or symmetrical. So we need to think carefully about the kinds of relationships that are in our lives. That's very, very important.

CT: We are starting to emerge from the pandemic. Do you sense that things might begin to get a little bit easier for pastors now or do you think this itself has opened up a whole new world that pastors are having to adapt to?

Glenn: I think in many ways the pandemic created some changes that we're not going to get away from and it's accelerated some things that were already in progress. In some ways it's also revealed some things. My hesitation in saying 'are we going to get back to how things were?' is: what if in some ways the pandemic revealed who really is serious about following Jesus? What if it was a revealer of some struggles in our own life?

But I do think we're going to have to be mission-oriented again and say, well, actually we have to win people. There might have been people who were comfortably on the edges but when it became less convenient, they disappeared. So I think there is going to be a bit more of a missionary mindset rather than 'phew, glad that's over'. I don't think it's business as usual. I think we're moving into a new frontier that has some familiar terrain to it and yet is new.

CT: Some very high profile pastors and leaders have fallen in the last few years. When you survey the pastoral landscape, do you feel more optimistic or pessimistic?

Glenn: I feel sober about it and the way that power has been used and misused. My hope is that the current crop of pastors in whatever generation they may be, would take seriously the authority that we've been called to steward. In my book I address this issue of declining credibility and I link it to this misuse of power that we've seen. I think in many ways, we've fooled ourselves about where our authority comes from - our education or our institution or our social media following. No, our authority has been entrusted to us by Jesus and that means we have to use it the way Jesus used his authority, which is to serve, to wash feet and to lower ourselves.

What I hope for is that in those moments when these scandals are revealed and in the wake of that, we would recognise how we ourselves are prone to misuse power and that we would tremble before God and return to Jesus again and again and say, Lord, help me to serve and exercise this authority that came from you the way you would.