by Lawrence Downing  |  10 November 2021  |

In the October 2021 issue of Ministry magazine, I found a piece by Larry Yeagley that addresses an issue too often sublimated or ignored. In “Coloring Outside the Lines: Stemming the flow of clergy exodus” Yeagley offers his typically sensitive, realistic, and thoughtful analysis of the present state of ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and provides specific suggestions that I believe have potential to stem the flow along the clergy exodus trail.

Yeagley noted many of the pastors he knew gave the impression of men who were under threat to achieve organizational goals and promote conference programs. He noted that several of the best pastors had resigned to accept jobs in Adventist health-care organizations. 

He suggests four things that he thinks would help keep pastors energized to stay in pastoral ministry: freedom to innovate, continuing education, learning to delegate, and participating in events in the community where you live, such as the ministerial association.

Yeagley’s recommendations are excellent beginning points. However, I believe there is more to be said. As one who has spent decades in parish ministry, I have identified some foundational problems that drive pastors from pastoral ministry.

Obsolete beliefs

Successful pastors I’ve talked to confirm they are disappointed and frustrated with those church administrative leaders who reach back to a former era to promote beliefs that in a prior era had a central place in people’s theological portfolio, but probably shouldn’t now. Think, for example, of the 2300 days as it is linked to the end of time, the Sanctuary doctrine, short-earth chronology, attitudes toward the LGTBQ+ community, and resistance to women in ministry.

As I talk to young pastors, I hear them saying that they see the church bending scripture to say what denominational leaders wish it to say, rather than let the Bible speak for itself. They see that the ideas promoted by senior church leaders are in conflict with both science and theological research. So the pastor is faced with a dilemma. Should they follow the unsubstantiated proclamations of the church that deny science? 

Ethical engagement

Our pioneers’ emphasis on prophetic interpretations helps us understand the Adventist belief system. But in our contemporary world more emphasis seems to be given to ethical challenges. How can the church effectively bridge the polarization that divides our society and its institutions? How can we improve our interpersonal relationships and restore fractured families and marriages? How can we maintain and grow spiritual lives that are bombarded by an increasingly secular society? How are Christians to relate and thrive in an unstable economic system? What is the role of the church in addressing the frail social structures of our society, including things like homelessness?

Pastors today see themselves called to become part of the conversation, as their parishioners wrestle with matters that have more in common with societal and social concerns, rather than theology and doctrine. A survey of younger clergy might confirm this. Are young people pursuing ministry as a profession so they can proclaim doctrine, or to help people live more productive lives? If the latter, church administrators are taking a wrong turn if they continue to emphasize doctrine. 

I believe that pastors see their calling as engaging with their parishioners and community to provide a response to real world 21st-century issues. The church’s challenge, if young pastors are to stay engaged in their work, is to equip them to be effective in a role that has taken the church into uncharted areas of theological social thought and practice. 

Listening to the next generation

I wish our church leaders would actually listen to the younger clergy. Assure them what is discussed is confidential. Then just listen. 

Do not be surprised to learn significant numbers question short-earth chronology. That most affirm women ministerial colleagues as equal to themselves. That many are open toward the LGBTQ+ community, and side with them against church administrators’ statements at the recent Annual Council. 

You may also find many younger pastors questioning or even rejecting the traditional prophetic interpretations that have long served evangelists. They are troubled when church administrators beat the eschatological drum to stir up the troops. 

The list of arcane practices and troubling doctrines could be expanded, but the reader will get the point: there is trouble in River City and that trouble will not soon go away! What will go away is a number of skilled people who remain in pastoral ministry, or who want to enter it.

Finish the Work?

My wife, Arleen, will attest that through the years she heard my threats to join the clergy exodus numerous times—most often after enduring what were euphemistically labeled “workers’ meetings.”

Workers’ meetings typically were occasions for departmental men to pitch their latest “Finish the Work” programs. Each departmental man (and they were all men) came with his newest visual gimmick and creative slogan. These shibboleths took center stage, and when they served their creator’s purpose, or the creator moved on, the mottos and materials drifted into oblivion. Too often, some of us opined, the newest clever “Finish the Work” program could be better titled “do in the work.” 

The current “Finish the Work” motto is “I WILL GO!”, promoted by General Conference president Ted Wilson. It will, I fear, generate a response that is likely not his intent: I fear young pastors are responding, “You bet I will go. I’m outta here!”

How I stayed

I managed to continue my ministerial career for 40-plus years in the parish, until my retirement. How, if there was such an evident conflict, did I keep on keeping on? 

I did it by making a mental and psychological shift. I saw myself as working for the people in my parish, not the conference. The conference was the mechanism by which we in a parish could survive economically. 

When I felt at the end of my rope, when the dissonances multiplied, I would share with Arleen the turmoil that festered in my soul, and blurt out that it was time to move on—to join the exodus. Now, I had something that many pastors didn’t have: I had access to an established and prosperous family business that I, as an equal owner, could join at will. If there was a threat from church authorities, a conflict that crossed my toleration zone, I could follow Elder Wilson’s motto: I could go! 

Arleen didn’t argue. She listened. She didn’t join me in my self-pity, either. She would just say, “Well, perhaps it is time to think about a different career.” 

That simple statement was enough to get me off the anguish track and redirect my thoughts to the privileges of a pastor’s life and career. I would remember that as a pastor I was entrusted with unique access to a person’s life and thoughts. Such trust enables a pastor to relate with people in a way that few others can. Her acceptance of my frustration helped me to focus on and acknowledge that I had been entrusted with a great product to offer to people: the good news that God loves people and, for reasons we cannot fathom, wants us to be in be part of the heavenly family! How can anything top this?

I will confess that contemplating my escape carried me emotionally through numerous low points, and enabled frustrations to work themselves out until the crisis dissipated. Into the depths of some isolated part of my brain would be shuttled my accumulated miseries, and new light would once more shine. And into a file folder would drop my latest letter of resignation, and I’d turn my attention to preparing next Sabbath’s sermon.

Not that all the irregularities and bureaucratic matters were solved. Not at all. But contemplating leaving helped me appreciate the work I was doing.

Responding to the crisis

There remains yet the challenge of adapting to a dramatically confusing and shifting society, perception shifting expectation people have of religion, the church and integrity. 

Further complicating the mix is the Covid virus, which will change the church in a way that is beyond our powers to predict. It may well be that as a result of this our entire society, including the church, will never be the same. Here the parish minister confronts a challenge not seen in my lifetime. How religious leaders will respond to this crisis, how they will direct their resources to surmount the realities that are part of 21st-century life, awaits an answer. Can pastors and church leaders rescue the church to serve another generation?

The challenge for denominational leaders is to listen to and become acquainted with those who practice ministry in a dynamic and ever-fluid society. It is important to initiate and sustain conversation with those who hold alternate viewpoints, and accept these individuals as members of God’s family. In the Lord’s family relationship and acceptance of all God’s children take precedence over theological statements or denominational tradition. 

Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

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