By John Mason Lock

In Psalm 1, we hear of the righteous person, who is a like a “tree planted by streams of living water.” The other qualities of the righteous person described in the Psalm are arguably more concrete — he does not sit in the seat of the scornful or stand in the way of sinners; he meditates on the law of the Lord day and night — so what exactly does it mean to be planted?

As Americans, we are hardly the experts at this. We’ve long been known for our wanderlust and desire to get away and start a new life. Clergy today are not immune from the impulse to move. As of a few years ago, the average length of tenure for Episcopal clergy was five years. Dean Leander Harding frequently said in his pastoral theology classes that at five years you are still an outsider. If these averages are accurate, it means that most clergy fight through the long period of being an outsider, only to sacrifice it all and move on to the next call.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we are witnessing a new phenomenon among clergy. They are not just quickly moving from one church to another; they are leaving the ministry altogether. It is the manifestation in the church of a wider trend now called the “great resignation.”


In August there was a rather public example of this when Alexander Lang, who was the head pastor of a relatively large Presbyterian church outside of Chicago, announced his resignation and departure from the ministry. He wrote about the reasons for this decision on his blog, and the post became a viral moment on social media, especially among clergy who either identified with his bleak assessment of the ministry or condemned him for his lack of tenacity.

In the post, Pastor Lang explains his reasons for leaving the church. He cites things like the burden of carrying other people’s secrets, their failures and sins, knowing things that few, if anyone else, knows. He also does not like an overwhelmingly broad job description of the ministry: public speaker, counselor, manager, among others. No person is ever going to be superior in all these fields, but most churches do not understand this. They are looking for Jesus himself, and instead they just get one more sinner.

In the post, Lang also draws back the curtain to reveal the reality that pastor have 1,000 bosses. You answer not only to the church hierarchy and to the vestry or the board. In fact, everyone has a say about your “performance,” and they are likely to tell you either directly to your face or indirectly through the rumor mill.

Lang also understandably bemoans the many losses pastors endure. This would be a hardship even if it were only for the beloved parishioners you see through sickness, death, and burial. In addition to these losses, there are those who leave the church for any number of reasons. Some move away, but the hardest are those who leave with little or no explanation or warning. In this polarized political environment, people leave because they think you are either too liberal or too conservative, too vocal or too silent about political issues, and it’s hard not to internalize all this and think, Is there something wrong with me?

Of course what Pastor Lang says is all too true. Even the most sanguine of veteran pastors would have to admit that Lang has not written anything false. The families of pastors could give their testimony to these truths because they often carry their own burdens from the ministry, with few of the “perks.”

Obviously, Lang highlights the shadow side of the ministry. He does not talk about the tremendous privilege it is to walk with people in the intimate moments of their lives. He does not mention the amazing gift it is to give voice to the grace of God in declaring forgiveness and announcing the goodwill of our Father toward all people. Lang does not talk about how the members of a church put a staggering depth of trust in you as pastor and offer respect for you and the office that is often little deserved or appreciated.

To me the most telling part of Lang’s post comes at the end, when he talks about his future plans. He writes, “As for what I plan to do next, I believe one of the most important ways we encounter God’s unconditional love is through our relationships with others. I am going to be investing all of my energy into a business that helps people find and form those relationships so they can experience God’s love in their lives.”

I don’t want to vilify Lang or even to say that he has made an immoral choice. He may very well be listening to and obeying God’s calling, but I will say that from all appearances it looks like he is running away. I wish I could remind Lang that the place where Christian relationships are formed, where God’s unconditional love can be encountered, is supposed to be in the church. The “business” that helps people find and form those relationships so that they can experience God’s love in their lives is the local congregation. Lang is leaving the institutional church to start a business that has as its mission doing exactly what the church is designed to do and can do by the grace of God.

For Lang and many other pastors, there is always the tempting allurement of a perfect church that exists somewhere away from the difficulties of the local congregation. Such an ideal congregation, of course, is a figment of the imagination. For a pastor, there is no escape from the challenges Lang describes. These challenges and heartaches are what it means for pastors in particular to take up their cross and follow the Lord.

We might call these sacrifices and hardships the cruciform shape of the ministry. Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that clergy should become martyrs and just suffer for suffering’s sake. I’m also not saying that there are not exceptional cases of clergy abuse in which congregations have done real and lasting harm to a pastor, although frankly the abuse in the vast majority of cases is going in the other direction. I’m talking about the ordinary arc of ministry. Like so many pursuits in life, it can be a grind, but as a Christian vocation it can also be a means of taking up the cross and following the Lord.

For us pastors, a flight away from our calling in the church would only take us from where Christ would have us to be. The church is the place where the sacraments are administered, grace and forgiveness are preached in Jesus’ name, people are loved and love each other through good times and bad. It’s a cliché that the local congregation is a Christian family, but it is true. We did not pick each other, but Christ has picked us and this is the place where the unconditional love of God meets us, and we learn to love like God loves.

Lang’s instinct to fly away is not seen just in pastors. Because to a certain extent we all have illusions of escape. This is frequently evident in marriage, with husbands and wives. They imagine a perfect partner, an ideal marriage, and they think that they can find it out there with someone who is not their spouse. Because, like in the church, there will always be disappointments, points of disjunction, disagreement, and disharmony between a husband and wife. This is the proverbial problem of the grass being greener on the other side.

Most of the time we are just trading one set of known problems for a different set of unknown problems. Of course there are cases of infidelity, abuse, or abandonment, when the marriage is irreparably broken, but in the course of the ordinary Christian marriage, there will be points of discontent and disagreement and even extended seasons when one wonders is this the right fit for me. All married people need to realize is that there is no perfect spouse out there for you. Imagine a post by Pastor Lang’s saying he is leaving his marriage to pursue a Christian romance of devotion, loyalty, and selfless love. It sounds absurd because it is. But we flirt with such absurdity in our illusions of escape.

To state the case as simply as possible: Everyone from time to time feels trapped by the confines of life, and the truth is that there is no flight away to some place where you will not sometimes feel trapped or discontent. For Christians, it is the imperfect places and things that are actually the center of where God is working by his grace. God takes imperfect people, imperfect husbands and wives, imperfect churches, and by his mercy and grace he uses them for his purposes.

Consider the faithful priests, pastors, and youth ministers in your life. The ones who have the strongest effect are the ones who did not run away. They didn’t try to escape. They did not leave the ministry to form a new business that would do the work of the church, only better. They settled in for the long, slow work of planting seeds, watering faithfully, reaping only as the Lord gave increase.

This long, slow, patient work is the inner meaning of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). In the kingdom of God, there are those who try to bet “safe.” To do so means not to risk anything but to keep all to one’s self. This is the servant who takes the talent — a unit of currency in the ancient world — and buries it.

On the other hand, you have the servants who put the talents to good use. There is risk, even catastrophic risk. You could lose some or all of the principal. There could be an accident and you could lose it all. The bank could fail, the investment collapse. To put it in the terms of the ministry: if you accept this calling to be a pastor, you could get hurt and have your heart broken. This is always risk in loving another human being. In the kingdom we are called to take such risks, whatever our calling is.

Our greatest example of this truth is that Christ didn’t bury the talent the Father gave him. His whole earthly life was a self-offering, a pouring out. He did not take account of the risk. Born in a stable to a humble young woman, going about doing good, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, loving all the way to Calvary. For him there was no escape to an ideal Israel. He came to God’s people and he loved them to the very end. He made the biggest, most reckless investment by choosing us, the human race, but somehow because he is the Lord, merciful and loving, even in our waywardness and our sin, our lukewarmness and equivocations, he brings increase to his investment, and one day he will present himself together with us, his increase, to the Father.

This post is based on a sermon I have for the institution of my predecessor, the Rev. Ken Aldrich Jr., as the rector emeritus of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.

About The Author

Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was nurtured spiritually at St. John’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa.

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