I had the great privilege of spending a day and a half with some of my fellow clergy folk over the weekend. We were on a retreat together that for me was very helpful and centering. But while we were focused on spiritual practices, what I want to write about is more the recurrent themes that I heard throughout the retreat of frustration, depression, and feelings of discouragement. I want to talk about the pervasive feelings of many (most?) pastors these days of insecurity, of being in a wilderness that seems to have no end, of not knowing the path, of feeling a bit lost in a turbulent and changing sea. As I've mentioned to my congregations both present and past on more than one occasion, the national Church is dying. Conservative estimates are that within 10-20 years the Church as we know it (across denominations, and even across different faiths in the United States) will no longer exist. 20 churches a day closed in 2013, and that number is on the rise. The estimate was that over 10,000 churches closed in 2015. In terms of members, 1.2 million people stopped going to church in 2015 alone. The reasons for this are numerous, and if you are a pastor, you know that there is another article written every day about why and who and how to reverse this trend, what successful churches look like, what the dying ones are doing wrong, what has worked and failed to work. Article after article and seminar after seminar tell us how to do it differently, what someone believes is the thing that will change this all around. AND, the reality is, none of it is working. What might work for one congregation seldom works for another. We have seen attempts to slow down the decline that have bumped attendance at particular individual congregations for a while, only for a dramatic loss to follow a few years later. Most successful churches currently center on a charismatic personality, until that person moves on, is caught in a scandal of some kind, or dies, at which point their church usually collapses. The reality is that our congregations are all aging. Church is not a priority for our younger families at all, if it is even on their radar. Church has become very suspect, in large part because the ultra conservative churches are the loudest and espouse an exclusive, judgmental world view that is a real turn off for most of us. Fighting among different faith beliefs and religions doesn't help. The bad things churches have done shout from our history books, the good we have done is often forgotten. Liberal churches don't believe in evangelizing so we allow the term "Christian" to be co-opted and we don't speak out about who we are. Progressives are afraid to ruffle feathers so we keep quiet, and often become irrelevant: country clubs rather than places that actually do the work of God. Or we do the work (feeding, housing, advocating, caring for the poor and oppressed), but again, quietly, without fanfare, and so go unnoticed and un-noted. But even without this, other priorities have taken our time and attention. Spirituality seems to be more individual and less rooted in community at the moment.
About every 500 years there is a reformation of sorts: things change, dramatically, as far as the religious scene. The Protestant Reformation began exactly 500 years ago this October, so we are due for another one. The clergy I talk to see this. We recognize that God will be doing a new thing, that we can't see it yet, but there will come a time when we know what that is, and that death is just a step towards a new life that looks different; that times in the wilderness often precede very fertile growth and change. It won't be the same. There is comfort in that, in the belief and hope that a new thing is coming.
When I can step outside of myself and sit in meditation or delight in the beauty of the creation that God has made; when I can look at my children and hear their ideas and hopes and dreams for the future, when I can do all of that, I am more than okay with where we are heading. I can be excited to see what is coming next, not seeing a new thing as a judgment on an old thing but as a step into something different for a different time. I can see the mistakes we've made and make, and I can hope that the new thing coming will be more loving, more giving, more true to what I believe is the intention towards Love and connection and community. The future of faith can look radically different and I am okay with that. I want a kinder, more understanding, gentler world where we do stand up for the hungry, for the poor, for the underprivileged. I want a world where people understand that we are all truly connected and that therefore it is in our best interest to make sure everyone has what they need: food, shelter, community, kindness, respect. I can and do hope for a more inclusive, uplifting, empowering sisterhood and brotherhood of love, hope and practice. I am okay with anything that moves us in that direction. I know it will be different, and I look towards the beauty in that.
But for those of us who have made this our career, I have to be honest and tell you that however faithful we are, however hopeful and trusting and convicted of resurrection we may be, that there is fear that accompanies all of this. From a practical place, finding hope and joy is more challenging. First of all, people need someone to blame and the clergy are the obvious scapegoats for the anger felt by those who are losing their communities as churches close down and can no longer afford to continue. While there are arrogant clergy, most of the good folk I know err on the side of taking on more than is their due. We take it in, a sense of failure, a sense of not being good enough, and we take that in deeply. Depression is a very common experience among clergy these days as we work harder than ever, longer hours, lonelier hours, with less result, less return, less sense of accomplishment, community, growth. In the world outside of the church there is a huge mistrust of clergy. To have the constant experience of meeting others, and in conversation sharing what we do for a living only to see the walls come down and the judgments descend, to experience the distancing response of those around us, is disheartening at the least. We feel like pariahs, too often, and can end up isolated within our declining churches. Along with the depression comes anxiety as we face the questions of our own futures. I need to be able to work another 20 years at least. I am the sole support for three children. And not a week goes by now when I don't wonder how I will be able to get them to independence before my career is defunct, along with my ability to support them. I have had the experience of applying for different work, only to find that the distrust of clergy makes stepping into another career as difficult as remaining in this one. Some of you may say that sounds unfaithful. But my experience is that God gives us freewill, does not micromanage our lives. Bad things happen to good people, and yes, people are given more than they can handle on a regular basis. (Look at the folk around the world struggling with famine, lack of clean water, war, deportment, exile, and then tell me it is unfaithful to fear bad things coming. As scripture itself tells us, "the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.")
Fear can be a gift. It can motivate and move us to look ahead, to start the wondering, "what if..." and to try to plan accordingly. But in a world where the future is increasingly unclear, where each day brings new uncertainties and new concerns, the future that we fear is very dim. The "what ifs" are unreal glimpses at what is very cloudy. We stand at the entrance to a cave. What is beyond is anyone's guess, and the way through is not marked.
So we wait. And we watch. And we listen. And we try to hold each other up as we walk forward, reminding one another that we are beloved children of a gracious Divinity. We search our dreams and our meditations for meaning and direction. We study and read and attend conferences. We pray. But we see what is coming. It is the end of the Church as we know it. And we feel all sorts of things in response to that: hope, joy, excitement; also fear, anxiety, depression and worry.
Each day is a gift. And I rest in that reality as well. It helps to know we do not walk this alone, even as we often feel alone in our individual faith communities. And it helps to trust that we have been called to the places we currently serve. We are called here for now. This time in the desert is meaningful. We will wait and look for the next summons, the next beckoning forward. And until then we will be faithful in our work, striving to do what God would have us do, striving to serve as the people call us to serve, stepping forward on the journey even as we wait for the next turn in the road to come.