To Pandemic Pastors Dying to Quit

A Sensitive Look at Suffering Clergy. And Werewolves.

Josh Retterer / 5.21.21

A recent survey of Protestant pastors by the research firm Barna Group found that 29 percent said they had given “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.”  –Bob Smietana, The Christian Century

A man stands up in front of a white board with obvious reluctance. “Hi, I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.” Offscreen several voices say, “Hi John.”  He looks even more reluctant. “This is going to be tough. I started drinking again. Stress. I became a monster. Tough to be around. Hateful. Lied to my dad. Last thing I said to him. I was rude to Carla, and I had hateful thoughts towards Ricky … and his whole family.”

[Wonderfully, Ricky is in the room.

“When you are having a nervous breakdown, the only clue that anything is terribly wrong with your life is the wonderful people around you, who keep asking you, ‘Is everything okay?’ And you just go, ‘Yeah.’”

Watching 2020’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow made me think pastoring during the plague probably felt at times like inhabiting writer and director Jim Cummings’ character, Officer John Marshall. I think strange things like that sometimes. His life is stress. We see a soup of an unhappy ex-wife, along with an equally unhappy teenage daughter, an aging father — played to perfection by the late Robert Forster — who is also the Sheriff, and an entire town angry at him for not being able to prevent the brutal murders that he and his fellow officers are entirely unprepared for because this stuff never EVER happens in the Utah equivalent of Mayberry! Thank God for AA, which features quite realistically throughout the film.

Predictably, John is headed for a massive ego death, his world spiraling out of the control he never had in the first place. If you could see the psychic burden he has been carrying, it would dwarf him, almost cartoonishly. The Barna survey is what, weirdly, made me think of this film. I’d say more than 29% of pastors are carrying a burden just as big as John’s.

Adam Morton once paraphrased to me that famous Bonhoeffer quote from The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” with something equally striking:

God is bidding pastors to come and die.

That’s the call. We had been talking about the mentoring of young pastors, and that line, in that moment, allowed me to see that that was basically my approach to mentoring: shouting, not unlike John Marshall, “Do your job — die quicker!” I’m smooth like that. The problem is, it’s impossible to prescribe something that is impossible to dose. For me, clergy, lay or professional, have these flashing neon signs over their heads that strobe, “Called!” It’s not something they don, like a clerical collar or cross on a chain; it’s just there. It makes me think of the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19. Elisha didn’t call himself. He wasn’t even called by Elijah. The latter just passed on a message from God, and said as much in verse 20: “And he said to him, ‘Go back again, for what have I done to you?’” Basically, tag, you’re it. 

One of The Brothers Zahl, and fellow Jim Cummings fan, the Rev. John “DJ JAZ” Zahl has had plenty of experience in this area of the cleric’s call:

Suffice it to say, the issue is that Death is a description of what happens to all who are engaged in ministry, not a prescription of what we need to seek out. One does not need to seek out these moments, for this fallen world will hunt every one of us down with little deposits of suffering (cruciform experience), preceding the final draw (death). God is in the business of redeeming both suffering and death in turn.

Suffering will happen, and this last year and change, it happened. All over everybody. In almost every way. I have a coffee cup motto that will never be made for Mark 4:40, where the disciples wake Jesus, what with the storm and the boat and being terrified:

Just because Jesus is in the boat with you doesn’t mean there won’t be occasional throwing up over the side.

What feels like an end may be an end, but not of your call. We know Who is the Beginning and the End, and endings for Christ are always full of unexpected life where only death existed before. This is what allowed Robert Farrar Capon to say in the face of participating in the sufferings of Christ, without a hint of glibness, “at the very worst, all you can be is dead — and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.”

He meant it. It’s what allows the dead to dance!