Updated: Oct 1
This past Sunday, I preached my last sermon as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights. I have made the decision that I’m not only leaving my post as head of staff, but I’m going to be leaving the pastorate all together. I no longer have a desire to serve as a pastor in the church. In my sermon, I told my congregation that I was exhausted from writing, memorizing and preaching sermons week after week for 10 years, which is true. However, there are other reasons why I'm leaving that I didn't have time to discuss in my sermon and I want to utilize this article to do a deep dive into how I came to my decision.
The Great Pastor Resignation
I have become part of what is known as the Great Pastor Resignation that came in the wake of the pandemic. Barna did a national survey of pastors and, as of March 2022, 42% of pastors considered quitting. The reasons for this are myriad, but the top five reasons given are as follows:
The immense stress of the job: 56%
I feel lonely and isolated: 43%
Current political divisions: 38%
I am unhappy with the effect this role has had on my family: 29%
I am not optimistic about the future of my church: 29%
I can relate to all of these, but in particular, the top two are the ones that figured heavily into my decision. Being a pastor is like being a parent. You can imagine what it’s like to have a child, but until you are in the role, you cannot fully appreciate what it’s like to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a life 24/7. The same is true for being a pastor. You think you know what to expect, but the lived experience is very different from your imaginings of what it will be.
If I was to articulate my perspective on the contrast between the two, what you don’t realize is how enmeshed you will become in other people’s lives. As a pastor, you are there for all the peaks and the valleys. You are there to celebrate the weddings and the births. You are also there for the sicknesses, tragedies and deaths. I don’t think anyone becomes a pastor not knowing this is what you are signing up for. However, the reality of what this does to you mentally and emotionally is taxing over the long haul.
As an example, for most of my tenure at First Pres, we had around 1000 members. Of those 1000, only about 50 percent would attend on a regular basis. Out of those 500, I really got to know about 300 people beyond name recognition. What this means is I know their stories, their history, the intimate details of their lives. Sometimes this happened because they were in crisis. Sometimes I learned these things while performing functions for them like funerals, weddings and baptisms. Sometimes this happened because we became friends.
Irrespective of how I learned their story, I carry that history wherever I go. Whenever I see them, they know that I know intimate details about their lives; details that are rarely shared with others. Since I see these people most every week, that personal information is always at the top of my mind because I will often ask how they are doing. I want to know if they are struggling or making progress. I want to know if I can offer resources to help.
What you don’t realize is that, over time, the accumulation of all that knowledge starts to weigh you down. Your mind is a repository for all sorts of secrets and, if you’re human, you feel sympathy and empathy for their suffering. Therefore, beyond just keeping track of all that information, you’re aware of the deep hardships and challenges that your congregants cope with day-to-day. Moreover, they look to you for guidance and hope.
Like almost every facet of being a pastor, this is a double-edged sword. It is a privilege to be given a window into these very private aspects of people’s lives, but the responsibility that comes with that privilege can often be overwhelming in ways that those on the outside of the pastorate cannot fully comprehend.
Another aspect of being a pastor is that you don’t just have one boss. Sure, as a pastor, you are ultimately responsible to a board or governing body that oversees your ministry. However, in practice, your boss is every person who walks through the door of your community. When everyone likes what you’re doing, it may not feel that way, but the moment a group of people become discontent with your messages or decisions, then you feel the weight of their leverage over your life.
In this way, the pastorate is similar to politics. A politician is elected by the people and is only as safe as the voters who approve of their work. The moment the tides shift, that same beloved politician can quickly become a pariah. One would think such dynamics would not be present in the church, but what many people do not realize is that it’s often worse.
In my previous congregation, a member who was a former state senator for the Pennsylvania legislature refused to volunteer for our boards because he felt that church boards were too cutthroat. I found that to be incredible! This man worked at the highest levels of state government and he felt politics were less toxic than volunteering for a leadership role on the board of his local church.
I’ve been the target of the mudslinging. Some members of my community were so opposed to my leadership that they took steps to create a movement to have me removed from my post. At first it was an underground movement to convince the governing board of the church that a majority of parishioners were discontent with my leadership. When that effort was unsuccessful, they went public by sending out an e-mail to the entire congregation to build enough momentum to have me forcibly removed.
As a pastor, you know you’re not going to be able to please everyone. You know that some people are going to dislike what you do. You expect to bring new people through the door who identify with your preaching, while others will leave who disagree or don’t like your style. But when you see that there is a group of people whose sole goal is to dismantle your career, that is an entirely different beast that no one expects, particularly from people who supposedly label themselves Christians.
Thankfully, their campaign was unsuccessful, but their efforts certainly caused damage and left me wondering: Is leading the church really worth the investment if this is what I’m going to get in return?
Although the requirements differ from denomination to denomination, to become a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), you have to possess a bachelor’s degree and then you have to go to seminary and receive a Masters of Divinity (M.Div). For many professions, a masters is maybe a one or two year program. The M.Div takes a minimum of three years. On top of this, you have to take a variety of professional exams (better known as ordination exams) and go through a series of internships in churches and hospitals. When you come out on the other side, the average salary for a PC(USA) pastor is around $55,000, which is barely enough to live on and not nearly enough to pay back your student loans.
On top of this, there are seven areas where a pastor is expected to be proficient. First and foremost, you are expected to be a professional speaker. Personally, I love this part of the job, but many of the people I went to seminary with struggled with public speaking. If you fall into this category, immediately you have a problem, since what most people see is your public speaking on Sunday.
The second required skill is that you are like the CEO of a company, anticipating not only what the current people in your church want, but also how to bring new people through the door. You have to grow the business and, under the conditions we are in right now, that’s super difficult because, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, the culture is such that people don’t really want to go to church anymore.
You also have to be a professional fundraiser. Not only are you raising money for your own salary and whatever staff you might have working with you, but you are also raising money to maintain the building and to help people who are struggling financially. Speaking of helping people who are struggling, you are also expected to be a counselor for people who need help. As I discussed above, sometimes you act as a confidant. Other times you’re helping people mediate conflict and disputes.
In a church like mine, I am also acting as a human resource director. Yes, I have a committee who works alongside me and advises me, but I’m ultimately responsible for hiring and firing as well as creating a positive workplace culture. Beyond all of these day-to-day tasks, you serve as a Master of Ceremonies at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, which means you rarely get a break as these events often happen on weekends.
Furthermore, as the Master of Ceremonies, people also look to you as the keeper of the Bible and the guardian of orthodoxy meaning they depend on you to correctly interpret the Bible for them. This one is actually really important because if your interpretation crosses the line into what others deem heretical, you risk members of the church questioning your authority to continue interpreting the Bible for the church.
Finally, you are expected to be a pillar of virtue, meaning you must be blameless or morally pure. Your spouse and your children should all be perfect or close to it. Most importantly, you must be unconditionally loving, meaning you have to love everyone in your congregation and show them grace and forgiveness, no matter how poorly they treat you.
Putting all this together, you can see how crazy this is:
Human Resources Director
Master of Ceremonies
Pillar of Virtue
In a normal company, you would have a different person doing most of these jobs; sometimes, multiple people. Nobody is capable of being proficient at all of these skills. And yet, pastors are expected to do all of these things and do them well for $55,000 a year.
In the New York Times podcast First Person, they interviewed Dan White, Jr. a Baptist pastor from New York. Although I would recommend listening to the whole podcast (below), his church, like many others began to split during the Trump years. People in his church kept leaving either because he was perceived as too liberal or too conservative. The constant anger and bickering left him exhausted.
In the podcast, Dan describes going on a long overdue vacation. After sleeping 14 hours the first night, he came downstairs and poured himself a bowl of cereal. His hands were shaking so badly that he could barely hold the spoon. When the shaking didn’t subside, he had a doctor perform a battery of tests. As the doctor interpreted the results, he explained that they found no diseases, but Dan's brain looked very similar to someone who had come back from a warzone and is experiencing PTSD.
A psychologist then asked Dan a series of questions about the losses he had experienced in the church. He ended up counting 180 different lost relationships due to death or people leaving the church. These are all losses where he was never given a chance to mourn, but had to continue to be the leader in his community regardless of how emotionally painful these severed relationships might have been. The result is that Dan internalized all this unprocessed trauma, which was contributing to his neurological condition.
When I heard this podcast, I was on sabbatical over in England in 2022. I was in the middle of trying to discern if I wanted to stay at my post or leave the pastorate all together. When I listened to Dan speak, I felt like someone was finally putting words to my own experience. As the pastor, I felt like a punching bag and no matter how much abuse was thrown my way, I simply had to grin and bear it. Dan ultimately left the church and said it was the best decision he ever made.
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy over the years as a way of processing the challenges of the church. My most recent therapist introduced me to the concept of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. A growth mindset is when a person is willing to take chances, enjoys learning new things and is not afraid to fail. Conversely, people with fixed mindsets don’t like to be challenged. They perceive failure as the limit of their abilities. They tend to be scared of learning new things, particularly if that education disrupts their current worldview.
I am firmly in the camp of growth mindset and I assumed that was the entire purpose of the church. When I became a pastor, I thought that the reason why this group of people gathered every Sunday was to explore deep questions about life and to push ourselves to become better humans. What I have learned over the last 10 years is that my assumption was wrong. Although there are definitely some people who come to church for the reasons I outlined above (these are some of my biggest supporters), the majority of people who attend churches are in the fixed mindset category.
Most Christians don’t want their thinking challenged. They come to church to reinforce what they’ve believed their entire lives. From their perspective, the job of the pastor is not to push them to grow, but to reassure them that they are already on the right track. Any learning should support the party line and comfort them that their investment of resources in the church will result in a payoff somewhere down the line, particularly once they reach the afterlife.
This is the exact opposite of how I function. Although I always try to end my messages with a sense of hope, my goal was to make you think. Nothing was off limits. I have no problem dismantling the traditional Christian belief system in service of logic and reason, particularly if it helps us make sense of the world. Whereas most pastors eschew nuance in favor of black and white thinking, I believe we discover God’s presence by digging into the complexity of those details.
Hence, I eventually came to the conclusion that my particular skillset and perspective is a mismatch for the institutional church. What I offer is not what most Christians are looking for, which is another reason I’ve decided to move on. I realized that if I spend the rest of my life fighting a system that is not designed for someone like me, I’m going to end up an angry, bitter, broken shell of a human being.
The Final Service
I announced my resignation from the church in May of 2023 and spent the summer saying goodbye to the congregation. As I stated at the beginning of this article, I preached my last sermon this past Sunday (August 27, 2023). I was actually blown away by the number of people who came out to say goodbye. More than 360 people were in attendance and 80 online. The music was awesome (Coldplay, U2 and The Beatles) and I would say that I gave one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached called Change (below).
There is a great reflection on the service written by Jessie Hammersmith who came to my church after listening to the Restorative Faith Podcast and reading the Restorative Faith book. I will say that for all of the adversity I have faced during my time at First Pres, I felt very loved on that last Sunday. In many ways it was the perfect ending to my career in the pastorate.
As the capstone to my sermon, I spent the summer creating a short film where I tried to capture the story of the last ten years. It’s part documentary, part art piece. To fully appreciate all the shots in the film, you kind of need to watch the full sermon (above), but if you don’t have time for that, then you can still enjoy the film (below) as a standalone piece.
The only context I will add is that, at the end, you will hear a poem I wrote specifically for this sermon. The words of the poem are printed at the end of the article. The poem is entitled And… You will notice that not only is the title And, but every stanza begins with and. Why? Well, and is a conjunction that is used to connect words, clauses, or sentences, that are to be taken jointly. It takes something that came before and connects it with something that comes after. This is what my last sermon was about: Connecting past, present and future.
This poem represents my hopes and dreams for my church going forward. I also wanted leave them with something beautiful because I believe through experiencing beauty we encounter God’s presence in our lives.
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. More to come on that in future articles!
For now, just know I will continue to post here and I’m putting the finishing touches on my new book Restorative Beauty, which I hope will be ready for publication by the end of the year. Thank you for reading and thank you for supporting me as I move onto the next adventure.
by Alexander Lang
And though we may stumble,
and though we may fall,
we shall tarry amidst the tides,
seeking the better angels of our nature.
And as we bid farewell,
to friends who journey before us,
our hearts eternally whisper,
aching for the timbre of their voice.
And when our lives are but memories,
long lost like the breath of wind,
we shall find each other once again,
consoled by the tears of our long embrace.
And beauty, though piercing,
will not leave us undone,
for our love will bind us together,
and we shall always know that we are truly one.