Updated: Oct 3
I think everyone who dedicates themselves to the craft of writing hopes that one day they will produce something that will be noticed by a larger audience. When I wrote Departure: Why I Left the Church, I did so as a way of processing my feelings about leaving the pastorate. I also wanted a record of my last Sunday at First Pres since it was so incredibly special. If you had asked me before I published Departure if this would be my breakout piece, I would have told you, “No way.” Why would anyone care about a pastor leaving his church? Pastors leave their jobs all the time.
I launched the Restorative Faith website in 2019 to promote my book and podcast by the same name. Over the last four years, I maintained the Restorative Faith ecosystem by creating new seasons of the podcast and publishing monthly articles. Over four years, I’ve written more than 50 articles. My most read article prior to September 2023 had 350 views, a record I thought would never be broken as my average readership was about 70 people.
Then something very unexpected happened. The words written in Departure struck a chord with a few of my colleagues who shared it on social media. By the end of Labor Day, three days after publishing it on my website, this one article had been viewed more than 200,000 times. Today that number stands at more than 380,000. When Departure first started going viral, I didn’t entirely understand what was happening until a close colleague called me and said, “Alex, your article ignited a national conversation about clergy health.”
The Powder Keg
What is clear to me now is that the resonance of the article came about due to a silent suffering among pastors. The pressures I endured are not unique to me, but are being felt acutely by many in the pastorate. The article became a template of sorts. Pastors could share the article with their friends and parishioners as a glimpse into the pastoral life, then offer their own gloss on their personal experiences. Like a spark to black powder, as the number of pastors relaying their perspectives expanded, a reckoning occurred in real-time.
Articles were written. Meetings were called. Pastors were heard, perhaps in ways they never have been. What I noticed among the early comments from parishioners was how many offered sympathies: “I never realized this is what my pastor was experiencing,” or one of my favorites, “Reading this makes me want to give my pastor a hug every Sunday after church!”
Numerous parishioners expressed revelations about the nature of the pastorate. Some had never contemplated how many hats the pastor is required to wear or how the pastor becomes a repository for the intimate details of so many people’s lives: “I told my pastor my troubles without ever considering how I was just one of many people unloading on them.” These comments heartened me as I felt that in some communities there would be a new sensitivity to the stressors and pressures that accompany the calling.
What I know to be true from my time in the pastorate is that my lowest points were moments where I felt alone and unseen. It's remarkable how a pastor can be surrounded by so many people on Sunday morning, and yet, feel completely isolated. A good example of this occurred when I was being stalked by a schizophrenic woman who had started attending our church in 2016. Unbeknownst to me, I had become integrated into her psychosis, where she believed we were in a relationship together. She figured out my schedule, where I lived and, after much escalation, I had to get a restraining order and have her arrested.
This description is a condensed version of a six-month saga, and although the leadership was aware of the situation, they didn’t really appreciate how the stress was impacting my life and work. During this period, I had become hypervigilant, always peeking over my shoulder. Aside from the church staff, who monitored the facilities for her presence, no one was really asking the question, “How are you coping with this challenge?”
Although an extreme example, I think it demonstrates how much goes on behind the scenes that most of the congregation never sees. Therefore, when a parishioner takes the time to ask, “How are you coping with everything coming your way?” that small gesture of concern can really make a pastor feel seen and appreciated.
Agree, Disagree, Discredit
I noticed as the article spread beyond my denomination, there were three modes of reaction. The first was agreement. While many pastors said they couldn’t relate to all aspects of what I had to say, the vast majority took the bits that mirrored their own journey and used that as a launching platform to convey their own story.
A really good example of this comes from Todd Thomason who wrote a very moving reflection on his own journey through the pastorate. There were also entire podcast episodes dedicated to the topic like Reconstructing Pastors and articles written by journalists like Bob Smietana from the Religious News Service along with videos like the one below from Shawn Howell about the challenges she faced as a Children's Director.
The second reaction among a small proportion of pastors was to disagree. They read my story and took issue with some or all of my reasons for leaving. They couldn’t relate to the negative aspect of my experiences and said that the very challenges that drove me away were a source of life-giving joy to them. Often, I read their stories and thought to myself, “I’m glad for you.”
Interestingly, among many who disagreed seemed to be an underlying assumption that my piece was attempting to speak for all pastors. On the contrary, I was simply reflecting on my own experience. I never stated that my experience is, or should be, the experience of every pastor. I never stated that I believed that every pastor should follow in my footsteps and leave.
In fact, I never stated that I didn’t enjoy my time being the pastor at First Pres. On the whole, they were a wonderful congregation. In spite of the challenges, I really loved my call as pastor at First Pres. I formed beautiful friendships and we lived out Jesus' message of love, changing the world for the better. This is what I set out to do from Day 1, and I would say that mission was accomplished!
What I was trying to articulate is how, even in a really good church like First Pres, the role of pastor has transformed into something that borders on the absurd. The system puts so much pressure on a singular person that the role becomes unmanageable and, in some instances, suffocating because the expectations can be so overwhelming.
This leads to the final response where some pastors were trying to discredit what I was saying. These comments ranged from my article lacking the right vocabulary to a lack of boundaries to a lack of self-care to a lack of faith to me never being called to be a pastor in the first place. Underneath all of the psychoanalysis and speck removing, I noticed that these types of comments were coming from a place of real fear. Clearly, they interpreted what I wrote as an attack on the institution of the church.
The article’s popularity made them feel uneasy because the fact that so many people were discussing the points I brought up meant that perhaps there is something fundamentally askew with the modern church. And they’re right. Something is wrong.
Pulling Back the Curtain
How do you know that a system is broken? All you have to do is look at the people who are part of it. If the people who come out of that system are healthy and well-adjusted, then you know the system is creating a positive impact. However, if the majority of the people who come out of that system are floundering or mentally unwell, then one can make the assessment that perhaps the system needs reform.
I would say the latter is the case when it comes to the church. We are living in a time where the current system of churches that have thrived for the last 500 years is collapsing. They no longer function well within our culture and society. Whereas in the 1950s and 60s, the culture was such that you were expected to go to church, today the culture has shifted to the point where the opposite is true.
Christianity has become stigmatized among the general population and for good reason. From sex abuse scandals to financial embezzlement to persecuting dissenting voices to promoting bigotry, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia and racism, the historical track record of the church would make a mafia don blush. Whereas in the past, most people looked the other way because of the centrality of the church in their lives, now there is a distinct shame attached to the Christian faith.
Thanks to the easy dissemination of information, the world is more aware than it ever has been of the injustices perpetrated by the church. Therefore, no matter how much you love Jesus, no matter how much you profess to believe in grace, forgiveness and the power of the gospel to change the world, you cannot ignore the long trail of hurt, pain and discarded lives left in the wake of the church’s past. Rather than a house of redemption, the church has a tendency to chew people up and spit them out.
I think my article was further confirmation of that reality, but in some ways it was worse. Christians leave the church and abandon the faith all the time. But pastors? We’re not supposed to leave the faith. We’re called by God. We’re the ones willing to sacrifice, suffer and die for our beliefs. If one of our own is leaving and is doing so, not because of a crisis of faith, but because of the dysfunction of the role of pastor, then what does that say about the whole system?
This is why some pastors circled the wagons to protect the institution. Rather than examine the cracks and fissures in the foundation of the institution, they found fault with me. They assume the system is not broken, so there is clearly something wrong with the author. At 43, I can attest there’s plenty of fault to be found, but criticizing the integrity of my character is simply scapegoating the real problem—the church is sinking under the weight of its own hypocrisy. By refusing to look honestly in the mirror, the church is sealing its own fate.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Excerpt from Citizenship in the Republic
By Teddy Roosevelt
I think about this quote by Teddy Roosevelt nearly every day because it poses a question: How are you living your life? Are you in the bleachers, watching and judging how other people perform? Are you offering your critiques of what’s wrong with the world; of what could have been done better; of what others could have done differently to avoid failure? Or are you living your life in the arena? Are you brave enough to show up, to take chances, to put yourself out there, to get your heart broken, to fail again and again?
I lived in the arena of the church for 20 years. I walked alongside my congregants through the darkest valleys and the highest peaks. We laughed. We mourned. We loved greatly and sought beauty. We walked humbly with our God. But because I am moving into a new arena, beyond the walls of the institutional church, my voice no longer holds the same weight because I am no longer doing the work of the pastor.
I greatly appreciate that so many people have paid attention to my words about why I left, but, in my opinion, the people who you should be listening to now are those still doing the work. They are the ones striving valiantly. They are the ones whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. They are the ones who continue to dare greatly despite the difficulty.
Therefore, I want to conclude by addressing those of you still in the arena because I do believe a reckoning is at hand. God is begging for us to change. The reformation taking place before our eyes requires a complete overhaul of the current system. One of my favorite scriptures from the prophets is when Isaiah says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:19)
If the reaction to my article is any indication, something new is happening. The question being posed is whether you are going resist that change or embrace it? Are you going to criticize those who are trying to root out the corruption and dysfunction of the church to create something better? Or are you going to strive for the triumph of high achievement by taking the necessary steps to make the church a place where real redemption is a possibility? To those of you still in the arena, I salute you and honor your work! May God's love continue to guide your journey.