by Meghan Hatcher
Last month, a blog post titled “Departure: Why I Left the Church” went viral throughout a wide swath of the ministry landscape. In the post, former pastor Alexander Lang articulates why he recently chose to leave not only his position as senior pastor of his particular church but the entire field of pastoral ministry. He names some of the difficult realities facing ministry leaders in today’s church – realities that leave many called, gifted people stressed out, burned out, and leaving ministry in droves.
Ministry is hard. Full stop. If we’re honest, some of what makes ministry so hard in this post-pandemic, “Church in decline” season is the toxic culture that backflows from the frenetic rat race “out there” and into the church. It often trickles down from denominational leaders and up from congregants and peers, many of whom, like us, are bought into a narrative that if we just run fast enough, we’ll outrun the decline of the Church as we know it.
Without intentionality, attempts at ministry innovation that rely on ultra-creative ideas can likewise become an expression of this toxic culture. At its worst, this approach to innovation is just another opportunity to see how quickly a leader and faith community can internalize feelings of failure, inadequacy, and despair.
There is a better way.
Lately, I can’t get the word “interruption” out of my mind, which is often the Holy Spirit’s way of getting my attention. The Christian faith is a veritable smorgasbord of interruptions. The messiness of Jesus’ incarnation interrupted the story of a removed, distant God. The embodied grace of Jesus’ interactions interrupted oppressive systems of status, privilege, and exclusionary religious practices. Jesus’ resurrection after a grisly death interrupted, on a cosmic scale, the power of death with the infinite power of an uncontainable love.
These interruptions were transformative for those who bore witness, and they remain so for Christians today, because they were wholly unlike anything experienced previously. Throughout history, interruptions are one of the primary modes through which God’s activity is evidenced in the world and the Church.
God is calling again for an interruption in the Church.
But God won’t force us to respond. Instead, we as the church (that includes YOU), are invited to innovate in our ministries by repenting of the rat race and laying down our to-do lists, jam-packed church program and event calendars, and metrics that count only numbers and dollars. We’re being called to listen to the people God places in our midst first and develop ministry ideas second.
There really is a choice before us. Though it may seem like it at times, we are not actually tethered to this ministry treadmill, endlessly sprinting at a pace no one in ministry consented to run. We can push the emergency “STOP” button and take a step in a new direction.
We can choose to be interrupted so that we, guided by the Holy Spirit, can pursue ministries that prioritize changed lives over simply full church buildings. We can choose to believe that more in ministry is not always better. We can adopt new narratives of ministry success that transcend traditional metrics of money and attendance to tell a more complete story of God’s work in the world today.
Embracing interruption is hard, counter-cultural work. But it’s vital not because the survival of the institutional Church is what matters most, but because the body of Christ, the ekklesia, still has something transformative to offer the world by witnessing to the radical love of Christ.
Perhaps in an interrupted church – that embraces transformed lives over numerical growth, sabbath over endless striving, and radical welcome over exclusion – leaders like Alexander Lang, and you and I, can find joy in ministry leadership, not exhaustion and burn out. Now that would be truly innovative.
Meghan is the director of the Innovation Laboratory at CYMT. She holds degrees in journalism; sustainable development and applied sociology; and a Master of Divinity. Meghan has served diverse faith communities through pastoral leadership, youth ministry, new church development, community engagement, and ministry innovation.