Category: Reflections

Leaving Church, Part 3: Opposition to Leadership

This article was published by Baptist News Global on February 7, 2022 and was re-published by Central Seminary with permission.

This is the third in a series based on new research by Pam Durso and Carol McEntyre conducted among Baptist pastors who have left their congregations during the pandemic.

In the face of opposition to leadership, successful leaders never give up or walk away. At least, that is what leadership experts tell us. Instead, these experts suggest persistence and dogged determination as appropriate responses to opposition.

This viewpoint is prevalent among Christian leadership gurus too. Some offer five or six scripturally based points that guarantee success for pastors who have to confront disgruntled church members and face down congregational conflict.

However, the sad reality is that opposition in church life never is easy for pastors to overcome, and sometimes persistence does not pay off. In the last two years, with the addition of a global pandemic and extraordinary societal and political circumstances, opposition has become unbearable. As a result, many Baptist pastors have discovered that the wisest and healthiest response to the opposition they have faced was to leave their churches.

The No. 1 contributor to pastor resignations

From our survey of Baptist pastors who left their congregations between July 1, 2020, and Oct. 17, 2021, we learned much about opposition to leadership. Of the 100 survey participants, 70% agreed that COVID was a factor in their resignations, with 24% commenting that the pandemic played a role in their leaving their congregation and 56% noting that it was a significant influence.

Yet when asked to rank factors that contributed to their resignations, COVID was not the highest-ranked. Opposition to leadership was. Thirty-one survey participants ranked “opposition to leadership” as the No. 1 factor contributing to their leaving; 10 ranked it the second-highest factor, and 11 rated it the third-highest factor.

Thus, of the 100 respondents, 52 ranked “opposition to leadership” as the primary cause for their resignations. No other factor listed received even near the same level of response as “opposition to leadership.”

In our survey, “opposition to leadership” was not defined, but when asked to comment on the cause or causes of their resignations, survey participants shared distressing stories, revealed various difficult leadership issues and described multiple sources of congregational conflict.

Painful stories

Here are some of the stories and quotes shared with us. As we have sat with them, we have sought always to remember that these evaluations are solely from the perspective of the resigning pastors. Congregational insights about the resignations were not included in our survey work.

Among our survey participants were white senior pastors who encountered opposition when they spoke out about racial justice. One pastor wrote that “public appeals for justice … angered a subset within the congregation who felt I should not be doing that as the pastor of that church. They asked me to apologize to the members who were upset. I would not. I was approached by an organized official group who desired for me to take severance and leave. After several months and seeking wisdom from several pastors with more experience, I decided that while I might win this battle, I would probably lose the war.”

Another pastor shared, “The conversations around racial equity and reconciliation were very difficult, and we couldn’t even be face-to-face to have them. That took a heavy toll, not only on the congregation but also candidly on me. I couldn’t unhear some of the horrible things that were said, and I realized that I may have been serving a people with whom I simply could not align.”

‘Don’t bother us with that love thy neighbor stuff’

Other justice issues factored into opposition as well. With an air of disillusionment, one pastor wrote that the congregation’s attitude was “Don’t bother us with too much ‘love thy neighbor’ stuff. Just tell us a good story from the Bible, remind us that God loves us, and then let us get on with our upwardly mobile lives. We can discuss weightier matters such as justice and poverty, but don’t expect us to actually do something other than write a check or donate some canned goods a couple of times a year.”

Ministerial convictions regarding justice and the lived implications of the gospel thus led some Baptist pastors to resign.

We all know that the national political and cultural climate has become even more divisive, and we know that churches have not been immune. The politicization of COVID is an example of how the broader cultural division is impacting congregations. As one pastor in our survey noted, “Political differences in the community and then COVID compounded the pressures of the job.” Another stated, “The pandemic divided our church. … We were forced to reopen by ultimatum as early as May 2020. Those who came refused to wear masks. … They continually endangered my family … and the lack of safety provisions resulted in more than 15 people contracting COVID, including myself and my daughter.”

In these last two years, discord often has replaced congregational dialogue and discernment. As one associate pastor wrote, “My congregation found it impossible to have reasonable, civil conversations about anything, including COVID, the election, immigration, women in ministry, and LGBTQ issues. Anyone who brought up any of these ‘hot topics’ was instantly labeled as a ‘liberal or a ‘socialist.’ Jesus had left the building.”

The extreme discord and congregational unhealth experienced by some pastors led them to characterize their congregations as toxic, aggressive or adversarial. One pastor described the congregation as “a highly dysfunctional, passive-aggressive system.” Another wrote, “There was a powerful faction in the church that actively opposed the next phase of changes I saw as necessary for us to keep going. The opposition, while a minority, was aggressive.” Another shared, “After a series of ugly congregational meetings and a steady diet of weekly microaggressions, I decided to tap out.” Finally, one commented, “I got tired of the toxic behavior by members to create conflict and refuse to directly address issues. I got tired of being blamed for people’s anxiety.”

Detrimental effects on staff who are not senior pastors

Our survey data revealed that “opposition to leadership” was not experienced solely by senior pastors. Of those who ranked “opposition to leadership” as the No. 1 factor contributing to their resignations, 16% were associate pastors and 53% were staff pastors. Associate and staff pastors typically have less influence and power in congregational decision-making, and many of them encountered leadership resistance in the congregation.

Some associate and staff pastors acknowledged that conflictual relationships with their senior pastor contributed to their resignations. Several commented that their senior pastor offered no support or care during the pandemic and often seemed unaware of the struggles and hardships experienced by staff members. Others noted that their senior pastor did not step up and provide the leadership needed during the pandemic, which resulted in church apathy and decline. One wrote that the senior pastor stopped communicating with the staff, and the senior pastor’s spouse stepped in and began making staff and congregational decisions. “When I brought my concerns to the attention of the Personnel Committee, they didn’t do anything about it. I chose to resign.”

Some associate and staff pastors pointed to the existence of troublesome relationships with the senior pastor before COVID, including one who wrote: “My work relationship with my senior pastor deteriorated during the pandemic. Leadership differences that had been a challenge pre-pandemic became downright destructive during the pandemic. I felt I could no longer serve with integrity and have any sort of influence in the congregation, and the situation affected my emotional health.”

Associate and staff pastors also cited the lack of congregational support and/or congregational conflict as contributing to their resignations. One observed that the congregation was very attentive to the senior pastor’s needs during COVID, checking in often, offering extra time off, and encouraging self-care. Yet, that same kind of empathy was not given to staff pastors. Instead, congregational leaders obsessed over whether staff pastors worked sufficient hours each week and earned their paychecks. The staff pastor noted, “Nothing I did seemed to be enough to satisfy them.”

Another staff pastor wrote, “During COVID, I realized that my level of commitment and loyalty to the church was not matched by the congregation.” Still, another wrote, “Several of our lay leaders became demanding and adversarial toward staff ministers. Their actions coupled with pandemic worries and free-floating general anxiety in the congregation made workdays almost intolerable.”

What to make of all this?

Our learnings from the survey about Baptist pastors’ experience with opposition to leadership has led us down many conversational paths. Unfortunately, we were not surprised that conversations about racial justice led to some pastoral resignations. We also talked often about the frequent disconnect on social issues between the pulpit and the pews. We lamented our culture’s political divisiveness and the impact that has had on congregational health and pastoral well-being. We wondered whether serving a “purple” congregation is an insurmountable challenge in our current climate. We discussed the limits of Baptist congregational polity in providing guidance and protection for embattled pastors.

We now invite you into our conversation. Think with us as we explore the implications of opposition to leadership in this season and join us in beginning honest conversations about how to address the dysfunction that seems to be present in so many of our Baptist churches.

Pam Durso serves as president of Central Seminary. Carol McEntyre serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., and is immediate past moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.