Tito Madrazo: ‘God in the crucible of migration’

Tito Madrazo spent four years visiting Hispanic/Latinx churches for his research on preaching in North Carolina immigrant churches.

He visited various congregations, using semi-structured interviews, focus groups and participant observation to understand the lives and practices of immigrants in Hispanic/Latinx Protestant churches.

The approach, called collaborative ethnography, allowed him to gather information and understand the culture of the churches while being transparent and working with the people he was studying — his collaborators — to ensure accuracy and to decenter himself.

In particular, he developed an ongoing relationship with “Iglesia Agua Viva,” a Pentecostal congregation in the Raleigh-Durham area. (Madrazo uses pseudonyms for the individuals and churches to protect his collaborators.)

His findings have been published in a new book, “Predicadores: Hispanic Preaching and Immigrant Identity.” In it, he argues that although there is great variation within and among Latino congregations, the experience of migration itself shapes the pastors’ preaching.

“The God they came to know in that time was the God they proclaimed. The aspects of the divine that they found most compelling in their own migration journey became the focus of their preaching,” Madrazo said.

He noted that their “ministries are shaped less by perceptions we might have of Hispanic/Latinx evangelicalism and are much more deeply shaped by their own experiences with God in the crucible of migration.”

Madrazo, himself an immigrant from Venezuela, a fluent Spanish speaker and an ordained Baptist pastor, conducted this research as part of his doctorate of theology work at Duke Divinity School.

He also earned a master’s degree in English from Baylor University and an M.Div. from Gardner-Webb University. Madrazo serves as a program director in the religion division of Lilly Endowment Inc.

Madrazo spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his research and its implications for the broader church. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is your takeaway from your experience of visiting these congregations and hearing the preaching?

Tito Madrazo: Ultimately, it is really the formative experiences of migration and, for many of these individuals, coming to faith through their migration journeys or during their migration journeys.

Tito Madrazo portrait

Many of the ministers here experienced conversion. Sometimes that conversion was from a secular background. Sometimes they described it as a conversion from Catholic upbringing to Protestant or Pentecostal identity. But it was almost always connected to their migration journeys as well.

It was the way that they experienced God’s deliverance or redemption or help in the midst of that process, or the way that they experienced new community within a church family when they arrived in what for them was an alien landscape.

In that sense as well, their preaching always resonated with the lived experiences of their first-generation congregations. Because of the recency of migration in North Carolina, these were first-generation pastors preaching to first-generation adults and their children — some of whom were native, born in the United States, some of whom were in the situation of DACA recipients.

All of them were still closely connected to this migration experience. For instance, some of them had dramatic stories of God delivering them — sometimes from ICE, sometimes miraculously allowing them to come into the United States against all odds.

When they preached about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, there was also this echo of the alienation that they had experienced as a result of migration — the importance of knowing and being known by Christ in a situation in which they felt themselves entirely unknown, in which some of them were denying themselves, using different names.

Church was a place where they could use their real names and they could be known for who they were. There was significant preaching about the role of the community of the church, God regathering God’s people in this new place, and that was a strong factor in their preaching.

But along with that, there was also a lot of moralistic preaching, in terms of behavior and sexual ethics, all of these kinds of things.

The way in which I understood that connecting with this experience of migration is when you’re forming a new community in a new place — and we see this in Scripture as well, throughout the Hebrew Bible — one of the first things God does is to provide new laws and moral codes to hold together these people that have just come together.

We think monolithically, sometimes, of a Hispanic church. [But] for instance, Iglesia Agua Viva, in which I did most of my participant observation, had members of seven different nationalities. And even from the seven different countries of origin, some were from urban centers and some were from the countryside, and they had had different experiences and different levels of education.

You have just this wild diversity within a church that from the outside just looks like, “Oh, they’re all speaking Spanish.” Right, but aside from that, so much diversity.

Gerardo Marti writes about the danger of “ethnoracial essentialization” — that sometimes we paint with too broad a brushstroke and we lose sight of the variety that exists within these communities.

F&L: One of the phrases I noticed is that you describe both the preachers and the congregation as “recovering from wounds.” What do you mean by recovering from wounds?

TM: I owe gratitude to Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who identifies this in “Places of Redemption.”

I focus on the wounds of migration. Again, they’re going to connect with some of these preaching themes, because the wound is alienation. The wound is loss of family. In some cases, the wound is a physical one.

There are several preachers in here — one is a paraplegic who was injured because he was thrust into this adult migrant worker world at far too young an age. One young man came to the United States because a family member was wounded in an agricultural operation and they were just looking for someone else to fill his spot.

There’s this woundedness, and there are stories of dramatic healing that both inform faith and sometimes authorize ministry.

But the key here is not just the woundedness; Fulkerson talks about these wounds being the site of theological discernment and thinking. So these wounds became places where they were not just damaged by the wound but ultimately they experienced the healing of God in some way.

Sometimes this was physical healing. Sometimes it addressed the social needs in their lives. It always incorporated some spiritual dimension. But it was because their wounds had been healed that they were then able to go into ministry and speak to these particular wounds that they understood.

Again, it was this close connection between the lived experiences of the preachers and the lived experiences of the hearers that made such a powerful dynamic in this preaching.

F&L: You sort of touched on this, but in what ways is the vocational discernment of these preachers particular to their experience in community?

TM: Some of the literature that talks about vocational discernment really centers a predominantly white, graduate school experience.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that or that people don’t experience calls in those ways. But there’s almost this sense of ennui, this, “I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life; I’m looking for meaning; perhaps God is calling me to ministry” that becomes the spark in that direction.

Whereas for some of these ministers, it was much more tangible and much more rooted in lived experience and even exigency. For one minister: “I’ve experienced dramatic healing, and now they’re inviting me to share my testimony. And as I share my testimony about this dramatic healing, I begin to take on the role of a preacher; I can seriously imagine this vocation for myself.”

For another: “I’ve been dramatically delivered from deportation, and this becomes my platform to begin sharing a story.”

For others — and this was really interesting — in many of these churches, because pastors are very rarely full time in first-generation immigrant congregations, they are transient to a much greater degree.

I mean, they really are, many of them, itinerant ministers. If their secular job requires a move or if it falls through and they have to find another job, that congregation is looking for a new pastor.

Many ministers from the very beginning start to train their laypeople in pastoral functions. One minister talked about being thrown in the fire. His minister, as soon as he converted him, began teaching him how to preach, along with a few others in the congregation.

They took preaching classes the way that others might take Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Then suddenly when the preacher was gone, moved out of state, the congregation kind of looked at him, and they said, “Well, it’s got to be you. You’ve got the most experience preaching.”

Which was terrifying for him, and I imagine it would be terrifying for most of us. But there’s nowhere else to turn. There’s no pipeline of well-educated ministers who have already discerned this to be their vocation.

Now, I would say that this is becoming more and more the case, not just for first-gen immigrant Hispanic and Latinx churches, but this is happening more and more in lots of churches. So the need for churches to really think about being spaces of vocational discernment for future members — both their own and for wider networks — is important.

F&L: Are the ministers worried about the future of the Hispanic/Latinx church as the second and third generations mature?

TM: It depends. I think that many of them see their own ministry largely as being to the first generation and their families — because in the United States, there has been continuous migration. It’s not just one wave. It is an ongoing wave.

But the other thing is, when you look at the growth of the Hispanic population of the United States from 2000 to 2015, only 25% of that is due to continued migration.

Seventy-five percent of that growth reflects a native-born population. So all of [the pastors] were aware, and all of them dealt with the tension of trying to make sure that they were a place where first-generation people could put down roots and grow in faith, but also where they were continuing to be relevant and meet the needs of Generation 1.5 and Generation 2. This was a challenge for them.

Iglesia Agua Viva had its main services in Spanish, but it conducted all of its youth and children’s Sunday school and ministry activities in English. Because as children went to school, they became more familiar with English and more comfortable communicating in English, although then those same youth would get up and lead worship in Spanish.

All of them also understood that the church was going to change moving forward. So part of investing in youth was investing in people who, because of their bicultural and bilingual formation, would have that similarly close connection to congregants that they as preachers had to Generation 1 congregants.

You might consider it as new wineskins and new wine as they were moving forward, but with the same spirit of ministry.

They were less concerned that future generations carried the same culture that they did from their countries of origin and more concerned that they carried this culture of Christian faith in which they’d been formed in a congregation.

From the very beginning, churches aren’t trying to specifically make a community of faith Hispanic in a particular way or Latinx in a particular way. They’re trying to form Christian faith in a particular way while still honoring and giving space for these expressions that more closely reflect Hispanic and Latinx origins.

F&L: As we close, I usually ask people, is there anything I didn’t ask about that you would want to add?

TM: There is a feeling that Latin American liberation theology and the tenets of Latin American liberation theology are — or should be — present in this preaching.

I went in, having read much Latin American liberation theology, expecting to find some of it. I did not find it in large part, except among those preachers who had had the benefit of study in Anglo theological schools.

But I think that one of the distinctions here is even though the preaching might be traditional in many ways, it is also still really liberative within these contexts — spiritually liberative, but also liberative in terms of giving Hispanic and Latinx congregants a place to appear and to be valued in the sight of one another and in the sight of God.

That in and of itself is an act of resistance for a population that is experiencing vulnerability and marginalization in many ways. There’s a chapter here specifically about female preachers in this context.

There is much liberative work being done by these preachers, even when they’re preaching in somewhat traditional ways. I mean, just standing in the pulpit in some of these places is liberative, and naming the worth of women both within the congregation and in the role of preacher and minster.

I think that there’s this balance that preaching and ministry can be liberative, even if it is not always liberative according to certain ideals, that there are many ways in which it can be liberative and life giving.

Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.

Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.

In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.

Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.

Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.

Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.

Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.

But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?

This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.

For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.

Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.

Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.

If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.

Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.

I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.

In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”

When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.

Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.

The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?

Growing up the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, Thema Bryant was introduced early to the heavy responsibility placed on pastors for mental health counseling. The urgency was as close as the calls to her family’s home phone.

Generations of Bryants have served the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she followed that path to become an ordained elder. Bryant also pursued a call to become a mental health care professional, earning her doctorate in clinical psychology at Duke University. She now leads the mental health ministry at First AME Church in South Los Angeles and is the president-elect of the American Psychological Association.

“I really do appreciate the blessing of my family. I was able to learn so much simply observing them and participating in the various aspects of the church. The AME Church is really founded on — along with the gospel — liberation and social justice, and that has been integral to my work,” she said. “It also is very much based in being of service to the community. It’s definitely not the kind of church that just opens on Sunday morning for two hours.”

Earlier this summer, Bryant spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about how her two vocations intersect and about ways the church can grow increasingly responsive to the community’s mental health needs. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could we start by talking about your family’s relationship to the church and your relationship to the church?

Thema Bryant: My grandfather, Harrison James Bryant, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and my grandmother, Edith Holland Bryant, engaged in missions work, community work, and did both social work and also promoting health within our community.

My father, John Bryant, became a bishop in the AME Church. When I was growing up, he was the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, which was the largest AME church in that area. As a bishop, his first assignment was to have oversight for churches in West Africa. As a family, we moved to Liberia, West Africa. It was my mother, my father, my brother and I.

My mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, has over 40 years of women’s ministry in the AME Church, hosted many women’s conferences, has written several women’s devotional books, one of them being “I Dance With God.” My parents are now retired.

My brother is a pastor now, in Atlanta, Georgia, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Before he became the pastor there, he was the founding pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.

F&L: How did your background and religious formation contribute to your decision to pursue psychology?

TB: My father was very active with pastoral counseling; we often had people calling the house. I talk about this in my book “Homecoming” — that my first time working a crisis hotline was in my home growing up as a kid, because people are more comfortable reaching out, often, to their pastor than reaching out to a therapist. I’m glad we’re having some progress in that area, in terms of destigmatizing mental health.

But I was aware of pastoral counseling and just have always had a heart for people. As a child, I would have been called sensitive. I could feel things deeply, and when I learned that it was a career in and of itself, I felt very drawn to it. When I got to Duke University, in that second year when you need to declare your major, I was very clear in my commitment to psychology.

F&L: Can you talk about the stigma associated with mental health needs and how you think we overcome that?

TB: There’s the grassroots aspect of that, and then there’s the policy piece. On a community level, what really helps destigmatize it is both a bottom-up and a top-down approach. The top-down approach is people who are considered to be leaders in the community speaking up about mental health — even perhaps speaking up about their own use of therapy or the importance of addressing mental health. I think that gives people permission and a freedom to know that it is not shameful.

I used to attend a church where the pastor very openly talked about going to therapy and talked about also her recovery from addiction. That created an atmosphere of transparency, where a lot of people felt that it was OK then to name challenges and to go and get help and that it was very encouraged.

A number of churches now have counseling centers, whether that is with laypeople who have gone through training or whether with licensed professionals. People have to look to see who is providing the care, but even those [programs] that are led by laypeople, I think, can often be structured in a supportive way — like a support group around bereavement that’s based in the church. Sometimes they will have it around recovery or around trauma.

From the bottom up, even when people don’t have leaders who are speaking up about it, we see many more people talking about mental health and about their therapists, even in social media and among their friends. That helps open the door for other people to either say, “Oh, I have a therapist, too” or, “I wonder what that would be like. Tell me about why you went or how that helped you.”

That brings up policy and the need to continue to advocate for support for people to access mental health care, as is the case with physical health care. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the work of the American Psychological Association. Not only do we have researchers, practitioners and educators, but we also have psychologists and staff that are involved with advocacy to try to really promote access to quality mental health care for all people.

F&L: Churches are natural places for both direct service and advocacy. They’re central to communities. We would hope that they are places people see as compassionate and caring. There’s space for them to be models.

TB: Definitely. That can really be a shift. I think we have examples within our faith communities of those who have been antagonistic to mental health and those who have been promoters. Some faith leaders, unfortunately, have discouraged mental health treatment by saying, “If you prayed about it, you should be fine” or, “You don’t need to go to outsiders; we have enough with our faith.”

I know that that has been very harmful, with people who needed help either not seeking it or those who sought it having shame or embarrassment, thinking their faith must be insufficient.

We also have wonderful folks across denominations who have promoted these messages of compassion and care and collaboration. I really appreciate a number of pastors who now have referral lists and provide pastoral support and possibilities in the community for mental health services as well.

F&L: So it is not necessary for every church to have a counselor on staff, but every church can provide resources and entry points.

TB: Absolutely. Depending on the mental health professional you’re talking to, sometimes it is preferable for them not to be a member. Because if someone is a member, they would have to have very clear boundaries, or Sunday worship can turn into crisis response for the mental health professional who is coming there to worship. That would just have to be clear.

F&L: What would your advice be to a pastor who wants to be a good model or provide resources? What could be a starting point for a church that recognizes this need but might be stretched thin?

TB: One resource is Mental Health Ministries. They have a number of ready-made resources that deal with this integration of faith and mental health. In addition, I would say integrating mental health in the liturgy. So when you’re having prayer, include those who are facing depression, those who are living with anxiety, those who are struggling with addiction, those who are grieving.

When you have health fairs at the church, be intentional about making sure there’s a table for mental health. Not only do we have screenings for blood pressure and everything else, but if you just contact a local agency or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, they have a number of volunteers who in most areas would be willing to come out for health fairs or as speakers. Do not feel like you have to know everything about every disorder. Collaborate with experts.

The other real starting place, I would say, is to find out if in your congregation there are any licensed professionals. If you have therapists, social workers, psychologists, then if you all have a part of the service for announcements, they could do a mental health minute once a month or once a quarter. During those announcements, they could come up and just give some tips about mental health.

If you are still printing physical bulletins, you could include some resources in there or some quick facts about mental health. In your sermons, I would say think about trauma-informed sermons, which is really just being biblically based. There are many stories in there of trauma, of abuse, of despair.

Sometimes, we go into what I call a psychological prosperity gospel — “If you love Jesus, you’ll be happy all the time.” It’s just not accurate. It was not true for David. It was not true for the disciples or the prophets. It wasn’t true for Jesus. It’s important for us to really pay attention to the ways psychology shows up in the text that will allow our ministry and our preaching to be more relevant to where people are in their lives.

When we have these various retreats and conferences, if we have a youth conference, think about having a workshop that has to do with mental health. Many of our youth are really struggling. Yes, it’s important for them to know the Bible; we also want them to live. We see rates around suicide and other challenges, and so we need to be holistic in our planning of our retreats and conferences so it is spiritual, emotional and physical health all being encouraged as the will of God for people’s lives.

F&L: You had a wonderful quote in a prior interview: “To require people to only feel joy and gratitude is dehumanizing. It does not give space or permission to honor their humanity.” I’m wondering what you might say to that balance we’re all trying to strike between honoring the trauma and keeping ourselves going.

TB: Holding space for both and leaning more into the ways that we can honor time for our stillness and healing. I think many of us cope by busyness, and that gets celebrated in our communities, because you’re giving back and you’re volunteering for everything the church needs. Sometimes, we’re not tuned in to the person who is doing a million things — what may be going on on the inside of them that is motivating that. Can they tolerate stillness and silence?

Pay attention to the different warning signs of how the effects show up. It can show up with depression. It can show up with irritability. It can show up with anxiety. It can show up with numbness.

If you’re seeing all these things happening and you feel nothing, that’s also a trauma response, and so being compassionate with ourselves as we take note of that and then being mindful of our healing practice like, “What do I do for my wellness?” That can include our journaling. It can include talking with family and friends, but also I hope people will consider therapy as well. Often, we just try to stuff it down and say, “I prayed about it; I’m over it.” But it still bleeds out in different areas of our lives.

I would highlight the commandment that we love others the way we love ourselves. We often focus on the others — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We focus outward, but if I am to love you as I love me, then I have to also love me.

Does the way that I give myself permission to rest look like love? Does what I choose to feed my body look like love? If I loved myself, would I set some boundaries I’m not currently setting? Love ourselves and lean into some of the stillness so that we can really heal.

On a Friday night in 2019, the Rev. Dr. LaTonya McIver Penny miscarried. Less than 48 hours later, still bleeding and in pain — and without a word to her congregation about what she’d endured — she led the Sunday morning service at New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Roxboro, North Carolina, just as she had every week for the previous five years.

She now acknowledges that that should’ve been a sign, but she had been full-throttle for so long that it would take a devastating pandemic and a doctor’s stern warning to even entertain the idea of slowing down.

“I’m supposed to keep pushing and pushing, right?” said Penny, who reluctantly took four weeks of medical leave before resigning as senior pastor in fall 2021. “We’re not superhumans, but we don’t know that, because we don’t want to let anyone down. But the pandemic made me stop and pay attention.”

She wasn’t alone. According to surveys conducted last summer by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, 37% of clergy had “seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry” at least once during the preceding year, and 67% had thought at least once during that time that it was the hardest year of their ministry experience. Likewise, Barna Group, a research firm that focuses on religion, found in fall 2021 that 38% of pastors had considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year, up 9 percentage points from January 2021.

Those numbers fed speculation that the pandemic might be fueling a “great resignation” for clergy. But Scott Thumma, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, doesn’t see evidence of a mass exodus.

Thumma noted that 5% of the clergy who responded to the institute’s survey in summer 2021 had thought about leaving the ministry “fairly often,” while another 3% had done so “very often.”

“The 8% who said ‘fairly often’ or ‘very often’ — that’s not insignificant. If 8% of clergy truly did leave, you’d notice,” he said, estimating that to translate to at least 40,000 pastors.

“But it’s also definitely not almost 40%,” he said, referencing the Barna study.

Most of the pastors who expressed serious frustration with their circumstances were already in difficult situations with struggling congregations before the pandemic ushered in controversies over in-person worship, mask wearing and vaccine policies, Thumma said. Racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and political divisions associated in that year’s presidential election exacerbated those challenges; nevertheless, 63% of respondents indicated they’d never once considered leaving the ministry, he added.

Thumma and his team will continue tracking the pandemic’s effect on faith communities in a multiyear study — Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations — funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. On the basis of the data he’s gathered so far and conversations he’s had with clergy, Thumma said he anticipates that more pastors will ultimately re-imagine how they do ministry rather than walk away from the profession altogether.

“The pandemic was the hurricane or the tornado, and we’re just now coming out of the basement … and seeing the devastation there. Now, the real work happens of putting things back together, of learning how to be church,” he said.

What are signs in your ministry and your life that you have ignored but need to attend to?

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On the other side of the storm, Thumma said, “You could say, ‘Screw this; I’m going somewhere else.’ Or, ‘What plan do we want for our town? What are the things we didn’t like about it before that we don’t want to repeat? How do we reshape what church looks like? After the storm, how are we going to re-create the world?’”

For Penny, that started with a basic question: “What now?” She’d been the single mother of toddler twins when she walked away from her career as a public school teacher to pursue a divinity degree at Wake Forest University.

Inspired in part by challenges her children faced as preemies, she’d founded a nonprofit disability advocacy group called Mary’s Grace before graduating in 2013. She’d go on to build her ministry around inclusion and radical hospitality, making that the focus of her 2019 doctoral thesis while simultaneously serving as the first female senior pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church and continuing to run her nonprofit.

She was also putting in 12-hour days serving victims of domestic violence in her position as executive director of Family Abuse Services of Alamance County. The arrival of COVID-19 only heightened her pace as she juggled virtual services, her children’s educational needs, and the rising demands of both her congregation and those she served in the community.

By the time her congregation returned to in-person worship in September 2021, migraines, chest pain and stomach upset were a regular part of Penny’s day. Being back in the sanctuary “felt suffocating,” she said. Her doctor told her that something had to give.

In reevaluating her call, Penny said, she realized that the heart of her ministry had never relied on the physical church. She’d spent years teaching faith communities how to be more inclusive of those with disabilities or others who might not feel comfortable walking into a sanctuary.

Almost immediately, she and her husband, also a minister, founded Belonging Fellowship, a virtual church that emphasizes inclusivity. Because the church is online and there’s very little overhead, money raised by the congregation has fulfilled wish lists for residents of group homes, stocked the classrooms of first-year teachers, and helped families pay their rent and fill their gas tanks, Penny said.

Are there areas of ministry, congregational life or community connection that you recognize need reshaping or re-creating? What would it take to do that?

McIver Penny and family photos
The Rev. Dr. LaTonya McIver Penny made career changes in the last two years that allow her to do more on her terms, including spending more time with family.

She also made a list of her “nonnegotiables.” After Floyd’s murder, she and her staff at the domestic violence shelter had published a statement affirming the lives of Black people — only to have a white board chairman order her to take it down.

Penny would not take a position, she decided, “where I have to fight for my Blackness.” She committed to spending more time with her children and invested in self-care, like exercise, eating right and saying “no” unapologetically.

In February, feeling healthier than she had in a long time, she became the executive director of the Laughing Gull Foundation, which supports grassroots efforts toward LGBTQ+ equality, higher education in prison, and climate and environmental justice.

“This has been what my soul needed. I matter on the other side of this,” said Penny, noting that she’s not doing less but rather more on her own terms.

“I think pastors are so busy praying for other people that they forget to pray and ask God, ‘What are you calling me to do?’” she said. “Just because you’re called into ministry doesn’t mean you’re called into the same space forever.”

‘Church shouldn’t hurt’

Like Penny, the Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson was exhausted long before the pandemic hit. The mother of four was still nursing her youngest — twins — while earning her seminary degree and serving as associate pastor of formation at Oakland City Church, a multiethnic faith community.

The only Black woman on the senior leadership team, Robinson organized the church’s first anti-racism conference and started a racial justice small group. Every time a high-profile case of violence against Black people made the news, Robinson felt responsible for processing it with her congregation.

“I felt I was responsible for all the people of color at the church. I needed to show up for them, be available for them, listen to them, be a safe space for them — and be responsible for teaching a bunch of white folks,” she said. “I’d hold all of that for so long, and then I’d come home and cry by myself.”

In March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, Robinson attended a three-day retreat sponsored by Liberated Together, an organization dedicated to empowering Christian women of color doing justice work in typically white, patriarchal spaces.

“I was already operating under the expectation that so many women of color operate under: ‘You will save all of us,’” she said. “They put me back together — me Riana, not me the pastor. We listened each other into life. What if that’s what church did? What if women of color showed up and said, ‘I’m so tired’ and the first thing people say is, ‘We believe you’?”

Riana Shaw and women group
The Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson (second from the left) found vital support and encouragement from other Christian women of color engaged in justice work.

Following Floyd’s murder, Robinson said, she resisted requests from her church to lead its response “to give it legitimacy,” instead choosing a leave of absence, self-care and more time with her children. She still loved her congregation, but in September 2020, she let them know that some of her work, particularly on the racial justice front, was starting to feel “extractive.”

They asked for another year of service from her; she gave them 10 months, then, “feeling reduced to dust,” set off on a solo trip to Spain in July 2021 “to sit in old churches and weep and release.”

There had been so much noise over the previous 15 months, Robinson said, that she’d struggled to hear God’s voice. She briefly considered abandoning ministry altogether, but her “accountability group,” the women in Liberated Together, urged her to reconsider. She was still a pastor, they said, even if she didn’t ascribe to the white, patriarchal model of invincibility. “Where,” they asked, “do you feel freest to be honest?”

Robinson read Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” and recited Psalm 23, subbing in female pronouns. She began working with women and gender-nonbinary people of color through the Faith & Justice Network and attending a Black congregation, a restorative measure she described as “like going to your grandma’s house.”

Are extra areas of responsibility placed on your ministry because of who you are? What are your expectations of yourself in that regard? Are there boundaries you can set?

Spain
Robinson spent July 2021 in Spain after resigning from the senior leadership team of a church.

“Church work is always hard. Ministry is always hard. I just don’t want it to be hard because I have to translate or explain myself or explain how I feel,” she said.

“Church shouldn’t hurt. What if church is where women of color show up and more isn’t demanded of them? They’re just seen and blessed in community and beloved?”

To that end, Robinson is launching a worship community “that unapologetically serves the needs of women of color, period,” she said. She envisions a bricks-and-mortar church with a virtual component for accessibility and hopes to have it up and running by Advent.

“It’s been a really painful year and a really beautiful year, where I feel like God has held me without demanding anything from me,” Robinson said. “I feel like God has been so gracious and gentle, saying, ‘I’m still with you.’”

Ana Tew
The Rev. Anna Tew spent part of her sabbatical in the summer of 2021 considering models for a healthier work-life balance.

‘A call is a dynamic thing’

The Rev. Anna Tew concedes that she was among the 3% of clergy who responded to the Hartford survey last summer by saying she’d considered leaving ministry “very often” the previous year. It wasn’t her congregation that made her feel that way, said Tew, the pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, since 2016.

Instead, she said, her exhaustion “was an over-time thing.” She felt obligated to be at her desk eight hours per day, had fallen into a pattern of working on her days off, and was following social media accounts that made her feel guilty if she didn’t view “every little work task as a blessing,” she said. As a queer millennial, she was also doing a fair amount of “cultural commuting” within a largely straight, baby boomer faith community.

“I don’t think congregations get better than this, so if I’m not happy here, I might not be happy anywhere,” Tew thought. “That did lead me to really look at, ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I think it’s still worth doing?’”

Tew went on sabbatical in the summer of 2021, engaging in what she calls “the great unfollowing,” muting colleagues that made her feel guilty about wanting some downtime and “finding more clergypeople who had a healthier view of work and boundaries.”

She read Nedra Glover Tawwab’s “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself,” calling it a “life-changer, career-saver,” and spent more time with nonchurch friends who modeled a healthy work-life balance.

“I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed — ‘Please don’t speak to me that way as a pastor’ or, ‘I’m not available right now; can we talk tomorrow?’” she said.

Which responsibilities drain you? Where are your models for a healthy work-life balance?

Anna Tew training
Tew earned her CrossFit Level 1 certification and became a personal trainer.

Tew also earned her CrossFit Level 1 certification and became a personal trainer. She noticed that when she received text messages from her training clients, she didn’t have that same tightness in her chest as when her congregation reached out. Perhaps, she thought, if she stopped treating every pastoral concern as if it were an emergency, she could better appreciate the pieces of the job she loved: the flexible schedule, the personal connections, “creating community around doing hard things” and following Jesus.

“I don’t think I would have done all that re-imagining without a crisis of international proportions,” said Tew, who notes that responding honestly to the survey question was the first step to acknowledging that she needed to approach ministry differently. “This is where I feel called right now, and I’m still careful not to hold it too tight. This is right now. Reevaluating our call is really important — a call is a dynamic thing.”

‘Something different’

By the time the pandemic struck, Ryan Timpte had been a children’s minister for almost 20 years, the last decade at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, California, an 1,800-member congregation with “staggering” resources, he said. Pre-pandemic, the children’s programming ran parallel with adult worship services. When they moved online, he hoped the worship structure would pivot to appeal to the youngest members of the congregation, perhaps using “kid language” to explain how to pass the peace virtually or including some lessons on “why we do what we do.”

Instead, he said, the focus was on replicating what adults at LOPC had been used to.

“The pandemic could’ve been an incredible opportunity to open worship up, make it new. Instead, it was all about [keeping] the adults engaged and plugged in.” he said. “I am sure congregants enjoyed logging on and feeling just a little bit of what their normal had been. It’s just that their normal had cut kids out.”

His church wasn’t the only one to adopt that model, he said. Timpte maintained contact with a group of colleagues who had, individually, come up with creative ways to keep children engaged but had done so largely independent of any support from the decision-making bodies at their churches. With more demands for pastoral care and other church resources, Timpte said, he understood why children’s ministries were not the first priority.

“But it’s just one more way in which the church reflects society,” he said. “Children’s ministry is a lonely thing even in the best of times, and the pandemic was not the best of times. With all the resources I had, I still couldn’t change the system. And if I couldn’t do it there, I couldn’t do it anywhere.”

In fall 2021, his wife was offered a job leading university and young adult ministry at a Presbyterian church in Berkeley. Timpte said it felt like the right time to leave, not just his church, but church-based ministry. He committed to being a full-time dad to their two young sons, ages 7 and 3.

Timptes
After 20 years in children’s ministry, Ryan Timpte initially planned to be a stay-at-home dad.

Then a new opportunity opened up. A member of LOPC who had volunteered with the children’s ministry when his own kids were little was launching a startup toy company dedicated to following sustainable practices, educating kids about the environment and keeping plastic out of the ocean. Would Timpte like to join as creative director?

“I’m committed to making the world a better place for children, and for 20 years, I thought that was through the church. Now, I think it’s maybe something different,” he said, noting that his calling hasn’t changed, just where he uses it. “There’s a whole other way to make the world a better place.”

How has the pandemic affected your sense of call or where you might serve it? What could that look like?

‘Hope and redemptive purpose’

In an article published by Christianity Today in February, the Rev. Peter Chin acknowledged that he was considering leaving the ministry after 20 years. His Methodist congregation, Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle, had survived the “run-and-gun” style of the early days of the pandemic. But entering the second year, disagreements over masks and vaccines mounted, and relationships among the traditionally tight staff began to fray, injecting “a paralyzing degree of complexity and controversy” into every decision he made, he wrote.

“Even in the best of times, pastoral ministry has always felt like a broad and heavy calling,” he wrote. “But the events of the past few years have made it a crushing one.”

The response he got from colleagues let him know he was not alone. Each had felt crushed at times by the pressures of the pandemic, but no one seemed to have any great advice on how to handle them.

“Everyone was in the middle of this torrent, swimming at the same time,” Chin said.

Also, no one could believe he’d acknowledged his concerns so publicly in his essay.

“The unanimity of the response was, ‘I feel seen, I feel heard, but I don’t feel I can say these things, because I don’t know how it’s going to come off with other people,’” Chin said. “A lot of the struggle for pastors is this cultural expectation that pastors don’t feel this, because they’ve got a higher calling. But it’s healing to say it and to put it out there and be free from the secrecy of it.”

In May, Chin credited that honesty with leading him to a better place. He said he’s spoken truthfully with his congregation about the stress and grief associated with this time, as well as how God’s love for him — and the expectation that he will love others — has served as an anchor. He’s also openly addressed staff conflicts, leaving no room for gossip or misunderstandings.

“Honesty has really panned out for us,” Chin said. “We need to go beyond creating the illusion that everything is fine, and truth-tell.”

family photo
The Rev. Peter Chin’s decision to openly discuss his concerns about continuing in ministry proved healthy for him and for others.

Much of what has drained pastors predates the pandemic, he said. But the pandemic has quickened the pace. Rather than viewing this as destructive, why not view it as corrective, a chance to shed traditions that weren’t working and embrace new practices that sustain pastors and their congregations?

“This is an opportunity for us to re-imagine and reclaim some things about the church,” Chin said. “In God’s community, there’s hope and redemptive purpose for even the hardest things.”

Questions to consider

  • What are signs in your ministry and your life that you have ignored but need to attend to?
  • Are there areas of ministry, congregational life or community connection that you recognize need reshaping or re-creating? What would it take to do that?
  • Are extra areas of responsibility placed on your ministry because of who you are? What are your expectations of yourself in that regard? Are there boundaries you can set?
  • Which responsibilities drain you? Where are your models for a healthy work-life balance?
  • How has the pandemic affected your sense of call or where you might serve it? What could that look like?