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.
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?
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.
A pastor from a small Methodist congregation in Indiana has to borrow a smartphone from one of her elders. She watches a quick tutorial on Facebook livestreaming, then films a makeshift service from her living room.
And there’s the pastor of a rural Presbyterian church who discovered that the church did not own a tripod — moments before recording his first online service. He fastened his iPhone to a ladder with duct tape.
These are just some of the stories coming out of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project, a two-year study on how churches and their leaders have adopted — and adapted to using — digital technology in ministry.
Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and working with the Center for Congregations, a team from Texas A&M University is investigating 2,700 congregations that received grants to purchase technology resources during the pandemic to enable them to move their services online.
Before 2020, many churches had never considered the importance of having Wi-Fi connections in their church buildings, let alone internet-enabled cameras or livestream setups. In fact, most American pastors likely never even considered holding worship services online.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and social-distancing regulations quickly showed congregations that having access to up-to-date digital media technology was not simply a novel ministry opportunity but a necessity.
The forced migration of worship services online in March 2020 brought with it many stories of churches being caught off guard by these new technological requirements.
Nearly two-thirds of pastors in this study felt that of all the new things they were asked to take on during the pandemic, it was technology work and decision making they felt the most unprepared for.
Through conversations with 500 church leaders, we heard responses like, “This wasn’t the job I signed up for as a pastor”; “I have no training in ‘putting on the tech hat’”; and, “I am a novice at tech — but the only one willing to try and get the church online.”
Leaders’ widespread lack of technology skills, knowledge and experience was further complicated by the digital divide, which many churches encountered for the first time. The digital divide describes the gap between individuals and groups that do and do not have access to technology, especially the internet.
The experience of the pandemic revealed for churches the challenge of what it means to be among the digital have-nots. Smaller and rural congregations in particular discovered that being in a community with limited internet access was not just a disadvantage but often a major barrier to acclimating to or addressing changes in gathering.
Yet the struggle was often more than churches simply not having key technologies on hand or the funds to purchase them. Many congregations battled self-imposed limitations on technology and roadblocks they created for themselves.
This we describe as digital reluctance, an unwillingness among leaders and/or members to embrace technology due to fear or lack of familiarity.
This was expressed by senior members of congregations as well as by church leaders, and this digital reluctance often prevented them from innovating worship and adapting to public gathering limitations.
For example, one leader, who described his congregation as “very anti-tech” and said that he personally “never had an interest in going online,” felt that these factors created significant obstacles for his church during the pandemic. In his view, the congregation’s initial reluctance to consider or even experiment with technology-driven service solutions created unnecessary tensions during already uncertain and tense times.
In other cases, congregational resistance toward technology often corresponded with a church’s general unwillingness to change its liturgical practice or re-envision the church. As one pastor said, “For some, getting on board with online worship was seen as giving up on the core of their faith.”
Digital reluctance also created friction in some churches between the generations. Younger and more digitally fluent members, excited about the possibility of re-imagining the church through digital platforms, often found themselves in conflict with older members or those less familiar with digital media.
Some leaders said the generational digital divide, and the tensions created around it, contributed to the slower return of some younger members once face-to-face services resumed.
“Some of those folks haven’t returned. … Our seniors were taught that you were here every Sunday, so they’re ready to be back. But that’s not the case with our younger people and those who were willing to try to go online from the start,” one pastor told researchers. “Time will tell what impact online tensions created.”
As a grand experiment and learning opportunity, the digital transition many churches underwent during the pandemic provides us with several valuable lessons.
First of all, our research found that pastors who had a positive and open mindset toward changing worship practices and/or engaging technology had a less stressful experience adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. This shows that attitude can greatly influence one’s outlook in times of forced change.
Second, congregations and their leaders who were willing to experiment with technology and learn from mistakes made in the process found that moving to online services opened up the possibility to reconsider the very nature of church.
Congregations are asking questions, for example, about whether church is primarily defined by its Sunday worship service, its community outreach, its technology use or something else. This is a challenging and tiring task, but pastors who felt empowered to be creative in their problem solving seemed to demonstrate greater resilience when handling pandemic stressors.
Third, pastors who used difficulties with technology to facilitate conversations about the nature of the Christian community helped create space for new perspectives to be shared.
This helped refocus the discourse from what was lacking in online worship to one centered on exploring new opportunities for community building, such as reinventing how small groups meet, how leaders perform pastoral care and how hybrid Sunday school can redefine religious education.
While the digital divide continues to be a challenging reality for many churches, the pandemic revealed important traits church leaders need to prepare for future cultural disruptions and technological shifts. Duct tape and an online tutorial won’t solve all church tech problems, but they do demonstrate creativity and a willingness to try — which can go a long way in moving churches forward.
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?
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?
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’?”
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?
“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.’”
‘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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
Editor’s note: This essay has been adapted from a longer version.
As I ponder the future of congregational life in America, I am filled with hope. I find the future to be exciting, because it is a mix of challenge, change, uncertainty and creative possibilities.
More importantly, my hope is invigorated by the young clergy I have come to know and walk alongside in recent years; they are more than up to this challenge. Indeed, if I could, I would turn back the calendar of my life 60 years and begin again.
Two years ago, just as we began to settle into the long winter of COVID, this haunting quote from Andy Crouch, the Praxis partner for theology and culture, froze my attention: “From today onward, most leaders must recognize that the business they were in no longer exists. This applies not just to for-profit businesses, but to nonprofits, and even in certain important respects to churches.”
True indeed! The great pandemic has brought church life as we know it to a halt. It has roused us from a deep sleep and waked us up to seismic cultural and religious realities we too long ignored. This shift has left many pastors and congregations in a quandary, depressed and paralyzed.
My sense of church has been shaped by the nearly 40 years I spent as a parish pastor and the 12 years I spent at a public university as the founding director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University. During those 12 years, it was my privilege to work with nearly 3,000 congregations reflecting the diversity of congregational life in America.
What I discovered was this: most congregations have difficulty thinking about their future. For many, trapped in a one-year-at-a-time survival mode, their tomorrow is but a blur. I also observed that savvy pastors recognized that they dare not sit back permitting fate to run its course if their congregations are to have a tomorrow.
Their quandary is this: how do you plan for tomorrow in a fractured, fast-moving and ever-evolving world?
I think there are three questions clergy and congregations should address as they contemplate their tomorrows:
- How do we plan for an uncertain future?
- How can we best manage the messiness of change and innovation?
- What are the questions we should be asking as we face the future?
In exploring these questions, I discovered several wise and insightful resources to share; clergy need conversation partners to walk alongside them as they navigate the murky shoals of congregational life:
- “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future,” by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt
- “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky
- “A Secular Age,” by Charles Taylor
- “The Pastor in a Secular Age,” by Andrew Root (part of the trilogy “Ministry in a Secular Age”)
How do we plan for an uncertain future?
In their book “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future,” Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt lay out a tripartite methodology — a three-way mirror — that enables organizations to address this question. To gain insight into the future, they write, it is essential to look in three directions: backward, forward and sideways.
The look back unveils something as to the DNA of a congregation. How has it managed change in its past? The look forward focuses on the forces changing America,providing a window into the issues framing the horizon: demographic, economic, technological. The look sideways reveals the way other organizations have managed change.
How can we best manage the messiness of change and innovation?
Ronald Heifetz, senior lecturer in public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, has created a process by which institutions may redemptively address change and innovation: the practice of adaptive leadership.
What is adaptive leadership? It is based on the conviction that difficult problems are best solved with input from the entire organization. The adaptive process begins with the creation of a guiding coalition. This is a task force that serves as a think tank — in the case of a church, a congregation-based leadership laboratory.
What are the questions we should be asking as we face the future?
Ecclesial questions have to do with the forms and functions of the church and our life together. Institutional change usually falls into two buckets: the adaptive bucket and the disruptive bucket.
Adaptive congregations embrace change but believe that the church will essentially remain as it has always been. Today’s more disruptive voices believe that the church as an institution or denomination is passe.
Both visions raise ecclesial questions, questions for both established congregations and new emergent faith communities to wrestle with in fidelity to their heritage, calling and purpose.
- What is a church? What purpose do congregations serve?
- How do emerging new forms of congregational and community life fit into the more traditional and denominational understandings as to what a congregation is?
- How do stand-alone faith communities see themselves; to whom are they accountable?
- What ultimately shapes the purpose and identity of faith communities primarily built around personal interests, political values or social values?
- How will online congregations administer the sacraments, nurture faith formation, build a sense of community and mirror the kingdom of God?
We also must be asking theological questions in our secular context. The church exists to witness to God’s redemptive presence in the world. However, the world in which the church now lives is not the world in which many of us grew up. As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, we are living in “a world of secular time.”
A secular world is not a world without religion; it is a world where belief in God is understood to be but one option among others. In a world where is it assumed that God is absent, where unbelief is normal, little or no connection is perceived between God and everyday life. In short, it is a world shorn of any sense of transcendence, any sense of God.
Ministry in a secular age offers a rare opportunity for congregations to reframe the good news as they pour the aged wine of the gospel into new wineskins. In short, the challenge facing congregations today is how they will breathe new life and meaning into an old and oft-abused word: evangelism!
To ignore these questions, I fear, is to be in danger, as congregations, of becoming little more than nesting places for preexisting Christians.
The role of the pastor in a secular world is to be more than an “institutional curate,” as Root writes in “The Pastor in a Secular Age.” It is to be a shepherd who leads people into “experiences of the ministering God.”
The mission of the congregation in a secular world is to focus on resonance, not relevance, on revelation, not innovation. A resonant congregation seeks “a narrative of connection to the world and those in the world who call out to us,” Root writes in a companion book, “The Congregation in a Secular Age.” It is sensitive to the yearnings of the secular soul that longs to live life more fully and find meaning in everyday life. It is a visual and experiential catalyst as it exposes the sacred ever lurking amid the nooks and crannies of everyday life.
I have found congregations to be amazingly resilient. They may be on life support, but they refuse to throw in the towel. They may be chronic one-year-at-a-time congregations, but they refuse to shutter their doors.
What is the source of their tenacious hope? That hope is rooted in their sense of calling and their trust in a slow God who nonetheless shows up.
I have not offered any answers to the questions I posed; to do so would be presumptuous, if not downright impertinent. The questions are intended to serve as channel markers for clergy and congregations as they traverse their uncharted future. They are questions to be addressed by congregations in the light of their particular ecclesial traditions and theological orientations.
The changes blowing in the wind are clearing out the cobwebs of stale church life. That wind is more than the howl of secularism. The blowing wind is the ruach — the wind, the breath, the spirit of an uncaged God. To a confused and bewildered Nicodemus, Jesus whispered this wisdom: “Listen to the wind, Nicodemus, listen to the wind!” The challenge of congregations grappling with an uncertain future is to listen. To listen, then dare to pour the new wine of a living God into new wineskins.
The changes blowing in the wind are clearing out the cobwebs of stale church life.