The metaphor has changed. For most of my ministry, we often referred to the up and down of pastoral ministry as a roller coaster. It made sense. One day the pastor will celebrate five new believers in Christ. The next day the pastor is met by a long-term church member who is leaving the church because she is not getting fed (I really loathe that excuse to leave.).
Today, the metaphor is whiplash, a sudden and dramatic jolt from very good to very bad or vice versa. In one hour, the pastor gets a nice email from someone who visited the church to a not-so-nice email from a man who is resigning his leadership position in the church.
The roller coaster metaphor was apt when these changes happened from week to week, or on occasions, day to day.
The whiplash metaphor best fits today, because pastors typically have their emotions jerked around a few times a day.
What has happened? If we can understand this issue more deeply, we might be able to save some pastors from depression, resigning too quickly, or even suicide.
At this point, we can identify some of the causes of the pastoral whiplash syndrome. But we need to do a much better job of helping pastors deal with this harsh reality. Here are five of most common reasons for the new reality of pastoral whiplash syndrome:
1. Instantaneous communication. When I first started in pastoral ministry, the only way to get a hold of me was by letter or by landline phone. I didn’t even have voicemail at first. The only way I would know to answer the phone if I was at home and heard the phone ring. I believe some church members and other critics would think very hard before they wrote a letter or made a telephone call. Today, communication is instantaneous, and the methods of communication are too numerous to name. Many people contact pastors before they give it a second thought. Such is the reason pastors have encountered so much thoughtless communication.
2. Public communication. There are a lot of cowards on keyboards these days. They will post something on social media because they have an audience. They think they have influence because they got three likes from people who did not read the post. It is shameful how many people post negative things about a pastor or a church without talking to the pastor first. For many church members, Matthew 18 has been ripped from the Bible.
3. Church members with a consumer mentality. I have observed this trend growing consistently over the years. More church members worship the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I instead of seeking the good of others in the church. They are more concerned about their personal preferences than being obedient to God’s commands to serve and to be last.
4. Unregenerate church members. Our team at Church Answers has been conducting the same survey among church members since 1996. It is fairly comprehensive with 160 questions. Because we have done so many of these surveys over almost 30 years, it is one of the best longitudinal surveys on local congregations. It is both amazing and disheartening to follow the erosion of belief among active church members. Many of them deny the deity of Christ. Many of them cannot affirm that Jesus is the only way of salvation. They are not likely Christians, because they refuse to affirm who Jesus is. We call them “unregenerate church members,” which literally means they have not been born again. As the number of unregenerate church members increase, the more likely these non-Christians will not act like a Christian to the pastor. We also call these church members “cultural Christians.”
5. COVID. The pandemic accelerated and exacerbated all these trends. Pastors are confronted with the challenging reality that the problems have become as much as fivefold greater since the pandemic swept across the world. This change at warp speed was not limited to churches, but there is no doubt that churches felt it especially poignantly.
I recently spoke with a pastor who told me that he is having a difficult time emotionally dealing with the issues noted above. This particular pastor is questioning his calling. My prayer for pastors is that they will reaffirm their calling. My prayer is that God will intervene in a mighty way in their lives.
Roller coasters can be a challenge. But whiplash is unspeakably painful.
Posted on October 2, 2023
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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