Pastoral Whiplash Syndrome: Five Causes


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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Not to mention the whiplash of toxic leadership/elder culture.
    One week I’m being thanked personally for helping grow the church from 60 people to 350 in just 4 years, developing and empowering people into leaders and teams, and being asked to take on more responsibilities as a staff pastor…
    One week later I’m being told that my service is no longer necessary, and by the way you and your family have one month to get out of the parsonage.
    Church ministry culture really needs to improve. Church: Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop empowering narcissists as lead pastors and elders/trustees. Stop bowing to their every whim. Stop keeping them in places of authority as they abuse people right and left, and whiplash good people out of ministry.

  • Tracy Danielson says on

    I think leaving because they are not being fed is a valid reason for leaving. Pastors can no longer relate to people in pain as is evidenced by 4 out of the 5 reasons for whiplash given. Pastors want to teach their strong suit. I’ve listened to details about the temple measurements when I was trying to care for my wife with dementia.
    Covid will be a never ending excuse for being out of touch with the congregation.

    So long as you have that kind of contempt for the people that are trusting you to guide them, they will continue to fade away without you having a clue.

    You talk about hurting members as if they aren’t human. Give them a chance to explain to us their point of view. What did they say when you asked what they’re hungry for?

    That pastors are experiencing whiplash that often, it reveals how ignorant they are of human nature. Inform yourself about how brain chemistry works and how influential the flesh is.

    Once again, someone is not drawing nourishment from your sermon, and it’s their fault? Every time? And it causes whiplash?

    Sounds upbringings I’ve heard of: “You’ll eat what’s put in front of you or you’ll have it for breakfast!”

  • Barry Gordon says on

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Very timely! Much appreciated!

  • Dr Archford Mutigwa says on

    Thank you for the articles. While pastors are seen as the source of all kinds of answers. The emotional overload due to what they experience need support from congregation and church leadership.

  • Larry Webb says on

    Thom, I was one of those that gave the pastor a hard time in the past. I am committed to lifting up the pastor now and let him know I support him. I am going to rejoice and thank the lord for this man called to preach the good news.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Larry –

      You are now the type of church member who is making a big difference serving instead of expecting.

  • Robin Jordan says on

    In the early Church those expressing a desire to become Christians were catechized and discipled for an extended period of time before they made a public profession of faith and were baptized. They then received additional instruction. In the Celtic Church every Christian was encouraged to find an “anamchara,” or soul friend, a mature Christian, who would regularly meet with them to discuss their progress in the Christian faith and way of life and to offer them spiritual guidance and encouragement. In the eighteenth century John Wesley organized the fledgling Methodist societies into small groups–classes and bands, small groups in which those who had joined a Methodist society gave a weekly account of their spiritual growth or lack of spiritual growth and admonished and encouraged each other. In more recent times, Methodists have begun meeting in what are known as covenant discipleship groups which function like the earlier classes and bands. Churches in twenty-first century North America need to give serious consideration to reinstituting these practices. We quickly forget the lessons of the past such as the need for follow-up after mass evangelism events at which participants come to believe that they are experiencing the prompting of the Holy Spirit to become a follower of Christ. While it is tempting to blame changes in our culture for the developments in our churches which you have described, we really need to look closely at what we are doing and what we are not doing, which is contributing to these developments.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are on target, Robin. Churches must raise the bar. Christian commitment and commitment to one’s church must not be taken lightly.