This is a pivotal time to be clergy in North America.

The trends of our times tell us the North American context for the Christian church is dramatically shifting.

More than any time in our lifetimes, being clergy in 2015 and into the near future is a dramatically different endeavor than for previous generations.

What will become of clergy is yet to be determined, as is what will become of the church.

Those outcomes will partially be determined by how clergy respond to the opportunities and challenges around us. This makes this time in history pivotal for clergy.

So, what is the “state” of clergy?

One of the leading issues facing clergy today is fear.

A man and I were serving together to paint and otherwise clean up a person’s house after the floods in our area. While we were working, he inquired about my work.

After some quiet moments in the conversation, he made a statement followed by a question. “Pastors are the most scared people in the world. They are the most fearful people I know. How do you help them with that?”

I listened, gave a response and asked him questions.

It turns out he has a small sample size, referencing the pastor at his church. And he felt the liberty to generalize this experience to all pastors.

At the same time, this particular Christ-follower’s impression of pastors in general is that they are afraid. This is not the first time I’ve heard pastors described this way.

What’s this about? Isn’t this contrary to one of the primary themes of Scripture (“do not be afraid”)? How generalized is anxiety among clergy at this point in history?

As we talked further, I was able to describe for this new friend how church life is in a major transitional time.

Christianity in this country is not what it was, but we don’t yet know what it shall be. This means we are in a transition (stating the obvious).

During major transitions, anxiety rises as what we have known to be stable and sure grows transient and uncertain. So then, why are clergy in particular so anxious?

This old leadership axiom clears the clutter away. “During times of major organizational transition, leadership grows vulnerable.”

Human beings have this propensity for making sense of the world. When something happens that we do not understand, our brains kick into seeking mode, searching our environment for clues or answers.

So, when our churches change, we look for explanations. If these changes appear negative (membership loss, budget decreases, vitality decline), then we look to leadership for explanations.

In fact, oftentimes we decide that leadership is the driving factor behind these negative changes (rather than the major transition of our time). The result: blame.

And we can fix this problem. When our perception is that our church is declining because leadership (pastor, staff or both) is underperforming, then we simply do away with the old and find the new. Case closed.

When clergy only see the threat (very real) to their security in these circumstances, then they find themselves nervous and anxious.

They correctly understand that ministry is a low-security and high-change vocation at this point in time. And, these people are like the rest of us: families, mortgages, car payments, kids in college.

Sure, they are called to ministry, yet they also depend on their paychecks, like the majority of humanity.

So, clergy find themselves in the perfect storm. Church-as-we-have-known-it is going away, which sure does look like institutional decline to most church-goers.

Church-as-we-shall-know-it is emerging, yet it has a different shape and texture, which is not so easily quantified or institutionalized.

While we are in this transition period, moving from one to the other, leadership will receive plenty of blame for not keeping the old system running in the ways to which we are accustomed.

The dynamics contributing to this major transition are far bigger than any one pastor; plenty of factors remain outside their control or influence.

Perhaps my new acquaintance was right. Clergy are afraid – and for good reason. During times of major organizational transition, leadership grows vulnerable.

Savvy clergy recognize the dangers inherent in being clergy at this point in the church’s history in North America.

During times of radical change or transformation, leaders take a lot of heat. One response to this reality is anxiety (fear).

Now, what is helpful about identifying fear as one of the major dynamics for clergy at this point in history?

Accurately identifying the nature of our experience is always helpful when it comes to moving ahead.

Naming, describing, identifying all contribute to accurately understanding our experience. This is the basis for making decisions about our next move.

The good news is that we get to choose where we will go from here; choosing not to give into the spiritual/psychological state of fear, allowing it to set up shop in our lives.

I hope the rampant fear among clergy is short-lived; perhaps a stage of development on the way to a more faith-based state.

Part of the good news is that transformation is possible, and probable, when we look to the author of all good things.

We get to choose our mindset and attitude toward the changes happening around us by deciding how much we will give into the spiritual/psychological state of fear.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his personal blog.

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