The signs are clear. The indicators are there.
What the church in North America needs from its pastoral leadership is quickly shifting. Really, it’s no surprise.
Here we are on the backside of Christendom’s bell-shaped life-cycle curve. The cultural pockets wherein Christianity is still popular and pervasive are shrinking as we speak.
Churches are looking square into the face of an adaptive challenge: change (enough) or decline.
So, the need for the role of pastoral ministry and leadership to evolve, shift and adapt is not surprising. The indicators that ministry is radically changing are clear and present.
From where I sit, it seems like pastors are responding in ways which gather themselves around two doors. To move through a doorway, one makes a volitional decision and then takes action.
Given the significance of this point in history for the church in North America, fewer pastors are able to ignore the need to make a decision.
A few churches can continue church-as-we-have-known-it for another three, five or maybe even 10 years, while most churches don’t have the luxury of running on the fumes of a previous era’s fuel.
So, the first door some pastors are choosing is the exit door. Early retirements, along with the decision to leave pastoral ministry for another profession, are common destinations on the other side of this exit door.
I am no longer surprised when coaching clients or other pastors with whom we have served in various ways pull us aside and say, “I need to share something with you.”
The vast majority of these pastors are people of integrity, good and faithful workers in God’s vineyard.
They simply recognize the significant change and transformation it would take for them to lead personally in radically different ways.
They have counted the cost of this retooling and journey of discovery and recognize it’s not for them.
Family, finances, health, congregational cooperation – all these factors are real factors influencing their decisions.
Moving through the exit door is a faithful and responsible move, when informed by deep discernment through prayer and good counsel. Plenty of pastors are walking over that threshold.
The second door through which pastors are moving right about now is the entrance door.
These are pastors who also recognize the major shifts they will have to make to be effective pastors in this postmodern era – and they find this powerfully invigorating.
Their discernment goes something like this, “Church-as-we-have-known-it is declining while church-as-it-is-becoming is rising. The world needs God and God’s church as much as ever, yet it is taking shape and form in new ways.
“And that, pouring new wine into new wineskins, is an opportunity I don’t want to miss. Leading this church to cling to embody its DNA and identity in new ways is a grand invigorating adventure. There’s no way I’m missing out on that ride.”
These pastors find the adaptive challenge inherent in this historical moment invigorating. They connect with our spiritual ancestors around the Exodus story or the early church’s journey described in the book of Acts.
These pastors are moving through the entrance door, recognizing their ministry roles will never be the same while loving the journey.
But come to think of it, pastoral leaders aren’t the only ones looking at the exit and entrance doors.
As is often the case, the experience of leaders and participants are mirror images of each other. Aren’t we all facing those same two doors?
The “Dones” are the poster children for those making the choice for the exit door. They are done with church and moving on.
For a wide array of reasons, they don’t believe their churches will adapt or be life-giving spiritual communities in the present or future.
That’s one choice being made at this point in time. At the very same time, there are those of us who wouldn’t miss this moment for the world.
We look back at Christian history, noting again that God’s church has transformed itself many times before. Often, these transitions included great spiritual energy and transformation for those involved.
Spiritual movements, when they happen, can ignite our spirits and fan the flames of our faith in deep and powerful ways.
We meet disciples of Jesus who find the church’s adaptive challenges wonderfully engaging and life-giving.
In no way are they done with church, though they are on a journey toward new expressions of church.
By the way, some of those pastors choosing the exit door will also be right here with other disciples. They want to go on this adaptive journey as regular disciples rather than as pastoral leaders.
Either way, so many are eager for the next chapter in this story of God and God’s church, living into the adventure of Jesus.
So, what will it be? Door number one or door number two?
Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.