NASHVILLE (BP) – In his career in the ministry and now head of a nationally recognized search firm that has helped some 3,000 churches find pastors, William Vanderbloemen notices patterns. He also joins those saying the American Church is undergoing a historical shift in pastoral leadership.
Churches contact Vanderbloemen in the search for a pastor, but pastors also reach out to his company. This typically happens when they arrive at a “What’s next?” phase of life, something Vanderbloemen had noticed occurred a lot in January after a pastor gets extended time with family during the holidays.
“When people get out of their routines they ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said.
Two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic shattered routines worldwide, including those of pastors. The time off combined with an incredibly stressful time to lead a church – negotiating COVID recommendations, social unrest and a white-hot political season.
“Back in October 2020 we started getting a lot of those calls [normally received in January],” Vanderbloemen said. “And we started thinking, ‘Something’s about to happen. So we did a fairly large research project and came to feel that there’s going to be a big shift in the job market.”
That shift came to be known as The Great Resignation. The “quit rate” of those leaving their established professions grew to a level not seen since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 2000.
The wave was seen among every market. “Everybody has been rethinking ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’” Vanderbloemen said.
Pastors were among them – perhaps not in rethinking their calling, but their current ministry context as it related to their vocation and family.
Numerous factors led to those decisions. Pastors considered their proximity to elderly parents or, on the other end of the age spectrum, grandchildren. Those close to retirement age were thrust into a ministry world that suddenly demanded they become technology experts.
“It was probably one of hardest times to be a pastor in our lifetime,” Vanderbloemen said. “It was a difficult season, combined with mental health issues not just for them but for those in their congregations.”
In March, Barna Research released a study showing 42 percent of pastors said they had considered quitting full-time ministry. Respondents cited stress, isolation and political division as contributing factors.
All of it, Vanderbloemen said, composes a “a pretty massive recipe for driving pastors to a breaking point.”
Of those who leave the pulpit, will they stay gone?
“Some will; some won’t,” he said. “Will [resignations] keep happening? Absolutely. Many pastors will resign in the next year or so.”
That would continue a pattern going back to the fall of 2020. On Sept. 27 of that year there were 343 listings at jobs.sbc.net. As of 4:30 p.m. Eastern today (Oct. 26) that number had nearly doubled to 661.
October is recognized as Pastor Appreciation Month. More than ever, Vanderbloemen urges churches to make sure their pastor feels that sentiment well beyond the flip of a calendar.
“Take clear, concrete steps,” he said. “Provide more encouragement, a tangible note or email that specifies ways their pastor helps them. Buy him and his wife dinner. Give him a raise or a paid vacation.”
An overall takeaway for churches is that it is far better – not to mention financially viable – to take care of and encourage their current pastor rather than search for a new one.
“I’ve never seen the pool of potential pastors harder to find nor churches more fickle,” Vanderbloemen said.
The search for student pastors, he added, was “far and away” the most difficult.
“The pandemic hurt student ministry perhaps more than any other part of the church,” he said. “When I came out of seminary, everyone became a student pastor. It’s just what you did. Now you can start off planting a church, be a campus pastor or go into other options that didn’t exist back then.”
Despite the challenges, Vanderbloemen said churches must remain faithful and remember Who is in charge.
“It may seem hopeless, but Jesus started this church, and He’s going to perfect it.”