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When the Tailwind Is Gone: What the Past Eighteen Months Have Taught Me About Ministry

Charlie Cotherman

I can still remember when I first sensed God was calling me to a life of ministry. It was in November of 2001. I was 17 at the time, and God had just used a large youth conference to rekindle a long-dormant love of Scripture and passion to follow Christ in my heart. The power of the Gospel was so fresh and compelling, I could think of nothing I wanted more than to help others experience the goodness, truth, and joy I had found in Christ.

From there, the path from call to vocational ministry proved to be long and meandering. For over a decade, ministry opportunities came fits and starts, a summer internship here, a pulpit supply opportunity there. In the process there was a lot of waiting, working, and living as our family grew and things like seminary, multi-state moves, and the day-to-day work of life rushed to fill in any empty gaps in our time and emotional energy.

Then, after years of waiting for God to give us direction and open doors, my wife and I had the privilege of planting a church in 2016 in a corner of rural western Pennsylvania we both call home. There are lots of horror stories about church planting, but our experience cuts against that narrative. Sure, there were challenges in starting a new church community and navigating new responsibilities and relationships, but the joys of pastoring far outweighed the pains.

At least that is how it felt until March 2020.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political and social unrest of the last eighteen months, I have found pastoring to be harder in almost every way. And its not just me, according to David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, 29 percent of pastors had given “real serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.”[i]

I can’t say that I’ve doubted my call over the last year and a half, but there have been moments when I’ve wondered whether its worth it, whether there might be another way to glorify God and support my family.  

Leaning In, Pressing On, Learning From

For me, in this season, the answer is no. God has called me to this, and it is important, especially now, to stay the course. My hunch is that the same is true for many pastors. But how do we keep pastoring in this season and maintain our physical, mental, and spiritual health?  

I think part of the answer is learning how to walk wisely while working to understand the unique challenges and opportunities of this cultural moment. God is the same now as ever, but the landscape we minister in is drastically changed. How can we minister wisely amidst the challenges of this moment?

The answer to this question will vary from person to person and from context to context. For me, the crucible of the last eighteen months has made me think about things I have learned about leadership, pastoral ministry, and myself. Perhaps some of them may be helpful to others who serve in ministry or who want to encourage those who do.

Four Things I’ve Learned about Ministry over the Past Eighteen Months

1). People pleasing tendencies are crippling.

If there is one thing that the last year highlighted for me, it is the temptation most people feel to please those with whom we interact on a regular basis. We are sociological creatures. We don’t generally want those we care about or interact with regularly to dislike us or think we are foolish or deluded. Pastors, by the sheer fact that many of us are naturally inclined toward empathy and a genuine concern for others, may be even more prone to maintain a people-pleasing posture that avoids conflict at all costs or takes the path of least resistance when tension surfaces.

How do we keep pastoring in this season and maintain our physical, mental, and spiritual health?

As pastors, perhaps one of the subtle gifts of the past eighteen months is a nearly unavoidable opportunity to let God root out and kill our disproportionate desire to please people and be universally liked. The reality is that virtually no pastor has been able to please everyone in his or her congregation when it comes to their stances on COVID and the array of related safety measures or regarding issues related to the racial and political tension we experienced in 2020.

Faced with such widespread and almost guaranteed disagreement, we have an opportunity to deepen the roots our sense of calling and pastoral work not in the increasingly polarized and fickle sentiments of our communities or congregations, but in Christ as we pray for the ability to live and lead in a manor that is pleasing to Him.

2). Discipleship is lacking.

One of the things that has been most disheartening for me as a pastor is what the past eighteen months have exposed about the state of the church in America. As I’ve talked with pastor after pastor, I’ve heard stories of congregational infighting over a wide variety of things, very few of which seem like the kind of hills we should be willing to die on. People on every side of the issue have taken on the language of the political system to berate and belittle those who disagree with them.

In other cases, it hasn’t even been political or social issues that have prompted people to leave; it’s just been easier to stay home. As one young parent whose family slipped out of the habit of regular church attendance during the pandemic told me, with kids busy in activities through the week, they’ve come to enjoy staying home on Sunday mornings. They are not the only family in our church and other local churches to choose this route after the pandemic changed their weekly routine.

All this has left me asking myself how, as a pastor, I can do more to help form people into disciples of Christ, not merely church attenders.

One of the ways churches have historically attempted to help form folks into disciples is through catechesis, or a process of formal instruction in the basics of the faith. I come from a low-church tradition that largely dispensed with formal catechesis, but the pandemic has made me reevaluate the idea that children’s church or a weekly sermon are enough. I just bought a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism and plan to start working my way through it with the congregation soon.

I have my doubts that even this kind of intentionality is enough. As Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs recently noted, “Culture catechizes.” This means that even if folks are actually getting catechesis through Bible teaching and adult education classes for an hour a week at church, they are getting another kind of catechesis via cable news and other online entertainment for dozens of hours each week.[ii] Given the pervasiveness of this cultural catechesis, revitalizing a movement of discipleship in the congregations we lead will require us to be extremely dedicated, innovative, and intentional in our efforts to make deep disciples of Christ.

3). Technology is not neutral.

Another subtle assumption that the past eighteen months has helped me identify in myself and the larger American church is the belief that technology is merely a tool and is thus value neutral. If we were ever looking for a way to demonstrate Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight that “the medium is the message,” the last eighteen months of church life may be a prime example.

Prior to the pandemic, our small church used technology to some degree, but the pandemic prompted us, like congregations around the country, to ramp up our technological outreach. From the first week of the pandemic, our worship services were available online—something we continued even after we resumed in-person worship services.

Recording Oil City Vineyard Church's Easter 2020 worship service. Photo courtesy Richard Sayers, http://8and322.weebly.com/

On one level it makes sense. It offered folks a way to connect with the church if they were sick, anxious about catching COVID, or away for another reason. And yet, what kind of a “connection” was a live stream or a video played later in the week?

As we’ve watched folks go from regular attenders, to regular watchers, to maintaining little or no connection to our community of real, flesh-and-blood people, it’s been hard to avoid the fact that for all but those who have no other option, technology is a cheap and misleading substitute for actual life in the people of God. Like a mirage, technology, when it becomes our primary means of connecting with a church, presents us with a false reality, a way of participation devoid of relationship, where content (i.e., the songs sung, the sermon preached) exists only to be consumed without asking anything of us.

And this is what tech does to us without any ill-intentioned effort; it says nothing about the clever mathematicians and programmers who have designed logarithms meant to prey upon our worst and most angry impulses. I’m not finger pointing here. The church I pastor uses several social platforms. We do our best to use them wisely for good purposes, but sometimes I wonder if bringing more folks to social platforms and asking them to engage the church that way is a self-defeating move. We may try to use social platforms wisely, but the folks writing those logarithms are smart and the numbers are on their side.

4). Gratitude is the way forward.

There’s no denying that the past year and a half has been full of difficult situations and hard times. We don’t have to deny this to be people of gratitude. Gratitude can still exist alongside genuine sadness and lament. We serve a God who continues to pour his goodness on us even in the most difficult of times.

I’m becoming convinced that one of the ways we can move forward as pastors and congregations is to reframe the way we describe our congregations, our circumstances, and the culture around us. Cultivating thankfulness cuts against so much of what is alienating us and causing anxiety. It cuts against the celebrity culture and the consumer culture that both always demand more just as it cuts against the polarized fights that have characterized the pandemic from the start.

It is hard to be angry, power-hungry, focused on myself and my rights when I am grateful.

Leaning Into the Wind

Three weeks ago, the church my wife and I pastor celebrated its fifth anniversary. That means that we have been in the midst of a global pandemic and election year build-up and fallout for about one-third of our church’s existence.

Before the pandemic, it felt like we had the wind at our back. From worship attendance and baptisms, to volunteer rolls and budgets, it seemed as if we were growing and gaining momentum in all the right ways.

Whatever momentum we had, the pandemic crushed it. The winds changed and instead of a tailwind, we found ourselves facing a strong and steady headwind that refused to let up.

Before the pandemic, it felt like we had the wind at our back.... Whatever momentum we had, the pandemic crushed it.

If you’re moving forward, there’s not much to enjoy about a headwind. When I was a track athlete I used to run the 400 meters, a race that was run at as close to a sprit as one could over one lap. By the last one hundred meters a 400-meter runner is usually exhausted. The problem on our track was that the homestretch faced due west, directly into the wind. Some blustery spring days, as I rounded the last corner feeling the growing extent of my physical weakness, the headwind seemed almost overwhelmingly strong.

It was at those movements that I leaned into the wind and tried to make myself as small as possible.

On the backstretch, with the wind at my back, I could run at full height and even forget that the wind was there. On the homestretch, running into the headwind, it was a different story.

As a pastor, it has felt like I’ve spent the last eighteen months running into a head wind. (No wonder I and other pastors are tired!) It hasn’t been enjoyable, but, as I’m beginning to see, it has been an opportunity to leave my ego at the door allow myself to get smaller as I lean forward into the wind, confident of God's empowering presence and His call on my life in the midst of it all.

As I do, I continue to find that He remains faithful no matter how the wind blows. For this, I am grateful.

[i] Bob Smietana, "For Some Pastors, the Last Year Was Too Much to Bear,” Religion News Service (May 7, 2021) https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/wisconsin/articles/2021-05-07/for-some-pastors-the-past-year-was-too-much-to-bear (accessed October 26, 2021).

[ii] Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart,” The Atlantic (October 24, 2021) https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/evangelical-trump-christians-politics/620469/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=atlantic-weekly-newsletter&utm_content=20211024&silverid=%25%25RECIPIENT_ID%25%25&utm_term=This (accessed October 26, 2021).

Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat in Oil City, Pennsylvania.