COVENANT STRESSED – Why Ministers and Laity Leave Church
Much has been written, over the last several years especially, about the level of stress experienced by clergy. Stressors are cited as reasons for clergy infidelity, sexual misconduct, power abuse and the number of professionals leaving ministry. Conflict, usually at the local church level, is the most common type of stressor cited. Quite understandably, much of the work done in this area of study uses the techniques and language of sociology and psychology. Covenant, however, is not a concept strictly, or even commonly, associated with either of these disciplines, while it is a central tenet of the bulk of Christian pastoral effort. Covenant is a mutual relationship. Church members, clergy and officers are equally important in the relationships of the church, and can fall prey to exactly the same kinds of stresses. In my estimation, studying the role of covenants, or rather broken covenants, might yield far more meaningful results for understanding church stress generally, and the reason so many leave the church specifically.
From a Christian theological perspective, covenant refers, in the larger picture, to the promises of God to the whole of creation in general, and humans in particular. Despite the popular conception that God’s covenant with humanity was unilateral, a view I would dispute, covenant cannot be understood as anything but bi- or multi-lateral promises. Covenants are mutual by their very nature, and are based on trust. Covenantal relationships, modeled on the over-arching covenant of God, make up virtually all the ideal interactions between the various participants in the ecclesiastical structure. Generally, there are covenants assumed to exist between the participants of small groups, between clergy and congregation, between pastoral care provider and recipient, between committees and clergy, and so on, whether or not the covenants are formalized in writing. These covenants are reflected in what are considered norms of behavior – relational rules that are inherent to the relationship.
Being intrinsic to religious relationships, these covenants do not just prescribe social or cultural norms, but also behavioral and attitudinal norms that are founded on uniquely theological bases. It is highly conceivable, and not the least uncommon, that actions that would pass muster on the basis of social norms would, in fact, fail when considered in light of theological reflection. While conspicuous accumulation of material wealth for personal security may pass most cultural or social tests, it would be at least questionable in light of the theological tenets of many Christian churches, especially with regard to their clergy. MBA students lead the pack when it comes to cheating (56%), based on the cultural norm of deception and ‘profit at all cost’ in business environs. However, despite their cultural acceptability, dissimulation and ethical finagling would hardly seem appropriate in most religious organizations.
Of course, there is not one ‘ruling body’ when it comes to Christian behavioral norms, despite the efforts of some to declare themselves as such. Particular precepts and expressions of theology would obviously inform the development of norms for particular religious bodies and individuals. The standards of a congregational or non-denominational church may be different than those of a church belonging to a connectional system. It is also highly likely that behaviors considered acceptable would vary within denominations when comparing countries, regions and even congregations who are geographically close. Additionally, an individual’s own theological viewpoints inform his or her interpretation of norms and attitudes within both larger and smaller organizational structures.
If confusion from this variety of inputs into the development and interpretation of norms is not enough, there is the added difficulty that results from many norms being ‘understood’ or assumed, as opposed to being formally written or contracted. Of course, denominations have formalized the more common or important relational rules into constitutions, doctrines, and the like. By example, the Book of Order and Book of Confessions of the PC(USA) and the Book of Discipline of the UMC represent efforts to institutionalize norms across regional and social divides. Even these can be viewed variously as law, recommendations or guidelines, depending on the way any particular religious body or individual perceives their usefulness. It is my belief, however, that the majority of efforts to formalize norms were expended to help define the covenants that exist between the various participants. They represent, to a large extent, the intended ethical under-girding of covenantal relationships as understood in the particular tradition.
Ministers’ roles in relation to these covenants have also changed over time. In the past, pastoral leaders have been the local or congregational interpreters of the covenantal norms, enjoying a certain elevated presence as the local representative of the larger ecclesiastical body or, in some cases, of God. While this is still certainly true in some more theologically conservative churches, the situation for many has changed drastically, especially over the last few decades. Now, ministers of ‘mainline’ protestant denominations are viewed more commonly as promoters of an outdated and irrelevant code of ethics, and are commonly subjected to the scrutiny, judgment and action of others based on norms that have not previously been associated with covenantal relationships.
While there certainly are exceptions, most clergy enter ministry as a result of a heightened sense of purpose with regard to communities living in covenant with God – the call of God on their lives to be pastors, teachers, exhorters, etc. This would, by necessity, require that these same pastors have a worldview based on a more, or perhaps differently, developed ideological understanding of church and Christian relationships than that which has evolved in the general public and many congregations. It would also seem highly likely that relatively new ministers would have a more idealized sense of call and covenant than those who have been practicing for longer periods or those sitting in the pews each week. More ‘experienced’ pastors have, over time, survived episodes of conflict, modified and possibly compromised their sense of ideals, and served during the period during which the church itself has become more secularized in its ethic and conduct.
The net result has been an apparent realization that the concept of covenantal relationship is broken or non-existent. There is a renewed interest from denominational hierarchies in promoting the concepts of covenant within the ranks of ministers and other church offices. Following decades of dwindling membership numbers, the advancement of a plethora of program models reeking of glossy marketing approaches to a religious consumer, and internal combat over orthodox beliefs and actions, this move to reinforce covenant behavior runs the risk of sounding like just one more solution or program to fix a problem. The measure of how seriously the hierarchies take covenant would obviously be based on the extent to which they apply the principles in their own dealings.
When covenants are broken, or even just perceived to be broken, the result is not just possible conflict in the various relationships but, at the same time, a personal, internal conflict between what ’should be’ and ‘what is’. The causes of, as well as the results of, internalized theological/ideological conflicts are many and varied, but most stem from interaction with others in personal, congregational and denominational life. The nature of the break, and those who participate in it, would naturally determine the extent it contributes to the stress experienced by the minister, members and denominational officers.
Logically, the more someone could expect covenantal behavior from another person or entity, the more potential damage can be caused by a perceived breach. It seems reasonable to expect that ecclesiastical position and training would have bearing on expected behavior. Therefore, a council or board member would be expected to understand covenant, and act in accordance, more than a congregation member; a minister more than a board president; a ministerial committee member more than another minister; and so on and so on. In general, besides the specific nature of the break with covenant, the stressful effect of the infraction would most likely be expected to be proportional to the suspected transgressors position in the hierarchy.
While those conclusions may be expected, they are not necessarily true. A much cited book by Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, attempted to uncover underlying reasons for the exit of ministers from local congregational ministry. While conflict with denominational hierarchies ranked reasonably high, conflict in the local church ranked higher – “the top five conflict issues cited by pastors who left ministry were pastoral leadership style, church finances, changes in worship style, staff relationships and building projects.” Hot button denominational issues, such as full participation of homosexuals, were not the primary stressors – more mundane local church issues were. One likely reason is that most denominations have judicatories that have oversight and review, but not much control of local church practices. Therefore, little clergy support or correction can be expected from judicatories unless a gross violation is committed. A conflict at the local level must generally be resolved at the same level, leaving the laity, most notably the board, session or council, with the ability to support or harangue the pastor. The pastor may, or may not, have supportive relationships within the congregation.
Likewise, if these periods are stressful for the minister, as the research shows, would they not also be reasons for member dissatisfaction and anguish. Concentrating on clergy who leave, and reflecting the difficulties back onto the congregation, can be just as severe a break in the covenental relationships for laity as it is for clergy. If ministers leave over these stresses, the same logic can be applied to understanding why church officers are so prone to disappearing from church once their tenure on the board or session is finished. So just as the church memebrship or board can aggravate the clergy, it is highly likely that the clergy will likewise exert undue pressure on individuals.
Considering the denominations used in the survey may shed more light on the situation. Of those churches used, four were denominations in which the local church is the locus of power with regard to calling pastors (Church of God, PC(USA), ELCA and LCMS). The fifth, the UMC, is considered fully hierarchical with regard to ministerial appointments and church oversight. While the same conditions apply with regard to resolving conflict, it would seem appropriate to assume that UMC clergy could expect a higher degree of support and assistance from their connectional system, laterally and hierarchically. The UMC, however, is described as having a “high degree of dissatisfaction expressed by United Methodist clergy in relation to their denomination’s deployment systems and the level of support they received from judicatory officials.” Anecdotal evidence points to at least equal dissatisfaction from the members’ and boards’ perspective. One expression of this discontent can be found at the Wesley Blog, which discusses both the appointment system and hierarchical function. Hoge and Wenger concluded that “the more a pastor’s career is determined by his or her denomination, the more conflict that pastor will potentially feel with denominational leaders.”
There exists a commonality for virtually all ministers – an experience that, at least based on anecdotal evidence, represents the first realization that the ideal concept of covenantal relationship may be missing in the real world of ministry – the committee that oversees developing ministers. In the PC(USA) it is the Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM). The UMC has the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM). Most denominations have an equivalent committee that work with seminary students during the process of seminary education and preparation for ordination. I, personally, have not met a minister who believes that the relationship is, by any definition, a covenant, despite the fact that all have written covenants describing the process.
“Gate-keepers”, “the inquisition” and “perpetuators of abuse” are some of the epithets ministers have used to describe their committees. While my particular journey through this process was relatively smooth, compared to most, many experience perpetual agony at the hands of their covenantal support team. Stories abound that indicate a common pattern has developed by which deeply personal testimony about life issues is encouraged and subsequently used against the candidate. Minor situations give rise to major requirements – such as extra coursework, extra assignments or additional CPE credits being required. Most clergy do not regard the process as anything approaching mutual, trusting or supportive, but rather punitive. They are perceived as processes of ‘weeding out’, as opposed to ‘mentoring in’. Such tales of horror have even been heard from present and past CPM members about their own ordination process.
These same ordinands, having been “adequately” prepared for leadership by successfully jumping through the hoops of ministry preparation, must now utilize what has been learned in the process. They find themselves in relationship, not just with their church, but under the supervision of a committee that is also staffed by survivors of the same process. Church members, having been spared the process of ministry development, have different views of these committees, although their long relationship with judicatorial committees has helped many have their own reasons for basic distrust and discomfort. Each of the participants in the system, therefore, may bring with them the baggage of severed covenants – complete with ingrained feelings of hostility and lack of trust inherent in the system.
Lack of trust now firmly established, it should be no surprise that clergy and members may become reticent to share church conflicts, emotional trials and internal theological discord with colleagues and, especially, judicatorial officials. Distrust of the system itself violates an ideal concept of covenant relationships that requires ministers to wrestle with ideological conflict straight out of the box. Oddly enough, one of the tools sometimes issued as a corrective for errant ordinands or pastors, Clinical Practicum Eexperience (CPE), may hold out deep lessons for participants seeking to rebuild relationships by rekindling covenant. In particular, parish-based CPE programs lend themselves well to teaching ministers and committees how to go about acting in covenant. What if – just what if the committees charged with support for the candidates for ministry functioned as a CPE group? What if Committees on Ministry were trained in the same way? And the same for church boards, sessions and ministers. It is imperative on the church, if it is to but put a dent in the number of people leaving the church, to concentrate more on the concept of covenant relationship than any other aspect of church governance.
 Stacey Burling, “Survey: M.B.A. students more likely to cheat – Preparing for the world of business”, Philadelphia Inquirer,
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/business/15551798.htm, accessed 10/8/06.
 These are general statements. They do not assume that no emotionally troubled or otherwise mentally ill persons become pastors. The various seminaries, judicatorial committees, testing authorities, etc. strive to weed out the unsuitable before entering ministry – but just as some suitable candidates are barred from ministry, others who later prove to be unsuitable enter.
 David J. Wood, “Exit Interview – Why pastors leave”, book review, Christian Century Online, December 13, 2005, http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=1572, accessed 10/08/2006.
 Wood, op cit.
 Admittedly, there are exceptions as there are to any generalizations.