A new Barna study discovered that 38 percent of pastors have given real, serious consideration to quitting the ministry in the past year.
I am one of that 38 percent.
Even in the best of times, pastoral ministry has always felt like a broad and heavy calling. But the events of the past few years have made it a crushing one. The presidential election. Unrest around racial injustice. A global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 800,000 Americans.
Never before had I considered health protocols in the context of the church. But today, being too strict with health guidelines might damage the well-being of the church, while being too lax might take the life of a congregant. Pastors like me have to deal with the never-ending conversation about in-person versus online services—and how to serve churchgoers without leaving behind the immunocompromised or disabled.
All of this has injected a paralyzing degree of complexity and controversy into every single situation I face, every decision I make. And to make things worse, it feels as if everyone is on a hair trigger, ready to walk away at the merest hint that the church does not line up with their political or personal perspectives.
Normally, pastors might rely on their personal relationships to navigate such fraught dynamics. But COVID-19 has taken that away as well, forcing us to rely on phone calls and video screens—which are no substitutes for physical presence.
The situations are complex, the consequences weighty, the criticism unrelenting, and the path forward unclear. All of this has driven many pastors, including myself, to the breaking point.
As I ponder walking away from ministry after 20 years, I have found little comfort or counsel from the world. Some people say we should refrain from making rash decisions during such a tumultuous time—which might be wise advice for those who can manage such emotional detachment.
Others suggest the exact opposite, saying we should draw attention to our exit from ministry—using it as an opportunity to publicly air any grievances we have suffered as a form of protest, no matter what kind of relational fallout we may leave behind.
The advice that I have received is much like the season we find ourselves in: fragmented, chaotic, and unclear.
But I have found some peace in this word found in Scripture: chesed.
Chesed is a Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament, like in Psalm 13:5, which reads, “But I trust in your unfailing love (chesed).” Chesed has no direct analogue in English, but it is frequently translated as “lovingkindness” or “loyal love.” It is how God loves his people—with an enduring and faithful love that transcends circumstances and seasons.
But intrinsic to the idea of chesed is the practice of remembrance. After all, one cannot trust in the unfailing love of God without thinking back to times in the past that God’s love did not fail.
As I consider leaving ministry, I have paused to think about God’s faithful love in my life. I could not count the number of times and situations in which I felt desperate and hopeless, but God demonstrated that he saw me and cared for me, as well as for those whom I loved.
Through my wife’s cancer diagnosis, the first and the second time. Through frequent unemployment. Through break-ins, heartache, and failure.
As I remembered these many moments, I gained a precious gift: perspective. I recognized that as crushingly hard as this season has been, I have encountered other difficult situations before, and God’s love persisted through them all.
This does not necessarily mean that I should not walk away from ministry, only that I should not let this one season define my entire life. That is, I may or may not be a pastor in the future—but one thing is certain: God’s love will endure through it all.
Christians have a deep fondness for studying the words for love used in Scripture: agape, chesed, and others. But our understanding of these words is often incomplete, as it focuses on how God loves us; agape is a Greek word that describes God’s unconditional love for us, chesed is God’s lovingkindness to us.
While true, chesed has another equally important application that we often overlook.
For example, in the book of Ruth—where God is never directly mentioned—we see frequent uses of the word chesed. It describes the care Naomi receives from her daughters-in-law and also the generosity of Boaz. It is how Boaz describes Ruth when she shares her affection with him. So this loyal, unfailing love is not only something that we receive from God; chesed is also how we are called to love others.
The first aspect of chesed granted me deeper peace; the second provided me clearer direction. Yes, God’s loving care for me will endure no matter what happens. But I too am to love others in the same way—with an enduring, loyal love.
This can be painfully difficult to do at our breaking points. So often these are the moments when our relationships can fall apart as we walk away from others, physically and emotionally. And out of all the painful consequences of such transitions, these broken relationships can haunt us the longest, and we often mourn them the most.
But it does not have to be that way. Our breaking-point moments do not have to result in broken relationships. We can choose chesed, to doggedly persist in loving one another in the same way God loves us. Again, this does not necessarily dictate our choices—whether I choose to leave ministry or not. That decision still lies before me.
No matter which path I feel led to take, however, I will stay committed to chesed—to loving those around me and thus fulfilling the command of Jesus to love others in the same way that God loves me.
In this season of deep doubt and uncertainty, this word has rescued me. It has liberated me from being trapped and defined by this one season of my life while charting a clear path forward that allows me to maintain clean hands and a pure heart.
It has rescued me from both fear and bitterness, reminding me that no matter what happens, God will always love me—and that no matter what happens, I am always to love others.
To be honest, I am no clearer on what the future holds for me, or for the church. Perhaps I will walk away from ministry, now or someday to come. But I know now that I can do so with hope for a future that remains connected to my past and a heart that stays ready to love.
Peter Chin is a pastor at Rainier Avenue Church and the author of Blindsided By God. He and his wife and their five children live in the Seattle area.