“At the store they’re like: ‘You’re so good at welcoming people!’” said Aldape, her smile shifting into a chuckle and then into tears. For the first time in a decade, the 34-year-old wouldn’t be pastoring a congregation on Christmas Eve.
“I miss doing that with my people,” she said. Her fiance put his hand on her back as their Christmas tree twinkled behind them.
Aldape is part of an exodus of clergy who have left ministry in the past couple years because of a powerful combination of pandemic demands and political stress. Amid fights about masks and vaccine mandates, to how far religious leaders can go in expressing political views that might alienate some of their followers, to whether Zoom creates or stifles spiritual community, pastoral burnout has been high.
The past few years have jostled and rocked the labor market overall, with many millions losing and changing jobs either by force, by choice or a combination of the two. But some research and anecdotes suggest this period is a crisis for American clergy.
A Barna survey of Protestant pastors published last month found 38 percent said they’d considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year.
Matthew Manion, director of the Center for Church Management at Villanova University, which was founded to help Catholic parishes, said he doesn’t know if priest exits are rising, “but stress levels are through the roof.” Diocesan leaders say there is an increase in requests for emotional and mental support to deal with the pandemic, racial awakening and political polarization, he said.
“Clergy are meant to be there for all their people — so if their people are having more challenges, more stress — and what’s made it particularly challenging is they can’t be together in their normal ways of being together. Spiritual counseling and being present for people is very, very difficult,” he said.
Tom Knoll had led First Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown D.C. for 37 years when the pandemic hit. At first Knoll, whose career has focused on the poor and homeless, revved up. The church started live-streaming services on Facebook, worshiped and did Bible classes on Zoom. They hired staff to create YouTube videos including cartoons for children.
Then many younger members left D.C. and stopped coming virtually. Knoll, 66, began to question his usefulness. He saw people suffering and felt he couldn’t help them. For people with mental and intellectual disabilities who can’t use Zoom, all he could do was drop off crafts kits.
Two longtime parishioners moved into assisted living and he couldn’t help. When he finally could visit them, months later, he had to stay eight feet away from them, masked, and the older men couldn’t hear.
“That weighed on me over the course of the year,” he said.
Knoll looked at younger pastors at other churches who were doing more with technology. They had multiple cameras around the church and better microphones.
“I felt, I’m just not doing what I should be doing. I know that’s not true, I’m trying my best. But for those who really care for their people, you feel: What other things could I do?” he said. “You did kind of question: Why is this all happening?”
Knoll decided to retire several years earlier than he’d planned, and his final service was last Christmas Eve, when he stood alone in a darkened sanctuary, preaching to his congregation for a final time over Zoom.
“It was very, very sad, and very, very weird,” he said.
Friday he was with his wife, son and his son’s fiancee at their retirement home on a pond that spills into the Chesapeake Bay. He spent the morning answering emails and working on a puzzle. He had been planning to drive to D.C. for Christmas Eve services at his old church, but those were canceled because of worries about the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Knoll still does a lot of service, coordinating a group of Lutheran pastors doing a program on anti-racism and managing some affordable housing properties for the church. The unexpected slip into retirement and fewer demands feels easier, in a way, but the way it happened — at the hands of the pandemic — is also disconcerting and disorienting.
“Even though I was of retirement age, you feel you’re letting people down,” he said. “It’s a kind of loneliness. Like you’re not making a difference.”
Joel Gustafson was at the start of his career when the pandemic hit. He had recently started working as a worship leader and youth pastor at a church in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., and was planning to make a career of ministry. Soon he was struggling with the segment of his 100-person church that saw mask-wearing as an issue of individual rights and refused to wear them.
Gustafson found himself at odds with higher-ranking clergy.
“I felt like, if people care more about their individual rights than caring for their neighbor, then it’s a matter of discipleship,” he recalled. He was told to “focus on Jesus,” he says. Then came fall 2020, and President Donald Trump’s comment in a presidential debate to right-wing extremists that they should “stand back and stand by.”
Gustafson posted to his Facebook page that he was disappointed in Trump.
Soon, he said, he was getting pushback from some congregants and clergy. One told him, he said, that half the church members were Trump voters and that his problem was that he didn’t love them.
He put in his notice at the end of 2020 and left in March.
Since then he joined his fiancee’s church and is grateful leadership is encouraging of vaccines and what Gustafson sees as an active way to love one’s neighbors. He also reconsidered the ministry career path and is now working for a nonprofit with youth in the judicial system.
“I think I would have wound up leaving, but covid and a lot of stress exacerbated things and accelerated the timeline,” he said.
Aldape’s exit in March from First Baptist Church, near Logan Circle, has left her torn and working hard in therapy to figure out what ministry means for her. Most Latino churches don’t have female clergy, and she was raised in mostly White Protestant churches. To her, many of the latter aren’t serious about confronting white supremacy. That was part of why she left there.
Christmas Eve, after work, she planned to go to her fiance’s relatives for dinner.
“Now I’m asking myself: What’s next? What does this next season look like?” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be working in a church any time soon.”