“I no longer have a desire to serve as a pastor”
Alexander Lang made an impression in 2019 with his book, Restorative Faith, now the SSUC Library’s new Featured Book. But he became, in church circles, a celebrity—or for some, a malefactor—when, on August 27, he preached his last sermon, and then wrote to explain his leave-taking.
The next month, Religious News Service journalist Bob Smietana profiled Lang, and the “quitting-the-church” essay he’d penned in the few days since parting. As the subhead explained, this “pastor’s last thoughts on leaving the ministry sparked a national conversation about clergy health and the future of the church”.
Smietana: “His final sermon done, Lang sat down and typed out some thoughts on why he left not only First Presbyterian [his congregation in Arlington Heights, Illinois], but the pastorate altogether. Lang posted the essay a few days later on his website….” Straightaway, “Why I Left the Church” went viral: “about 350,000 of Lang’s colleagues” devoured it!
“Lang’s essay became the topic du jour for clergy around the country,” the reporter writes. “Some resonated with his concerns, while others saw his leave-taking as a lack of faith.” Certainly, Lang was blunt: the third sentence in his piece reads, “I no longer have a desire to serve as a pastor in the church.”
Why? Why would this cleric of a successful congregation—First Pres had around 1,000 members during most of his tenure—abdicate?
Bear in mind, he’s a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary; holds a degree in religious studies from Rice University; and spent a year studying theology at Oxford. Consider how a local news outlet characterized him when, in 2013 he came to First Pres, as being “eager to share his strong biblical knowledge, passion for teaching and preaching, and desire to encourage a new focus on spiritual growth.” Why, a member of the search committee that had tapped him for the role enthused, “Alex impressed us with his amazing way of turning complexities into simplicities. He was a transformational thinker….”
That appears to be the reason he felt the need to exit: “I eventually came to the conclusion that my particular skill set and perspective is a mismatch for the institutional church,” he wrote in his au-revoir essay.
To read Lang’s essay in full, go to: restorativefaith.org, and hit “Blog,” then, “Departure: Why I Left the Church”. To view Lang’s farewell sermon, go to YouTube, and search out “First Presbyterian Church, Sunday, August 27, 2023,10:30 am, Change—Alex Lang”. To read Bob Smietana’s profile, go to religionnews.com, and search for “Meet the pastor behind the ‘quitting the church’ essay.” And, going forward, expect more from Lang: he is, in his words, “putting the finishing touches on my new book, Restorative Beauty, which I hope will be ready for publication by the end of the year.”
While much of the piece…and this is what roiled some who read it…points up his exhaustion, his burnout, this from the moil of [in Smietana’s words] “caring for people’s souls,” it’s the several paragraphs in which Lang considers “growth mindset vs. fixed mindset” that will be most meaningful to SSUC unshrinking seekers.
He tells how a therapist [“I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy over the years as a way of processing the challenges of the church”] explained a growth mindset: it’s “when a person is willing to take chances, enjoys learning new things, and is not afraid to fail. Conversely, people with fixed mindsets don’t like to be challenged. They perceive failure as the limit of their abilities. They tend to be scared of learning new things, particularly if that education disrupts their current worldview.
“I am firmly in the camp of growth mindset, and I assumed that was the entire purpose of the church. When I became a pastor, I thought that was the reason why this group of people gathered every Sunday was to explore deep questions about life, and to push ourselves to become better humans. What I have learned…is that my assumption was wrong. …the majority of people who attend churches are in the fixed-mindset category.
“Most Christians don’t want their thinking changed. They come to church to reinforce what they’ve believed their entire lives. From their perspective, the job of the pastor is not to push them to grow, but to reassure them that they are already on the right track….
“This is the exact opposite of how I function. Although I always try to end my messages with a sense of hope, my goal was to make you [his congregants] think. Nothing was off limits. I have no problem dismantling the traditional Christian belief system in service of logic and reason, particularly if it helps us make sense of the world….”
And so Lang came to conclude, “What I offer is not what most Christians are looking for.” This is one reason why “I’ve decided to move on. I realized that if I spend the rest of my life fighting a system that is not designed for someone like me, I’m going to end up an angry, bitter, broken shell of a human being.”