Jim stands in the study of his church in Walnut Valley, a small rural community in the Midwest. He received the call to this two-point parish—the other congregation of which is 15 miles to the north—shortly after graduating from seminary. Jim is single, 34 years old, and a former high school biology teacher. Both congregations have welcomed him warmly, and Jim feels like a child on Christmas morning. He cannot remember feeling so excited about life, about his future, or his vocation. As he unpacks box after box of books, new biblical commentaries, and tattered seminary textbooks, arranges them on the shelves of his study (the “Pastor’s Study,” a sign on the door reads), and hangs on the wall his newly framed diploma, “Master of Divinity,” Jim imagines the prospects of his new calling. Morning is broken, indeed.1
As we observe Jim settling into his first congregation, we have the benefit of knowing, from our historical vantage point, something he does not yet know. As we watch him, we know that in less than three years Jim will leave these congregations. He will walk away from his new vocation. He will return to teaching biology in a public school. He will depart ordained ministry feeling disappointed, defeated, and depressed, hurt beyond words, angry at the Church, bitter toward his seminary and his denomination—and toward himself. He will feel that he has failed, and that others, whom he trusted with his new vocation, others who should have known better how to help him, have failed him too. The bright possibilities he imagined on that first morning in his study will remain forever unrealized.
Sadly, Jim’s story is not unique. Recent studies have shown that a worrying proportion of pastors leave ordained ministry burned out, wounded, emotion ally and spiritually damaged, some never to return to church either as pastors or lay persons. Perhaps the best-known study of clergy burnout to date is one conducted by Alan C. Klaas’ company, Mission Growth Ministries, under a commission from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Board of Higher Education. The study found that approximately 40 percent of that denomination’s pastors were experiencing mild to severe burnout.
The findings of the Klaas study would be startling at any time but, considering the shortage of pastors nationwide, they are alarming—not only for Missouri Synod Lutherans, but for all sorts of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Baptists, and other denominations as well. Thus, two years ago Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary entered into a partnership with the Favrot Fund to study the incidence of ministry burnout, its causes, and possible resources for burnout prevention among our seminary’s alumni (focusing on the experience of pastors in their first seven years of congregational ministry), and to offer a conference to help these pastors develop strategies to better resource their ministries.2 This article explores generally what our study revealed about the stresses and challenges pastors face, and the resources they have found to support their ministries. The actual survey results and a more detailed summary analysis of the study are available online through the Alban Institute’s Web page (www.alban.org/periodicals).
The study was conducted in two parts. Initially, we surveyed alumni of Austin Seminary. After receiving and analyzing the data from this survey, we subsequently convened a focus group from among our alumni to follow up on questions and incongruities in the initial research. The survey was mailed to 272 pastors, 161 of whom completed and returned the survey form. The final response rate was 59 percent. Our alumni are predominantly ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the respondents included United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Missionary Baptist, and Unitarian ministers as well. With respect to their ages, the largest groups were in the 25- to 38-year range (28 percent) and the 45- to 56-year category (44 percent). Only 1 percent of the respondents were under 25.
We were particularly struck by the conversation generated among the 15 pastors in the focus group. Broadly representative of the survey respondents, this group reflected a hard-won realism about the difficulties of pastoral leadership, but their enthusiasm for ministry and their love of the church was palpable. While seminary administrators, professors, and denominational leaders often are on the receiving end of criticism from struggling pastors (“Why didn’t you prepare me better?” “Where is the presbytery [or conference, or association] when I need your help?”), the pastors with whom we spoke expressed gratitude both for their seminary training and for the support they continue to receive from their judicatories. The pastors were not misty-eyed idealists. They acknowledged gaps in their training and made specific recommendations regarding areas of the seminary curriculum they would like to see changed. They recognized problems in their various denominational structures and were specific in their criticisms of ecclesiastical officials who have been less than helpful. But they generally took these limitations and failings in stride, understood them in context, and (perhaps most compelling) took responsibility for finding resources for their own ministries. Indeed, they seemed rather surprised—and frankly pleased and relieved—to discover that there are denominational resources, seminary continuing education events, workshops from groups like the Alban Institute, and other kinds of help that could better equip them for various areas of the church’s ministry, such as stewardship and church finance, leadership, and evangelism. Many of the recently ordained pastors had been trying to produce the resources they needed on their own. Both their resourcefulness and their ignorance of existing resources were something of a surprise to those of us who reflected on the focus group’s discussion.
A historical perspective serves to frame one of the most significant findings of the survey and focus group conversations. As the first data began to emerge from the most recent national census, newspapers across the country observed that Americans are experiencing a time crunch. Commutes are longer, work schedules intrude increasingly on family life, and families are frequently torn among conflicting commitments. Pastors are no exception. They are not immune to the sorts of factors that contribute to the general time crunch. However, they also fall prey to any number of specifically ministerial “crunches,” such as expectations among parishioners that pastors are “always on call,” confusion over the purpose and role of Sabbath, and difficulties negotiating family roles and the demands that overlap with ministry activities.
Seventy-four percent of pastors responding to our survey reported that the greatest stress they experience relates to having “too many demands on their time.” This was by far the most significant stressor in pastors’ lives. For the sake of comparison, “feeling drained in fulfilling my functions in my congregation,” the next highest reported cause of stress, was at 47 percent and—surprisingly, especially in light of the Klaas study— “criticism of me and what I have done” stood at only 11 percent.
The root cause of the time crunch was an issue that the survey failed to illuminate adequately, but when the research team spoke to the focus group, the cause became apparent. Overwhelmingly, the pastors in the focus group told us that they felt incompetent in determining priorities among the competing values and ideals that guide their ministries, and that they were unable to distinguish between goal setting with reference to their congregational ministries and goal setting in their own professional and personal lives. The pastors were, by a
nd large, using planning calendars and Palm handhelds. They scheduled regular office hours and generally took days off and vacations, but they did not know how to determine which meetings were more crucial than others, which ideas deserved closer scrutiny, immediate planning, or omission, and which committees required their attention, because they simply did not know how to critically assess the essential values that might guide them in their investment of limited time and energy. Many of them reported that they are “flying by the seat of their pants,” with little organizational consensus in their congregations (or comprehension in their own minds) as to how they should sort through the variety of issues, concerns, and crises that cry out for their attention. It has been said that being a pastor is like being a dog at a whistlers’ convention. The pastors with whom we spoke related to this grim joke.
The implications of this observation are compounded by the experience of many schools and denominational offices that coordinate or offer continuing education for pastors. While conventional wisdom says that awareness of a professional deficiency should provide the motivation to gain the necessary training and new skills, relatively few pastors who complain about deficiencies in goal setting and strategic planning (as well as other areas, such as church finance) seem willing to use their limited continuing education allowances to attend training in these areas. The continuing education programs that continue to attract the largest attendance offer high-profile “names” (celebrity scholars and preachers) speaking on biblical and theological subjects. However, the focus group with which we spoke expressed considerable interest in seeking out assistance in goal setting and strategic planning once it became clear to them, in their small group conversations, that such assistance might help alleviate the time crunch in their own lives.
Conflict Takes a Toll
Pastors consistently reported that interpersonal conflicts—the ordinary grind of disagreements over policies and goals and personalities in their churches—were among the more difficult aspects of pastoral leadership. This was not a surprise to the research team. But the aspect of these conflicts that caused the pastors the greatest distress was not the technical, but the personal. This was something of a surprise. The pastors felt fairly confident that they have some effective tools to use in dealing with conflict management and negotiation (some pastors bring these skills from prior careers, some from seminary course work, and others from print resources and workshops). They also said they felt confident that they could get additional training when they needed to. Their larger concern was the personal toll that interpersonal conflict takes over time on their energy levels, on their enthusiasm for ministry, and on their love for their congregations. They spoke of being worn down by the emotional damage of interpersonal problems within the congregation. One pastor likened it to the incessant drip, drip, drip of water torture.
Virtually none of the pastors said that the headline-grabbing conflicts, like the battles over gay and lesbian ordination that plague many denominations, cause them too much personal distress. They did not wish to diminish the seriousness of these issues, but, generally speaking, the pastors do not “live inside” these conflicts on a day-to-day basis. Rather, the small betrayals of trust, the corrosive influences of malicious gossip and backbiting, the apathy and despair in declining congregations (several of the pastors serve small congregations in rural communities where populations have been declining for decades), the thoughtless and snide remarks, the passive-aggressive digs among members and staff, the feelings of being stuck or trapped in a bad situation, of having their leadership subverted by retired pastors in the congregation or by the pastors who preceded them in a congregation but who refuse to give up influence there, of hearing the same complaints over and over again in the face of insolvable dilemmas—these are the kinds of things pastors said wear away their morale and try their souls. And yet they remain, on the whole, very excited about ministry and the future of the church.
Beneath the enthusiasm of the pastors with whom we spoke, however—just under the surface of the apparently very real joy and authentic excitement they commonly expressed—is the world-weary heart of leaders who are becoming better acquainted with human nature in all its frailty and fickleness. Like Dante’s analogy of the gambler losing a game of dice, reviewing every roll in his mind, sadly—but sadly wiser—and alone, the pastors with whom we spoke, early as they are in the vocation of pastoral ministry, reflect a hard-won sadness, a sapiential sadness they did not possess prior to pastoral leadership that senses the risks, the stakes, and the loneliness of leadership. But virtually none of these ministers (a mere 6 percent) indicated that they wanted to leave their current congregations.
How are these pastors dealing with the pressures they are experiencing? By grounding themselves more deeply in the life of the spirit and by finding community wherever it can be found. Both strategies are time-honored. Yet the pastors’ responses were not unproblematic.
The Pastor’s Spirit
Pastors consistently saw Bible study and prayer as crucial resources for personal and professional wholeness and effectiveness. Looking back on their seminary training, many of them emphasized the value of their biblical and theological studies, in particular, as contributory to their pastoral ministry. They said that they felt well prepared to reflect biblically and theologically on the lives of their parishioners, and that their preaching and teaching, their leadership of worship, nourished them as well as their congregants. However, relatively few of the pastors are involved in regular disciplines of Bible study and prayer. Sixty-two percent are not “involved in disciplined study of sermon texts,” 62 percent do not “have disciplined or scheduled times for study,” and 51 percent do not have “disciplined or scheduled times for prayer.”
A closely related finding was also somewhat discouraging: While pastors consistently recognized the value of having a pastor, a mentor, or a spiritual director of their own who could help them discern and deepen spiritually and emotionally, relatively few make consistent and disciplined use of such a personal resource. Of the pastors surveyed, only 41 percent have mentors at all. Only 22 percent make use of a spiritual director, and only 29 percent have utilized the assistance of a pastoral counselor or other therapist. In analyzing the data, our research team was compelled to ask, “If spiritual, emotional, and relational resources are as important to pastors as they say, what does it mean that so few of them have pastors, spiritual directors, or counselors of their own?”
These pastors also tend to approach Bible study, prayer, and reflection with their own pastors, mentors, spiritual directors, or counselors on an “as needed” basis—that is, when they feel especially burdened or in crisis, rather than allowing these resources to sustain and nourish them consistently. In the focus group, the pastors acknowledged that the lack of discipline and regularity in their seeking help could undermine relationships and exaggerate the lows they feel, but expressed doubt as to whether they would address the problem.
The lack of sustained and regular recourse to spiritual and emotional resources is compounded by the fact that most pastors (90 percent) understand their “listening and responding to people’s needs” to be a significant factor contributing to their personal and professional development (the same percentage as said that “Bible study and exegesis for sermon preparation” are positively contributory). While render
ing pastoral care to others is clearly rewarding, it can also drain the pastor of energy if not kept in balance. Balance is the key issue here to long-term spiritual and emotional health. The pastors with whom we spoke emphasize the health-giving dimensions of their giving care to others, but they do not seem to practice the health-giving dimensions of receiving care from others who could serve as their pastors and ministers. Care-giving was frequently practiced at the expense of care-taking.
In recent years, many have recognized that burnout is essentially a spiritual issue, whether rooted in hubris or vanity. The pastors with whom we spoke, despite their current enthusiasm, may already be unwittingly tempting burnout in their ministries by failing to recognize adequately the limits of their resources and their need to be nourished by others in those disciplined, purposeful, and deliberately “unproductive” spiritual exercises of Sabbath and play, regular conversation with trusted mentors and spiritual directors, prayer, and prayerful reflection on scripture.
The Nature of Loneliness
Pastors in our study also spoke often of loneliness. But it became clear in our conversations with the focus group that the loneliness of which they spoke was not the same reality for every pastor, nor did loneliness have a single, common root cause. For some pastors, loneliness was primarily a result of their physical distance from other persons. Loneliness, in this case, is a synonym for a particular kind of aloneness. One pastor said that, in her geographically isolated parish, it is not unusual for her to spend the whole day without speaking with another living person. When she is not making visits, she is simply alone much of the time.
Another pastor, this one serving on the staff of a large, urban congregation, spoke of a very different kind of loneliness. While he is frequently in conversation with members of the congregation and staff, he yearns for a closer, deeper level of fellowship with his colleagues on the staff. They are all busy doing the work of ministry, shoulder-to-shoulder, day-in and day-out, but they seldom talk about the world of ordinary concerns that friends share as a matter of course.
Still other pastors spoke of the loneliness of the leadership position. Few of those with whom we spoke saw ministry as something they do alone, but they were conscious of the peculiar position and role the pastoral office places them in as a significant “leader” in the congregation. While friendships with members of their congregations may—and often do—bless their lives, these pastors are also aware of a difference between the friendly relationships they have with members of their congregations and the friendships congregants have with one another, as well as the friendships the pastors themselves have with people (often colleagues) outside of their congregations. One of the most poignant reflections shared with us came from a pastor who had been “badly burned” when she confided church-related concerns to a member of her congregation whom she thought of as a friend, only to discover too late that the person in whom she confided was not trustworthy.
This pastor’s experience highlighted the difficulties some pastors have in negotiating appropriate pastoral boundaries. Several of the pastors with whom we spoke, in fact, related their continuing struggles with discerning and defining a clear sense of pastoral role and the limitations this role places on their ability to be intimate and open with congregants.
Those pastors who are in ministerial support groups, including lectionary groups, generally speak positively of the experience, often citing such groups as a significant resource for their emotional health and effectiveness in ministry. One pastor spoke of the members of such a group as “soul mates” with whom she had been able to share openly and deeply on a weekly basis. While her group was originally formed simply as a lectionary study group, it evolved into a support group. However, easily 36 percent of the pastors we surveyed do not participate in any such group, and often the groups that do meet (another 33 percent) function largely without intentionality, structure, or mutual accountability. They do not work to guarantee a “safe environment” for personal reflection, and, according to our respondents, provide little or no real support.
Unfortunately, this leaves many pastors in the position of keeping to themselves the most difficult and negative emotion-laden aspects of their experience, or of “dumping” most of their pain and frustrations on their spouses, partners, families, or closest friends. It can be wonderful, as one pastor reported, to be able to share his difficulties, even his anger and sadness, with his spouse (who is, incidentally, a pastor in another denomination), but there comes a point when the relationship is in danger of becoming overwhelmed by “church stuff,” particularly in times of crisis.
In contrast, another pastor explained that she does not speak of her pastoral work at all with her spouse. He is a member of her congregation and, because she wants to avoid coloring his experience of the church, she draws a sharp boundary between home and church. However, as she acknowledged, this makes it all the more difficult for her to find an appropriate emotional outlet, a place she can go “to blow off steam.”
One of the most creative approaches to countering loneliness emerged from a group of women who went through seminary together. Now, as pastors and associate pastors in congregations across the country, they remain in regular contact with one another throughout the year by phone and e-mail, sharing frustrations and joys, and they come together on the seminary campus each year to study with a professor. Because they have known each other for several years, they are able to relate at a deep level of honesty and openness, calling one another’s hand when necessary, and providing a quality of mutual support that is simply impossible for mere acquaintances to give and receive. And, because they are in regular conversation (not only in moments of crisis) and their knowledge of one another is more than episodic, they can discern longer-term trends in each other’s personal and professional lives against the backdrop of knowledge of the whole person.
Serving in Troubling Times
After meeting with our focus group, a member of the research team remarked on how “into” ministry these pastors seem to be. And they are. They have great excitement about ministry and great expectations, and they find joy in the pastoral vocation. But they also face sobering realities.
Times are tough for pastors. Pastors are facing a range of concerns and needs in the contemporary church and in contemporary society that is simply staggering. They struggle to discover resources that will sustain and nourish them and their congregations, sometimes against daunting odds.
When we met with the focus group on the morning of September 10, 2001, none of us could possibly have imagined what the world would be like just 24 hours later. Our pastors returned to their homes and awoke the next morning to a shattering new reality, in the midst of which they continue to serve, to preach, and to provide pastoral care, counseling, and spiritual direction. If they are to meet the challenges ahead, and if they are to meet these challenges not only for a moment but for years to come, they are aware that they will need something more sustaining than their enthusiasm alone. They have every right to expect that they will not be alone in discovering the resources they need.
1. All names, locations, and incidents are fictionalized to protect the identity of pastors surveyed.
2. The Favrot Fund is a Texas-based endowment that provides grants for charitable and educational institutions. The study we conducted was administered by Keith Wulff of th
e Office of Research Services of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Ian Evison, director of research at the Alban Institute, and Michael Murray, consultant and Presbyterian minister, provided valuable technical advice. Alison Riemersma, faculty secretary, provided administrative support. I served as director of the project. The Resources for the Journey of Pastoral Ministry Conference, developed on the basis of this study, featured presentations and workshops by Jackson Carroll, Laura Mendenhall, David Bartlett, Scott Cormode, and Marjorie Bankson, and was provided at no cost to recent graduates of Austin Seminary.