Thanks to the initiative and generosity of the Favrot Fund, a Texas-based charitable foundation, during the 2000-2001 academic year Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary conducted research into the challenges facing pastors in their first years of congregational ministry. The research was conducted in two stages: first, pastors who graduated from Austin Seminary within the past seven years were surveyed; then a focus group was convened from this population to pursue specific lines of inquiry based on the data collected in the survey.
The purpose of the research project was threefold: to provide reliable data to Austin Seminary to support its continuing efforts to provide the best theological education possible for its students as they prepare for ministry; to provide valuable information for the seminary as it prepares to host a conference addressing the challenges pastors face in gaining and maintaining resources that will energize their ministries and help to prevent burnout; and to communicate what we learn to other educational and church institutions concerned with the preparation of candidates for pastoral ministry. The actual data we received via the survey can be found elsewhere on this Web site. Below is a summary of our most significant findings.
1. The data set. The number of surveys mailed out was 272, of which 161 were completed and returned. The final response rate was 59 percent, which constitutes a very strong response.
The Office of Research ran two tabulations of our responses as they came in, the first after we received the initial 50 percent of the surveys, and a second and final tabulation after we received the full data set (an additional 9 percent). The first respondents tended to be the more negative, but when the full set was tabulated the responses moved toward the positive pole.
Most of the pastors responding to the survey are solo pastors (43 percent). Associate pastors make up the second largest group (30 percent), another 4 percent are heads of multiple staffs, and 1 percent are co-pastors. Most of the pastors are relatively new to ministry: 15 percent have been in ministry less than one year, 34 percent one to three years, and 33 percent four to six years. Just 10 percent have been in ministry seven to 10 years, and 8 percent more than 10 years. Since 82 percent of the data set represents experience in the first six years of ministry, our focus group was made up entirely of pastors who have served in ministry for less than six years.
Only 1 percent of the respondents were under 25 years old. The largest groups were in the 25- to 38-year range (28 percent) and the 45- to 56-year category (44 percent). Eighteen percent were between 39 and 44, while only 9 percent were 57 or older.
2. How tough is the world of the pastor? This is, in many ways, the most crucial piece of information we found.
The most reliable previous studies (the best known of which was conducted by Alan C. Klaas of pastors in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have found that 40 percent of pastors are experiencing mild to severe burnout, leaving many so dissatisfied with their present calling that they would quit tomorrow if it were not too costly to do so. In contrast, we found that only 6 percent of our recent graduates are no longer satisfied at all with their present calling, and only 13 percent rate themselves as “lightly satisfied.” Frankly, this total of 19 percent is considerably lower than we expected, especially when we consider the positive side of the same scale: 37 percent of respondents said they are “very satisfied” in their callings, with an additional 44 percent saying they are “satisfied.” Our focus group followed up specifically on this issue. We asked the 15 pastors who attended the focus group to tell us, “What are the experiences that are most energizing for you in ministry?” and “What are the experiences that are draining and dispiriting for you?” What impressed us most in these conversations was the level of balance most of the members of the focus group possess. Things are tough for them. They are not in denial about the difficulties they face. They are harried by multiple, sometimes conflicting and never-ending demands on their time and energy. They feel isolated and underappreciated some of the time. But they also spoke of the rewards they find in ministry: “thank you notes from parishioners,” “‘let’s do this again!’ responses from members who enjoyed a ministry or worship service,” “participation in support groups of pastors for lectionary study, emotional venting, mutual monitoring, prayer, academic study, fun, and fellowship,” “dealing with challenging, chaotic experiences,” “finding time alone for prayer,” and “hearing people talk about what God is doing in their lives.”
The pastors spoke openly about their frustrations and the energy they expend dealing with conflict among parishioners and staff (what appears most draining is the conflict itself, even if they know what to do to “handle” the conflict), with the apathy and despair among some congregations, with the misinformation that runs through some congregations, and with former and retired ministers in their congregations who have not let go of their previous roles of leadership. They expressed tiredness, sometimes simply because some are introverts in need of precious time alone for processing and rest, or, alternatively, because some are extroverts with no one to talk to. They spoke of the grief they experience as pastors losing people they love to illness, age, and accidents, yet they also repeatedly spoke of how profoundly important they have found their ministry in times of death in the congregation. They generally find themselves spiritually nourished by their ministries.
In the survey, however, 74 percent of the pastors reported that they had too many demands on their time. The time crunch on contemporary society, as we have seen already in data gathered by the national census, clearly affects those in ministry as well. This was by far the most significant stressor in pastor’s lives. For the sake of comparison, “feeling drained in fulfilling my functions in my congregation” (the next highest source of stress) ranked at only 47 percent, and “criticism of me and what I have done” (perhaps surprisingly, especially in light of the Klaas study) ranked at only 11 percent.
When we analyzed the time issue in relation to “ministry competencies,” we observed that, while most of the pastors use planning calendars and schedule office hours to help manage their time, relatively few (34 percent) engage in “personal and professional goal setting,” established “clear expectations with session or personnel committee” (28 percent), or reviewed and assessed “time usage with personnel committee or other support group” (12 percent). This finding was strongly confirmed in conversation with the focus group. The sense emerging from our analysis is that pastors are unable to critically assess where and how best to invest their limited time, what to do first and what to leave undone, because they often fail to have a clear sense of personal/professional and institutional goals and priorities. They are often flying by the seat of their pants with few concrete, organizationally agreed upon criteria to use in evaluating their time usage.
3. How well prepared did they feel for becoming pastors? This is a question of particular importance to those of us with responsibilities in our churches and in the seminary for preparing people for ministry. While we recognize that a seminary plays only a limited role within the church’s larger life of preparing people for pastoral ministry, we wanted to gather what information we could to help us evaluate our seminary’s contribution to the formation of pastors. Our consultants agreed that, while there is room for improvement, Austin Seminary should feel very good about the
feedback it received in this study.
The survey asked, “Do you feel the seminary did a good job of preparing you for ministry?” Overwhelmingly, 81 percent of pastors said that Austin Seminary did. Another 18 percent answered, “No, I was not ready,” and 1 percent were not sure.
The survey asked respondents to suggest courses that would have helped them to be better prepared. Interestingly, virtually all the courses the pastors recommended already are, in fact, being offered by Austin Seminary, though most of those recommended are elective rather than required courses. The list of requested topics included church finance and stewardship, administration, conflict management, and ministry in small churches, all of which are currently offered. Courses that are not currently listed among our course offerings included lay ministry development, practice in public speaking, and how to be a clergy spouse. Curiously, many of the courses the respondents recommended are not only being taught, they are actually required for all students in the M.Div. program, such as courses in pastoral care, Christian education, and theology.
When asked whether they would take one or more of the courses they thought the seminary ought to teach if it offered them today as continuing education, 78 percent of the pastors responded positively, while 22 percent said no. This is potentially important feedback, though it perhaps contradicts what we have learned in other studies, which indicate that attendance of continuing education events is driven either by denominational requirements (minimum annual standards for continuing education units) or the popularity of certain speakers. Of the pastors surveyed, incidentally, 38 percent said they had attended seminary continuing education events in the past two years. Several pastors in the focus group said that they continue to view returning to the seminary for continuing education events as a significant support to their ministry, not only in gaining or bolstering professional competencies, but also in maintaining personal relationships with professors and former classmates.
One of the more interesting pieces of information we gathered in the study pertains to specific areas of the seminary’s program of study. Pastors were asked, “To what extent did your seminary education prepare you in each of the following areas?” We then listed a variety of areas of ministry competence corresponding to theological disciplines and areas of study. Only 19 percent and 21 percent said that they were prepared by Austin Seminary to deal with administration and stewardship, respectively. This is not surprising since, until the academic year 2000-2001, we did not offer courses in either of these areas. We now have elective courses in both. Fifty-three percent said that they were prepared by the seminary to deal with church leadership (we offer an elective in leadership that has been well-subscribed since we reworked the course in the mid-1990s, but it is an elective, not a required course). Among our required curriculum only one course scored below 50 percent, and that was evangelism (49 percent). Other required courses were rated very highly as preparing students well for the practice of pastoral ministry, with theological reflection ranking most highly at 98 percent. Biblical studies followed closely with 96 percent, as did preaching and church history, both at 92 percent. Preparation for understanding the ethical issues facing Christians was placed at 84 percent, pastoral care at 81 percent, and understanding the cultural context of the church at 80 percent.
The study should, upon reflection, have included questions to determine how well prepared pastors were to teach, administer programs of Christian education, and lead worship. Other studies should endeavor to address these areas.
4. Do pastors have the resources and support they need to practice ministry? We asked a variety of questions on the survey to help us gain access to this large question, and we spent the majority of the time with our focus group following up on this issue.
Among the things we learned—and this should come as no surprise—was that those pastors who cultivate personal relationships among family, friends, and colleagues have the lowest incidence of depression and the feelings associated with burnout (feelings of futility, emptiness, cynicism, and so forth). This positive correlation was confirmed in conversation with the focus group. Pastors spoke often of how important friends, family, and colleagues were to their gaining and keeping perspective. Two members of the focus group discussed a group of colleagues (all women) they had formed in seminary, and how vital that group has become for mutual support in ministry. They meet once every year at the seminary for fellowship and study. Another pastor spoke of the pastors she served with in one community, how they met every week to pray and study together, and how they became a group of “soul mates” for one another. And, yet, the news here is not all good.
Pastors also spoke of the struggles they face in “dumping” so many negative emotions on their closest relationships, especially family. It is wonderful, according to one pastor, to be able to share his concerns with his spouse, who is also a pastor, but there comes a point when the relationship is in danger of becoming overwhelmed by “church,” particularly when things are not going well. Another pastor spoke of concerns she has for her husband, who is a member of the church she serves. She works hard not to talk about “work” with him, but this raises concerns about how effectively pastors are talking through the difficulties they face.
Pastors also reported in the survey and in the focus group how much it helps to have a mentor in ministry. Those pastors who have a mentor, however, make only irregular use of them, usually in moments of crisis, neglecting to cultivate the relationship when things are going relatively well. And, of the 161 pastors surveyed, only 41 percent actually have mentors at all. Only 22 percent make use of a spiritual director, and only 29 percent have utilized a pastoral counselor or other therapist. One question the planning committee asked itself is this: If spiritual, emotional, and relational resources are important to our pastors for their personal development, as they reported in the survey, what does it mean that so few of them have pastors of their own?
Those pastors who are in ministerial support groups (and these include lectionary groups) speak approvingly of the experience, often citing these groups as a significant resource for their ministry. But easily 36 percent do not participate in any such groups, and often the groups that do meet (in another 33 percent of cases) function largely without intentionality and structure, and provide little or no support, according to the pastors that attend. This may reflect, again, another aspect of the lack of personal and professional goal setting on the part of these pastors. Most of the pastors we spoke with simply were unable to differentiate clearly between institutional and personal/professional goal setting.
Many pastors (90 percent) understood their “listening and responding to people’s needs” to be a significant factor contributing to their personal and professional development—the same percentage as saw “Bible study and exegesis for sermon preparation” as positively contributory. However, while rendering pastoral care is clearly rewarding—indeed, for many it is the most rewarding aspect of pastoral ministry—it can also drain the pastor of energy if not kept in balance. Care-giving was frequently focused on at the expense of care-taking. Thus, nearly half of the pastors surveyed also reported that they feel “drained in fulfilling their pastoral functions.” Both the survey responses and the focus group conversations revealed that the pastors demonstrate an extraordinary willingness to make themselve
s vulnerable as they attempt to develop authentic relationships of trust with their congregations, but that learning when such vulnerability is appropriate is clearly much more difficult for them. Several of the pastors in our focus group related stories of having been “burned” because of their own naiveté and their desire to develop relationships of high levels of trust with people in their congregations who later proved untrustworthy. This underscored a struggle many have over the meaning of friendship in the context of pastoral ministry.
It is also perhaps significant that, while pastors consistently rank highly the value of Bible study and prayer as contributing to their personal and ministerial development, relatively few are involved in regular disciplines of study and prayer. Sixty-two percent are not “involved in disciplined exegetical 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.” The common theme, both with reference to the development of interpersonal skills and to Bible study and prayer, is regularity and discipline. Both are seen as important, but both are also victims of only periodic attention and regular neglect.
We were surprised that so few pastors in the focus group were aware of the existence of the multitude of resources for many aspects of ministry. One new church development pastor spoke of his frustration at not knowing where to go for basic instruction in evangelism, and was surprised to learn about a network for new church development pastors and printed resources on the subject. One of our consultants spoke of how some of the new pastors simply did not know they could and should expect assistance and information in a variety of areas of ministry from their denominations. Many of the pastors reflected a sense of “we’re on our own out there,” unaware that they did not need to be. We were also surprised at how positively most of the pastors viewed the denominational structures of their various churches. Most of the time when a pastor spoke of his or her presbytery—or conference, in the case of our United Methodist alums—they spoke with genuine and deep appreciation for persons in those judicatories who have helped them deal with a problem, or they referred with pride to work they were doing on a committee.
Our survey should have asked respondents to identify their denominational affiliation and the judicatories in which they serve. This would have provided another layer of information for our analysis.
We were especially struck by how “into” ministry the pastors in our focus group are. There is so much energy among them. They care about ministry. They believe the life of the church matters, and it matters to them that they are called to this vocation. They are not oblivious to the problems they face, but they are also deeply in touch with the joys of pastoral ministry. There is much here to build on.
I want to express my gratitude to the research team members for their work on this project: Keith Wulff, from the Research Services Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.), who oversaw the development and administration of the survey and provided crucial analysis of the data; Ian Evison, director of research at the Alban Institute, who also provided vital survey data analysis; Michael Murray, consultant and Presbyterian minister, who provided additional analysis and facilitated focus group discussions; and Alison Riemersma, faculty secretary, who provided administrative support throughout the project.