What Causes Pastors to Burnout?

Pastors have a fifty percent burnout rate. In the first couple of years of ministry, half of them will drop out. I expect this from nursing and teaching, but I didn’t know that the rate would be quite so high for the pastorate. Do our churches realize what we’re doing to our professionals? What about our denominations? When we put so much time and energy into preparing pastors for the ministry, isn’t it disconcerting to watch half of them leave within a couple of years? I have often seen people shrug off the burnout. They figure that the ones who were not tough enough left. We question their call into ministry, or find another way to blame the pastors for the failure.

But what if our assumptions are not true? What if blaming the pastor is not the solution to our problem, but compounds the problem? What if we’re losing our most gifted and talented professionals? What if it’s the healthy ones who are leaving? What if we ought to be looking at the employment situations instead of assuming it’s the minister’s fault? I wondered about this, so I asked my twitter community of pastors (I’m @CarolHoward) about why we fizzle out so quickly. This is the feedback that I heard.

The Financial Realities—No one entered the ministry to make a lot of money. We don’t expect to. But the problem occurs when it takes an awful lot of money to go to college and seminary. After seven years of no income and high tuition, most of us have tremendous debt, and when we take that first call in a small church or as an associate pastor, we simply cannot make the numbers add up. Too often, pastor salaries are decided by people who have never had to live with the reality of school loans, and the fact that their new pastor might be 40k in the hole never occurs to them. But the financial burden becomes too difficult for the pastor, and she has to walk away.

The Professional Loneliness—Clearly, after you become a pastor, going to a party will never be quite the same experience again. There are people who will tell you every problem they have had with religion, or every problem that they have in general. They will apologize for cursing or for drinking. Or they are entirely too happy that you’re a minister. And all of it can make a pastor long to be just an ordinary citizen of the world. The problem becomes compounded when the pastor is single. I recently went to lunch with a wonderful group of clergywomen, who explained that they do not tell guys their profession on the first few dates. They tell them that they work for a non-profit.

The Gaping Disconnect—There was also the sense that there was a detachment between the theory we learned in seminary, and the practical application that we needed in the church. For instance, we weren’t taught enough about finances, budgets, technology, or conflict management. I would add that we’re not taught evangelism in a way that is practically applicable either.

The Downward Trajectory—There was the difficulty of walking into a church that has been plummeting in membership for the last forty years. The frustration , anger, and longing to recreate the past looms large. Then when the new pastor walks in, he or she is considered to be either the bearer of salvation or the reason for the failure.

The Idea Dam—There was the palpable frustration over leaving seminary with great excitement and an innovative spirit for ministry, and then having all of that creativity blocked in the first few years. When a pastor is full of ideas, going into a declining church that is looking back, hoping to re-create the past, can be like a rush of water that hits a giant, concrete wall and has nowhere to go. As I look at generational theory, I can see that this could be a particularly frustrating thing for Generation X (those who are 28 to 48), because a leading characteristic that marks our Generation is innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, in our churches, our creative flow can get quickly jammed.

Then there was The Problem of Productivity–We live in a world of metrics, reports, and data. Our congregants want to see our output, they want measurable proof that we have been working, that our time has been used in a valuable way. But what do you do when you spend ten hours of your week, counseling a couple through a terrible divorce? What do you do when you read a theological text to prepare for a sermon? How do you measure those hours, when you sneak off to the hospital to visit the teenager who just tried to commit suicide, but her parents don’t want anyone in the church to know about it? What about those weeks when your work calls you to be out of the office more than in it?

So much of our time is filled with work that cannot be measured, sometimes it cannot even be accounted for, but it is incredibly valuable. Not only that, but there seems to be a lack of trust underlying much of this inquiry. It can be quite frustrating to be laboring overwhelming hours, and then have anxious members checking to see if your car is in the church lot or have others proclaim that you “only work one hour week!”

It is clear that we cannot continue to train so many people and have them leaving the profession after a couple of years. So can we begin to imagine churches in which pastors can flourish? How can we communicate these problems to our congregations? What can we do for pastors who are starting out that might ease some of these tensions? What do you wish someone had done for you?


38 thoughts on “What Causes Pastors to Burnout?

  1. I can’t argue with any of these as a reason for people leaving ministry in the first couple of years. But I would suggest that all of these factors compound another significant factor.

    When I was in seminary a significant number of my classmates went into ministry because of their positive experience of a church that loved and nurtured them, sometimes when most everyone else did not. Now this by itself is not a bad reason to consider ministry. It is a real calling to want to serve the church in order to continue to make it a loving and nurturing community.

    The problem I saw was that a number of people went into professional ministry so that they could continue to be loved and nurtured by the church. If that is someone’s main reason for entering ministry then they are going to be disappointed and prone to burnout. This isn’t to say that pastors aren’t loved and nurtured by their churches, but not in a way that fills the need I saw in many of my classmates.

  2. I’ve been ordained 20 years and it’s been the same story this whole time. Let me add that when I was in seminary “they” kept telling us that there would soon be a large number of pastors retiring and that would open up many new positions. That didn’t happen. The positions open now are as few and as difficult as they were 20 years ago.

  3. Thanks for putting this together, Carol. I have only been out of seminary for a year, and served a small church for 9 months as an undordained temporary supply pastor, so I really wanted to see more of what others had to say. Under professional (and personal) loneliness, I would say that a good support system is key, including family, outside friends and colleagues. I was lucky to have great colleagues in the presbytery, and I tried to get together with them as much as possible, but the reality is that the closest one was 45 minutes away, and most were 1.5 hours away. I would have loved to do a lectionary study group or another Bible study, but that simply wasn’t feasible in my last church. I am looking forward to being a bit more free now to live and do ministry as I like, even though I won’t be ordained for a bit. I am definitely feeling the need to put into practice some of the creative ministry ideas I have been having, along with my pastoral colleagues.

    Thanks, again!!

  4. Currently in my first call, having completed 5 years.

    It seems to me that a major piece of the puzzle is how the newly ordained pastor is received into the congregation.

    I know one (married, second career) female pastor leaving after 16 months, with no hint of where the next call will come from. In speaking with her, it was clear that she wasn’t welcomed by the congregation. They had gone years without an installed pastor, and recently had a retired male pastor (as supply) who was rather jolly. Actually, they were without an installed pastor for more years than with for quite some time. They found that they could save money when without a pastor, and use it for when they had an installed pastor.

    People didn’t give her respect, but they expected her to take care of everything. She went to a meeting and found that the carpet had been ordered. What carpet? The one going in the Fellowship Hall and the Offices. No warning, no chance to say anything about color, etc. And by the way, you need to get all the furniture out of your office by Monday – with no offer of help. Then a couple months later, the same thing, but this time with paint. It’s not your office – it’s the office we let you use!

    On the other hand, I was received with open arms and joy and great welcome. Yellow ribbons around the tree trunks, pantry stocked, freezer stocked, both bathrooms in the manse completely redone in the month since I visited (in neutral colors rather than the ugly green tile that was there, tubs replaced, etc), great attendance, help with unloading the moving truck (and with setting things up), a secretary who had been in correspondence in advance to see how I wanted things in the bulletin and newsletter, etc.

    I believe it makes a great difference whether people want you there or not. If people want you there, obviously listen to the sermons (commenting, asking for a copy, etc), then you feel affirmed. If all you experience is harshness, then it is tough to feel affirmed in the call.

    The initial welcome can get a person off on the right foot – or lack of welcome can get a newly ordained pastor into questioning mode.

    I am still feeling affirmed. Currently I am on a personal retreat. Next year I will have completed 6 years in this first call, and Session has said they will be pleased to offer me a three month Sabbatical – even though they have never done this in the history of the congregation (nearly 140 years). Each Christmas they pitch in to provide us with a large cash gift.

    It helps that membership, giving, and attendance have remained stable or have increased. It helps that there are children once again in worship (15-20% of attendance). But if we had not felt welcome, would any of this have taken place?

    I suppose it could be said that the congregation is healthier than the one with the 16 month pastorate. Either that or they are more hospitable. Both are probably true. But the welcome speaks huge volumes to the newly ordained pastor. Are the people glad that you are there? Do they care? How long can you love when there is no love reflected back?

  5. I want to second Shawn’s point: I think the call to seminary and the call to pastor are two distinctly different calls, but we don’t always recognize that. I have a friend who, after graduating seminary said, “I don’t think I’m a church person anymore.” Others won’t quite realize that until they serve a congregation for a while. That’s the natural ebb and flow of our lives. And I think it’s ok.

    I guess I want to push back on part of the underlying assumption of this post (though I’ve made many similar points to Carol in the past). Actually, as she’s written, the average length of time young adults today stay in one job is something like 3-4 years (check me on that Carol, my copy of TC is at the office). I guess I’d say there’s no reason for the same or similar not to be true for those young adults who serve as pastors. So I guess, while I totally agree with these reasons, I’m just not too concerned about burnout. I fully expect 50% of my seminary class not to be pastors in 10 years. And that’s not really freaking me out. But maybe it should?

  6. Carol, I am one of those pastors who is in danger of becoming one of the statistics. A second-career pastor, who is at the upper level of your Gen X age range, I left my first call after only 5.5 years. Let me put this delicately: leaving that call was not my choice, but was perhaps the only way to extricate myself from what had become a very difficult situation. I had convinced myself that between me and Jesus, we could steeer the situation back out of the ditch.

    Seems Jesus had other plans.

    My leaving was complicated by every one of your outlined reasons, except financial. I was lucky to not have school debt, and was paid fairly by the congregation, up until the meeting where I was told that the personnel committee was going to reduce my salary to presbytery minimum (a 30% pay cut), to reflect my “poor productivity.” But that was not a financial move; it was a strategic one.

    It wasn’t long after that until I was shown the door.

    I’m just six weeks shy of one year since this all happened. Although I have wanted to be in ministry–any ministry–this past 10.5 months, The need to heal has superseded any opportunities that may have come. Add to the professional losses the fact that many of those (save a precious few) who I had considered my colleagues have stayed noticeably absent from my life, perhaps out of a sense of embarrassment or fear that something like this could happen to them too, if they associate with “damaged goods” like me. Oh–except for the calls to come fill their pulpits during their summer vacations. Those occasions seem to be the only time they can find my phone number.

    As you can tell, I’m still struggling with sadness and loss. But I hear word that the congregation has moved on quite nicely. Judicatory leadership has kindly passed that word along to me. Sigh.

    Despite all this, I still believe the gospel. So, the situation is not without its miracles. That may be the only up side of this story.

  7. P.S. It helps that my electives were largely in pastoral care, and that I took a unit of C.P.E. in a large hospital. I generally listen well. It also helps that I grew up on a farm, as I am able to speak the language of the farmers and ranchers in the congregation, and have had many different work experiences such that I can relate with the vast majority in the congregation.

    Candi – if things would have stayed the same in congregations, then perhaps there would currently be an under supply of pastors, rather than an oversupply. There are fewer congregations each year, and even fewer who can afford to call a full-time ordained pastor. Consider what Megan wrote as becoming more the norm – or even 3/4 time pastorates.

    Megan – I’m in a similar situation, with similar minded pastors at a distance. I’m the convener for a group that meets in a town without a PCUSA congregation, as it is near the center of our group of 5-6 who usually gather (it was 8 of us this month). Most of us travel an hour to get there, with a couple traveling longer (but able to carpool). It’s a great group for support. We meet once a month to cut down on the amount of time that we are gone. We start at 11am, go to lunch at noon (ideas continue to perculate) and are usually done around 2:30pm. We meet in the meeting room of a small town library.

    Shawn – excellent point. I was blessed to take an elective which required reading “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller. I had plenty of time to read and consider it. The first day I got through 6 pages. The next day I read 3 more pages. The book is about the reasons people feel called to be a psychotherapist. But it is easily transferable to pastoral ministry. Had my family called me into this ministry? Is there something in my family that I desired to “fix” by going into ministry? Those were some tough questions to answer. Ultimately I got to see what God was doing, how I was being prepared and gifted, rather than what I might have wanted.

  8. Adam – I think you are right about the length of time in a “job”. Our seminary graduating class (’05) has a large percentage (nearly half) who have already left the first call (whether pastoral ministry or chaplaincy).

    Former – I’m saddened to hear the lack of support you have received. I try to make sure that doesn’t happen where I am. At least three of my graduating class have also been forced out – and in much less time than you experienced. One had around 20 months, and has been doing pulpit supply for 3 years now. One was called to another congregation in less than a year. One experienced being shunned in the community for well over a year before being called back to his sending congregation to start a new campus. (If people saw him coming down a grocery aisle, they would scramble to another aisle to avoid him – yet no one would ever tell him what he did wrong. He was an associate, and he understands why the lead pastor was dismissed – but no reason given to him. I considered all of these to be good friends, and I kept in contact with them all, and visited with them, prayed with them, and even financially helped them.) Do you serve on a committee? Go to Presbytery meetings? Check in with COM from time-to-time? I’m not trying to make you feel guilty – honestly. I am hoping you will find ways to connect and be in community. Finding a congregation where you can lead a Bible study could be a blessing. Having true ministry friends and support is important, and I’m quite saddened that you have not had this.

  9. After reading, commenting on, and to a small extent writing these kinds of posts for several years, I find my positing shifting somewhat. I find myself slowly coming around to the idea that the era of a paid pastorate may be coming to an end. I do not say this lightly.

    The problem that remains, for me, is how to train church leaders. Put bluntly, I simply do not trust this to be left up to local churches. I fear that this will leave us too susceptible to bad theology. That’s not to say that the current seminary system is entirely free of this danger (some would say this goes without saying), but I feel that it is a far better way to encourage “good theology” than any local-church model could ever be.

    But if one does go to seminary, one will have to be able to pay for it, and if paid pastorates are not an option, few will actually go to seminary.

    Even Paul (who did not exercise this right for himself) argued quite strenuously that people who work in ministry deserve to be paid for that work. I do wish that more or our churches played that teaching out in how they treat not only their pastors, but their other ministry workers. Unfortunately, I simply don’t see that happening, either now or in the future.

  10. Sorry for all the comments. I guess it’s just that I have time available this week.

    Have you seen the CIF’s wanting the pastor to keep track of their time? Big red flag! I would say don’t go there, but obviously someone will go. But I will say this – refuse to do this! That’s a huge lack of trust.

    I have read year-end reports from previous pastors that said things like: “Your pastor has made 630 personal calls upon members in the past year. Your pastor has attended XX meetings in the church, XX meetings in the presbytery, and XX meetings in the community on your behalf. Your pastor has performed XX funerals and XX weddings this past year….” Yikes! Is this what people really expect makes a person a pastor?

    I do understand that some seem to have done nothing visible in the community, and this can indeed be a problem. On the other hand, we need to help the people to see that they are ministers in the wider community – not just the installed pastor.

    There are indeed depressed pastors who just can’t seem to get motivated to do anything beyond what is absolutely required. This is one reason I keep close tabs on several other pastors in the area – being in frequent contact. Besides the mutual encouragement, we can share ideas for newsletters, and creative worship ideas. And we know that we are not alone.

    Former – I’m glad you continue to read blogs. It’s not the ideal community for most, but it’s certainly better than nothing at all. And it shows your desire to keep in touch.

  11. Mark – I believe my next call will likely be as a tent-maker. This is something that was in my head mid-way through seminary. (I was blessed with the support and savings to come out of seminary without debt.) This is the model that I have for the missional church, where offerings mainly go to mission rather than to building or salary.

    I’ve approached the topic with the current Session, and they are clearly not ready for the idea of me taking a paid position outside the congregation. I get the idea they would feel they are less of a church without a full-time installed pastor. I’ve suggested that if I received my support from outside the congregation that it would free up my salary so that a new seminary graduate could be called. I see huge benefits for this – including my continued presence and support (I have gotten to know folks fairly well, and would be available to preach, visit, teach, bury, etc.), and the energy and love of a new seminary graduate (needing a first call and a good start). But it seems the question becomes, “Don’t you love us anymore?” (Polity questions are tough as well, with about the only avenue being a co-pastorate – but only if the understanding is that it is not equal pay and equal time commitment.)

    Clearly there are benefits to being in ministry full-time. I’ve been able to tutor in local schools during the day, attend the coffee hours in the community, be present in courtrooms, attend meetings, meet with other pastors during the day, etc.

    In regard to education for those who preach, now is a very important time in the development of curriculum for C.L.P.’s. It will perhaps set the standard, and it will likely be set too low.

    Technology might result in there being more “campus” ministries, where congregations are bound together, and video displayed of the live sermon (and music, if necessary).

    CRAZY IDEA? – I see the possibility that the strength of our congregation, along with having a full-time installed pastor, might allow our congregation to be party to several denominations coming together (rather than groups of 10-50 gathering separately on Sunday mornings). I could see our congregation (around 50 in worship and strong giving) be the main host for a “community” church that allows several denominations to worship together and retain their identity. A local ELCA congregation has 10-12 in worship. A group that split off from a congregation that voted itself out of the DOC might want to worship with us. The nearest UCC congregation is over 20 miles away, and several drive there each week – perhaps our congregation could be the larger community in which they meet and worship with other believers. Is this crazy? Or is this a possibility in a rural context? We’ve already laid some ground work for this, as we have combined worship several times a year with three congregations in the area – of which we are clearly the largest and strongest.

  12. DennisS, thank you for your concern. To answer your questions, I was, up until a year ago, a rather high profile member of my judicatory–someone people considered a leader and I was often asked to assist with special tasks within the structure of local leadership. So, yes, I attended meetings, faithfully. I also serve the church as an officer in the leadership structure one level up. This is the judicatory of my formation, care, and ordination, for more than 20 years since my first ordained office in a church. I was not a clergy-come-lately here.

    But my forced exit from the church where I served as pastor transformed me from Hero to Zero, practically overnight.

    I feel more sad for my spouse, who has received absolutely no pastoral care–not even a phone call.

  13. Carol
    thanks for you words, as I get ready to leave one call and begin my next I have been spending time reflecting on my 12 years of ordained ministry. I have been wondering if leaving my first call was truly God’s desire or my desire for my sanity.
    I think DennisS has made a good point that we need to check on one another as pastors. I have been fortunate in my current call and in my previous call to have an Executive Presbyter who made it their job to be a pastor to pastors and took time to see when I needed someone to care for me.

  14. I have been thinking for years about a kind of “Teach for America” model of financing seminary to help new pastors deal with at least the first of Carol’s listed concerns. What if the denomination loaned candidates in the ordination process $20,000 per year (among the most generous scholarship packages at our Presbyterian seminaries) for up to three years, and then forgave the loans at $10,000 per year for each year of service in a qualified congregation?

    I know this doesn’t solve all the problems, but it could virtually eliminate seminary debt as one of the financial pressures, and the extra $10,000 of compensation would largely invert the financial incentive to leave the parish to find more lucrative employment.

    Could something like this (if coupled with better pastoral support systems) be workable?

  15. Thank you so much for the active, insightful and wise comments. I was helping with a Lewis Fellows event yesterday, so I didn’t have a chance to keep up.

    Shawn and Adam, I definitely think you’re right. Church can be kind of like making sausage (at least some churches…not all!), it’s a lot different to watch it being made.

    Former Pastor, That just sucks. Really. I’m so sorry. I know this probably won’t help… but your situation is very common. I’ve watched it happen to some of the most gifted people… I hope you have the strength to keep going. When I was in a difficult situation at a church, one of friends told me to look in the mirror and say, “It’s not about me.” It helped. It took a long time, but it made me realize that I was pretty good at this, and it allowed me to go to a place where I could flourish.

    DennisS, I’ve heard about that book many times (including from Sarah Silveman…). I’ll have to read it… Thanks.

  16. Pingback: What Causes Pastors to Burnout? « Church of the Good Shepherd

  17. Thanks, Carol — provocative observations, as always. 😉

    Sam – I like your idea. After having just completed almost two years as a seminary admissions officer, however, I will tell you that there simply is no money at the denominational level for this. The greatest source for scholarship money is the seminaries themselves, and while several PCUSA seminaries will cover 100% of tuition for PCUSA students, the remaining expenses (as you correctly point out) can still be burdensome.

    As for Carol’s post, I am humbled and grateful that I did not “have to” leave either of my two pastorates, but rather it became clear that the season of ministry with that flock had ended, and that God was calling me elsewhere. I remain on good terms with both congregations, and am currently looking to see what God has in store next. Having a full-time employed spouse is obviously quite a blessing in this circumstance.

  18. Dear Carol,
    Thank you for bringing this up. I’d like to add another factor in the high burnout rate for pastors: the 800lb gorilla that no one wants to talk about- Church Conflict. Christ came for broken people, so it is no surprise that our churches are filled with broken people. That is no surprise. Yet far too many of our churches are in chronic level 3 conflict. The congregation is divided and the concern is over which side will “win.” It is about near impossible for pastors not to get sucked into the vortex. The gloves come off when a church hits level 4, when partisans in the congregation seek to punish each other. There are few things more disheartening than a church fight. I am not at all surprised at the high level of burnout, or the relatively short tenure of many pastors. The stories I have heart are heartbreaking- who needs that kind of abuse? What chance does a newly ordained pastor have?

    We all know of churches who routinely chew through their pastors. Clearly we need to develop a cadre of specially trained interim pastors schooled and skilled in conflict management; someone who can hold a mirror and say knock it off! We need to develop criteria for COMs prohibiting such churches from calling a pastor until they have cleaned up their own mess. We need to develop mentors for pastors, someone who will walk through their first few years of ministry with them.

    I was blessed to be called right out of seminary to a congregation that saw itself as a teaching congregation, someone who would “break the kid in right.” They loved me, taught me, supported me, and in the end took great pleasure when I was called to a larger congregation. May God bless us with more congregations like that!

  19. I am a baby boomer who experienced a call to the ministry as a kid in a (at that time) rather stagnant and contentious small town in a fairly boring and conflicted small, past-orriented church. I guess I was lucky that way, especially in light of your excellent article and the excellent responses. I agree that candidates for the ministry need training in handling these danger areas and see them as the context for their service and calling, but not just to go along with the flow, but really stand with patient faithfulness counter to the conditions.

  20. Carol,

    Thanks for writing this post. I think one of the best things churches can do for their pastors is offer a regular sabbatical. I am nearly at the end of my first three month sabbatical, having been an ordained pastor 19 years. I have to say that it has been a great experience and has just about cured me of the burnout I was experiencing after 10 years in the same call.

    I also agree with the comments about finances being a problem for the newly-ordained. It took me more than a dozen years to pay off the debt I accumulated in seminary just from living expenses. There has to be a better way!

  21. This is a great post, and an interesting conversation. I agree with all the reasons in the original post, but I think there is another one missing–our inattention to the cultivation of a vibrant pastoral spirituality.

    I have been in ministry for nearly 10 years, and have been blessed with good relationships with church and community. Even so, from time to time I feel burnout approaching. Always, that burnout coincides with a drifting away from God. Sometimes I have stopped taking enough time for prayer and study and retreat. Other times, God and I just aren’t on good terms for awhile. Sometimes, my public Christianity becomes so overwhelming that I lose my private faith for awhile.

    On the contrary, if I feel like my spiritual life and practices are thriving, I can endure a mountain of conflict, stress and challenge without the slightest hint of burnout.

    All Christians, even pastors, have their ups and downs with God. I think this is another important factor in burnout, and one that we have a chance to address. I think seminaries, judicatories and local clergy groups should take seriously the spiritual preparation of clergy, along with the intellectual rigor and practical training. We should find ways to talk about our prayer life, our personal devotion and our doubts with one another. When clergy seem to be headed for burnout, we should not just send them to a therapist, but to a spiritual director or guide as well.

    I believe there is a particular spirituality that comes with being a pastor. There are unique challenges to preaching and leading worship when you and God are not on speaking terms, or at the times when your faith is exploding with joy and insight and your congregation is consumed with all the wrong things. There are unique blessings that come from the opportunities to be with people in sacred moments of birth, death, marriage, heartache and joy. I think cultivating this spirituality is one of the keys to preventing clergy burnout.

    Thanks again for a good conversation and post.

  22. Gordon MacDonald said that the modern church hires ministers to be preachers and fires them when they learn that they are not managers. Managing ministry and a life in the ministry has gotten harder, I believe, for all the reasons listed here. There is also the disconnect between our training to teach and preach and the church’s need for us to be change agents and para-professional counselors. Finally, we graduate seminarians with very little time given to “on the job training.” No pilot would fly a plane without hours under supervision, but I led the first session meeting I ever attended. Mentoring, better on the job training and changing lay expectations are all part of the solution. But so is having a greater certainty in one’s call from God. The Apostle Paul stuck with it because he understood that “woe is me unless I preach the gospel.” That kind of attitude transcends finances, loneliness, unmet expectations and even tragedies. Trust me, after 27 years in the ministry, I’ve lived through it all. Thanks for causing this reflection from your candid and thoughtful post.

  23. Carol, Thank you for posting this!!!!
    I have been ordained for 11 years and was licensed for 7 before that. I am a GenX pastor, currently without a flock. I’ve been looking for ways to bring to light the church’s abuse of the clergy. Last year I was forced to resign from my position as associate minister while in the midst of dealing with a benign head tumor. I personally believe that my tumor was in part a result of serving in the unhealthy environment your article describes.

    I have no doubt that I still have a call to ministry, but I am finding that my health is not compatible with pastoring, at least not under the conditions I left. How is it that congregational expectations, either written or not, put us into circumstances that could be considered violations of OSHA and employment law in other sectors? It’s no wonder some of our colleagues walk away!

    We are threatened by the very people we serve when we ask for a living wage and livable conditions. Being overseen and managed by volunteers who have little to no understanding of employment ethics and laws, let alone the difference between the profession of ministry and their own profession, leads to a very dissatisfied minister. And, what, are we just supposed to dupe ourselves into believeing that we are being blessed by these churches and we should be exstatic to serve them 24/7 with no regard for our own health or family needs?

    Add into your list the plight of associate pastors who are being abused and threatened by senior ministers who consider an associate to be a gopher, somehow “less than” servant rather than an equally qualified but perhaps less experienced colleague.

    I hope this issue comes to light for the wider church, and not just a private conversation between us disillusioned and disposessed clergy. In my denomination, at least, we have a “congregational ethics guidelines” document that is to direct how a congregation cares for its clergy. Unfortunately, many congregations have no idea it exists and don’t have the will to study it or improve themselves.

  24. Carol – thank you for posting this. I am a newly ordained pastor in my sixth month in my congregation. I was just having a conversation with my women’s clergy group yesterday about these issues. Churches really can chew up their pastors, trust me I know. I am serving a congregation that is in the midst of great termoil (financial, power struggles, shrinking membership) and it was not what I signed on for – these fires sprang up after I arrived. Burnout is quickly approaching & I am trying so hard to hold it off. I try to meet with my women’s clergy group & a missional pastor group at least once a month to get support & pray with/for one another. I pray & hope I won’t be looking for a new call in the near future.

    I really appreciate reading all of the comments thus far and I agree with you all.

  25. Carol: Thanks for continuing to bring up this issue. It is so important and you write about it with so much insight. For what it is worth, I know of only one other person besides me from my 1974 seminary graduating class who is still active in parish ministry. Many in my class never intended on going into the parish. But my guess is about 12-15 of us did. So 1 out of 12 or 15 isn’t much of a return on investment.
    I resonated very much with Shawn’s comments about pastors wanting to be loved. That is true of the helping professions in general. However, it is hard to help people when one of our primary goals is to be liked/loved.
    I also think it is important to point out that I have seen as many congregations seriously harmed by clergy as I have clergy by congregations. It cuts both ways. We have churches in the Presbytery where you and I serve that have prospered under one pastor, suffered under another. The clergy who are not successful typically blame the congregation. The congregations who don’t grow typically blame the pastor (although I am amazed at how many congregations suffer silently for decades with inept but loving pastoral leadership).
    I wish this discussion took place in committees on ministry, the floor of Presbyteries, etc. Until we find ways to deal with clergy burnout and the damage some clergy inflict on congregations, we are going to continue our steady decline in membership.

  26. In 2002 I joined several (mostly Disciples of Christ) clergy in writing an open letter to our deonomination about poor clergy care. It was well received by many but not so by regional and general leadership. The Alban institute released an extensive study at the time pointed to the 50% attrition rate among clergy within (not counting Roman Catholic). That seems to have held steady. But it also discussed the toll pastoral ministry takes the rest of a clergy persons family. Very unsettling information.

    I left full time congregational ministry 6 years ago, yet still preach some for a small, rural congregation in N. Texas. I often think about returning. But, honestly, congregational ministry is but one expression of church. It’s not THE church. I like the idea of finding other ways to serve.

    That being said now that I’ve spent time in another profession I can honestly say there are some things I complained about as a pastor that I would simply need to get over if I should ever go back. Things like spending too much time spent at the office. A pastor simply needs to learn to say ‘NO” or “let’s schedule some time and talk”. And the people need to hear that. It’s not a 24/7 job like we say it is. It is only if you let it be. People need to learn what qualifies as a true emergency or crisis. Most pastors are usually within 2 hours of reaching someone in their congregation if they need to. Most issues really can wait. True emergencies = calling 911. I think pastors sometimes enable the behavior in parishioners that in return causes burnout.

    But there are things that should be non-negotiable.

    1)The debt issue is spot on. And the problem has worsened. I know that when I attended Brite Divnity School a student could expect at least 80% of their tuition covered. That is no longer the case there. I can’t imagine the debt load today. As far as I know, the PCUSA is the only denomination that assists with debt after seminary. If a congregation can’t pay a full salary/housing (at least 35k PLUS pension, insurance, etc) then that pastor needs another income stream and the congregation needs to learn to adjust to that. And judicatories need to help congregations understand that. Again, I’m from the DOC, the lowest paid of the mainline denominations.

    2)Vacation. One month- no less. Period. And that does not include spiritual retreats, camps, mission trips, etc. That should be given to a first year minister. No questions asked. There are several denominations where this is REQUIRED. That is not the case in the Disciples of Christ.

    3). Sabbatical. Multiple ways to work out the details but every ordained staff person should get one.

    4. Two full days off a week. And yes, it is possible to take them most weeks. Again, what are real emergencies? That’s why we enable lay people to be present when a pastor can’t be there. If there’s one thing the big box churches have done well it’s the small group ministry. Folks their don’t expect to hear from the pastor as in a smaller church. If a person wants that kind of access to a pastor they need to find a multi-staff congregation that can handle the membership size or find a church less than 250. This isn’t being harsh or non-compassionate. Pastors need to model self care.

    Now for that other stuff.

    Productivity. The church, the Body of Christ, is NOT a business and we need to stop running it like one. At least we need to stop modeling congregations after an American/capitalist corporation. Because that’s when we starting giving into marketing and only think of ways to get people in the door so we can pay off debt (yes, I have heard this in a church before) and keep the lights on and fill pews.

    And the idea wall? Call me a cynic (if you haven’t already) but people shop churches like they do most anything else. I’m not sure people are all that interested in the creative, prophetic witness we learn about in seminary. I know too many pastors that can’t preach what they really feel needs to be proclaimed, for fear of losing the small salary they receive. People don’t really want to hear some preacher challenge their racism, sexism, homophobia or other prejudices.

    Again, I may sound like a cynic, but much of what I’ve said has been found true by the Alban institute and other organizations- and true because so many pastors experience it.

    Well, that’s my 2 pennies worth. Thanks for posting this.

  27. It is my studied opinion that the great majority of pastors are doing it in the flesh. Most that are don’t have a clue they are doing so or, if they do, how to transition over to Spirit empowered ministry.

  28. Or, putting it another way, Jesus commended Mary but our attitudinal approach to ministry is reminiscent of Martha. Therefore, we approach things in a way for which Jesus would chastise us and we blow off the one thing He says is needful.

    He says that apart from Him we can do nothing and yet we do many things based on surmise.

    And then we wonder why we burn out?

    Maybe we should try doing things His way. Could there be a bigger indicator than burnout that we have been doing things our way?

    Wouldn’t burnout be precisely antithetical to being in an easy yoke and carrying a light burden?

  29. Great post, Carol. Thank you.

    My two cents: I think that many congregations are simply in turmoil. And, speaking for myself, I was under the mistaken impression that I was entering one of those challenging but stable adult careers. You know, like a doctor or lawyer…and not like an itinerant musician or something else as “creative.” Most of us are entering an unstable context that demands very fluid skills and not traditional “management” skills.

    It’s tough. I have had to confess my own grief at the loss of the so-called stability of the profession. It’s simply not stable…even in the largest of our congregations it is not stable.

    To the question of training: We expect too MUCH from our seminaries. It’s only a three year program. It should be five…perhaps a two-year curacy ala some episcopal diocese would be helpful for all of us, but I am not sure it’s possible. We are simply tossed in the deep end. That’s the reality of it. Seminary can only give you the tool box. The tools we pick up along the way. There are a thousand reasons why this is so, principal of which may simply be that many congregations have forgotten how to pass on the tradition so they rarely raise up ministers and when they do they know nothing about their Bible or Church history. Seminaries are starting with blank slates. Sorry…too much of a rant there.

    It’s so challenging to be in ministry in any age. It just is. The cultural myth that says that ministers are representatives and recipients of stability is finally crumbling and we’re paying the price.

    For what it’s worth, I’m a Gen X Baptist pastor.

  30. Is turmoil a fruit of the Spirit?

    Sounds more like a work of the flesh.

    Even a quick reading of Galatians 5 should convince you that this is a problem of the flesh.

    The answer, then, is to get them out of the flesh and into the Spirit.

    Nothing short of a spiritual revival would seem to be needed. Fortunately, there are tons of resources available to bring this about.

    Sounds like perhaps you are a bit discouraged and disillusioned and need your spirit revived first, brother. Again, lots of resources for that.

    I was on vacation in Orlando last week and visited a dynamic and growing church that is doing a 10 week program called “Cleansing Stream” with amazing results.

    There are also programs now that are really very sophisticated which combine the very latest in psychological and neurological research with timeless biblical truths which assist the participants in overcoming harmful patterns of thought with healthier ones based on the Bible.

    There are just amazing things happening today. I think first you’ve got to start with a belief that God cares about these things more than we do and that He has not left us without remedies.

  31. Murray, thanks for the follow-up. Interestingly, I just preached a sermon series on Galatians. Five weeks of “Faith in Christ first…the rest will come.” And I agree with you, it is all about the work of the Holy Spirit and finding a way around myself (ourselves?) to let go and let God…And yet.

    The truth that we are burdened by denominational infrastructures and cultural expectations and institutional maintenance does not escape me. I wonder in my more lucid moments (and sadly there are few) if the whole thing doesn’t need to shift somehow, that the “old” way of doing things will simply not survive. We are collapsing under our own weight and to the point of Carol’s post, we are burning the candle at both ends.

    Peace to you.

  32. Stay with that “faith in Christ first.. the rest will come” thing. All of these other issues will eventually bow.

  33. Pingback: Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’ « P e r ? C r u c e m ? a d ? L u c e m

  34. Pastors leaving the ministry breaks my heart! In 2007 I started a ministry called Cultivate (getcultivated.com) that reaches out to pastors who are burning out.

    If we can help in any way let us know!

  35. Carol,
    Thank you for this article. I agree with everything you’ve described–the debt, the loneliness (I’m single and find dating impossible, not to mention that life on the pedestal or in the fishbowl makes even friendships challenging), the congregational decline. I’m pretty sure I’m burnt out. I’m seriously considering leaving the ministry, but the problem is, I’m a pipeliner (went to seminary straight out of college). i really don’t know what else I would do with my life if I did leave.

  36. Pingback: On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part V « P e r ? C r u c e m ? a d ? L u c e m

  37. This is probably the most helpful and perceptive piece I’ve seen in the flood of writing on the subject lately.

    The ‘Idea Dam?’ Exactly.

    It’s also discouraging when they require more and more (expensive) education yet seek to micromanage us more and more. Go to this “training.” Go to that “training.” Use they great canned programs we’ve developed.

    In the UMC there may have been a time when the bishop and cabinet were far ahead of the majority of pastors educationally. In such a setting it might make sense for them to have absolute power (“normal pastors don’t know much, and we know we can’t trust the laity to do the right thing”), but with required graduate school for entry level jobs and an increasing number with earned doctorates (not to mention years of experience), they still don’t trust pastors. And though their rhetoric toward laity has improved, they’re still not trusted, lest a whiff of “congregationalism” arise.

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