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?