Why Pastors Are Burning Out
If you are part of a church, there’s a good chance that your pastor is not all right.
A recent study from Barna, a Christian research organization, showed that pastors are struggling with burnout at unprecedented levels. Barna reports that in March 2022, “the percentage of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year sits at 42 percent.” This sharp rise was first seen in November 2021, with the number of pastors who reported that they were considering resignation up nine percentage points from January 2021.
Younger pastors are particularly affected by burnout, the study said, noting that “46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older.” There were also higher levels of burnout among clergy women, compared with those for men.
As a priest who has many friends in ministry, I’ve seen the weary face of burnout with clergy friends across the country. Most pastors enter ministry because they love people and the Gospel and want to offer hope. They recognize that it is a great honor to walk with their church in good times and in bad. But after the past few years, pastors are exhausted and discouraged.
In the Barna study, the top reported reasons for clergy burnout were the same ones that people in the population at large face: stress, loneliness and political division. But these stressors affect pastors in a unique way. Pastors bear not only their own pain but also the weight of an entire community’s grief, divisions and anxieties. They are charged with the task of continuing to love and care for even those within their church who disagree with them vehemently and vocally. These past years required them to make decisions they were not prepared for that affected the health and spiritual formation of their community, and any decisions they made would likely mean that someone in their church would feel hurt or marginalized.
When my friend and the rector of my church, Shawn McCain Tirres, tried to explain what the past few years have been like for pastors, he had trouble finding words. He listed difficulties — the pandemic, church members getting sick and dying, political polarization, church members losing jobs and struggling financially, disputes over race after the murder of George Floyd, the 2020 election. “Everything snowballed,” he said. Friends and church members would check in and ask how he was doing. He’d smile and say he was fine and then burst into tears.
Most pastors walked with people through death and grief well before the pandemic, but the sheer number of deaths, coupled with the isolated nature of Covid deaths, has been particularly difficult over the past two and a half years. Shawn is one of the most lighthearted people I know, constantly laughing and joking. But, over the past year, he realized that he had grown deeply angry, as he put it, “not only with people and issues and society but with God.” When I asked him what he was angry about, his voice broke. He was quiet a long time and then said through tears, “Losing Bill the way we did. That’s a big one.” Bill was a member of our church who died of Covid after contracting it in his nursing home. Despite their age difference, he and Shawn were very close and would meet often. Unable to visit Bill because of hospital protocols, Shawn couldn’t be by his side. He gave his friend last rites over FaceTime.
On top of loss and grief, pastors have had to navigate deep divisions in their congregations over the right way to respond to the pandemic. When the coronavirus struck the world in early 2020, pastors were faced with having to build a digital ministry overnight, to address conspiracy theories and misinformation that some congregants clung to and to navigate ever-changing public health information. All with no training in how to do any of this.
David Leonhardt has made the point that while there are those who irrationally deny the severity of Covid, there are also those who are low risk and vaccinated but remain irrationally afraid of Covid. In all likelihood, in average-size congregations in America there are both sets of people and everything in between. The pandemic became politicized, and this has made any policy about masking, social distancing and other safety measures extremely fraught and likely to cause controversy and anger in a church.
Church leaders sought to protect older and immunocompromised people. But they also needed to be sensitive to the needs of the hearing-impaired, who were isolated by the use of masks. Then there were those with mental health struggles and depression, and those who live alone, who were particularly hard hit by the isolation of the pandemic. Then there were children with their social and spiritual needs, who had similar struggles with online church as they had with online school, and who sometimes also had difficulty keeping on their masks when churches met in person. Then there were congregants with cognitive impairment or dementia, who had difficulty understanding and were often frustrated by health protocols that changed month by month or week by week. Then there were those in the congregation who didn’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. There were those with certain intellectual disabilities that made meeting online impossible. They felt abandoned when the church went online. Others with specific health needs felt abandoned when the church met in person again. How were pastors supposed to address all of these conflicting needs?
A pastor in Indiana told me that no one in her church denied the importance of Covid precautions, but the new demands that the pandemic placed on her contributed to a sense of burnout.
“I never got tired of pastoring or thinking about Scripture and preaching,” she said. “I just started associating ministry with having to learn new computer programs and having embarrassing, anxious moments around technology.” She continued, “Over time pastoral ministry started to seem like a total absurdity. The world around me was on fire and I was stuck in an empty church building figuring out Zoom.” A Catholic priest near Pittsburgh said that, being young, he felt inexperienced even before the pandemic hit, so when it did, he felt utterly alone and inadequate. “About two months into the pandemic, I was fairly certain I was going to leave the priesthood,” he told me. “My anxiety and depression were crippling. I had trouble getting out of bed. There was no joy in the celebration of the Eucharist or the preaching of the Gospel. But I also was terrified of picking up the phone to call anyone at the diocese.”
But crises didn’t stop with the pandemic. To a person, each pastor and priest I spoke with said that it wasn’t Covid alone that led them to experience burnout. It was the relentless pace of issues, one after another. Everyone in their congregations seemed angry about different things and everyone was looking to them to respond in the exact right way to their anger. It was overwhelming. Michael Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Lincoln Square, a Presbyterian church in New York City. He told me that as Black Lives Matter protests were happening in his neighborhood in 2020, he noticed that “If I bring up justice in my church, some people said ‘How dare you?’ or ‘You are talking about it too much.’ But if I didn’t talk about justice or talk about it in a certain way, then people would say, ‘You aren’t talking about it enough.’”
Keller said that this points to a larger cultural shift that has implications for the church. “We’ve become less of a forgiving culture,” he said. After hearing from clergy members from across the country, Keller said that people “are leaving churches not because of theological differences, not because of scandal, but because of political and pandemic-related conflict and policies that people don’t agree with and they don’t know how to handle it.”
He described Covid, America’s racial reckoning and the 2020 presidential election as a “triple whammy” that left pastors feeling that anything they did or said would be wrong: “Anything you said, someone was about to leave your church, and that’s really demoralizing.”
Ministry in America is not sustainable if nearly half of younger pastors feel burned out and are considering leaving their jobs. To move forward and heal, pastors need rest. They need support. They likely need access to therapy. And like all of us, they need kindness and grace. When I asked Shawn what church members should know about pastors now, he said, “Your pastor is going through things that you likely won’t understand. You can relate, maybe, but not fully understand.”
He also recommends that, if possible, pastors take a sabbatical: “Your pastor needs a long break, probably longer than they think.” He has been helped by his own recent sabbatical, and also by church members and lay leadership who have been “attentive with care,” checking in and, without any particular agenda, asking how he is and offering kindness. Shawn also tells me how important it is for pastors to have a safe place, likely with people not in their congregations, to honestly and openly talk about the past few years. “There’s sort of an exorcism that needs to happen of all the tough stuff that a lot of times we didn’t have time to deal with on a deep level and we just had to bury and move on.”
A Presbyterian pastor in New Mexico told me that his discouragement and weariness have mirrored those of others in helping professions, including those of his wife, who works in education, and of his friends who are physicians.
But he said he is hopeful about the future. “People have learned,” he said, “and are continuing to learn that human beings are mortal, are made for community, not isolation, and cannot thrive for long in an environment of mutual suspicion. This is a great opportunity for the gospel to enter in, with a renewed vision for hospitality, a realization that we all fall far short, and that we were made for someone beyond ourselves and life bigger than the one we can eke out here.”
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