A 2006 survey of ministers revealed that 89% of them have considered leaving the ministry, and 57% would quit if they had any other prospects.
Recently researchers from the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School did a study of 1,700 clergy finding that the instances for depression and anxiety were well above the national average.
There are a number of reasons why pastors struggle. Here are just a few:
1. Nothing seems insignificant
Think about some the areas where pastors spend their time:
From a pastor’s point of view, each of these events are ripe with eternal significance. There’s not a lot of room for phoning it in. The constant second guessing that goes on long after these events are over can be debilitating. Could I have said it better? Was I misunderstood? Should I have said that? Could I have done more?
And even when they’re not on, there’s pressure to be on. Something as simple as a poorly chosen word or a misunderstood gesture can create immense drama.The constant scrutiny pastors feel, both internal and external, creates constant, palpable pressure.
No one feels spiritual all the time, and the need to go through the motions can create feelings of inadequacy and hypocricy in spiritual leaders.
2. Everyone sees their job differently
Ask most people what their pastor’s job description is and you’ll get a variety of answers. And the smaller the church, the more those expectations are stretched across fewer individuals.
Not only are they responsible for religious duties: sacraments, teaching, crises care, and counseling, clergy need to provide vision and direction. Beyond that, they’re often expected to attend significant life events for people in the congregation: birthdays, graduations, weddings, even helping people move.
A minister never really knows what people expect from them—until they don’t deliver.
3. They deal with never-ending criticism
Something has to be particularly amazing to garner much praise, but the slightest disappointment solicits harsh feedback, pointed suggestions, and complaints.
Just like no single raindrop ever blames themselves for the flood, no individual considers their contribution to the deluge of criticisms clergy must weather. On top of the frustration this constant barrage of negativity creates, the fact that many complaints are in opposition to other feedback creates a sense of paralyses. One person’s tired of singing hymns and another wants more.
The fact that you’ll never please everyone is more than an adage—it’s a painful fact that often results in someone choosing to leave for good.
4. They’re constantly trying to make peace
More draining than the constant complaining is the constant war brewing between individuals or factions in the church—a war clergy are always trying to negotiate into nonexistence.
Feeling slighted or wronged over the pettiest issues, people are pretty quick to sow disharmony and build an army of other disgruntled or hurt individuals. A pastor may be able to quell the storm, but the unresolved relational issues crouch at the door and wait to be provoked again.
This leaves a pastor feeling like, not only are they responsible for people with nursery-level maturity, they’re failing in their goal. Every time they have to deal with some gossip-ridden battle royale, they rehearse every teaching they’ve ever given on forgiveness, kindness, and community, and wonder what they’re doing wrong.
I have had many a church leader tell me that they wish they could lock congregants in a room and tell them to come out when they can start behaving like Christians.
5. Office hours are a myth
I know hundreds of ministers who try and protect their personal time; I know zero who are able to do so. That’s just the way it is. The pastoral ministry is a calling and not a vocation, and you need to be available when needed. Real ministry never happens at convenient moments.
Sadly, there are always a couple people who keep you on speed dial and will intrude at the drop of a hat. These “extra grace required” individuals will suck up as much bandwidth as allowed, and are often just unstable enough that ministers never feel completely comfortable creating rigid barriers. Clergy will often resent these individuals and then feel crushing guilt about their lack of compassion.
The constant anxiety that the church is going to fall apart if they’re not available 24–7 weighs on them. And too often it’s confirmed the moment they try and take a vacation or sabbatical.
BONUS: They suffer crippling loneliness
The politics in many churches is kind of weird, and may pastors can tell you horror stories about the drama created by building too close of a relationship with one person, staff member, or family. Relationships for pastors can often dissolve into petty jealousies, suspicions, and congregational jockeying for imaginary power relationships.
Having friends in the church also means a minister can never really be open about the frustrations of their job. One misspoken word can create a mountain of mayhem, so they’re often guarded and closed.
There’s also the feeling of isolation a minister feels when a person or family they’ve invested much of themselves into decides, for whatever reason, it’s time to move on.
Pastors spend a lot of time feigning their part in a community that they never really feel free to embrace.
What can you do?
- Cut them some slack. Ministers are under a great deal of pressure (both real and imagined) and they need your support.
- Encourage them to be involved in relationships and groups outside of the church where they’re receiving friendship and ministry, too.
- Respect their need for boundaries.
- Take responsibility for your spiritual maturity. Don’t perpetuate gossip. Don’t create drama. Don’t be mean.
- Allow ministers to be faulty people.
- Be lavish in your encouragement and feedback about things you enjoy or find beneficial.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know about it in the comments.