Overview:

A recent Christian news story highlights how pervasive burnout is among pastors—and how poorly congregations are dealing with it.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

It might not be a hugely-dramatic Big Quit, as some sources predicted earlier in the pandemic, but pastoral resignations are definitely on the uptick. A recent Christianity Today feature article explored some conflicting information about just how many pastors are leaving their churches. One common theme emerged from their story: pastoral burnout. Burnout has been bad for years in Christian ministry, but it’s crested in recent years. And I don’t think Christians, as a whole, are at all ready to help their pastors deal with it.

Burnout: Most pulpits are full, but apparently of “empty” preachers

Back in June 2021, Christianity Today ran articles about a potential mass resignation of pastors. One story mentioned a Barna Group survey that found that 29% of pastors had “seriously considered a career change” in the past year. That writer attributed this number to pandemic stress, then offered suggestions for avoiding pandemic-related burnout.

Well, Barna did more research on this topic. In October, they asked the same question again—and this time, the number jumped to 38% of pastors saying so. The updated report also mentioned that pastors more likely to answer that way were:

  • under 45 years old
  • female
  • with mainline churches
  • pastors with more than 20 years overall under their belts, but having less than seven years’ tenure at their current churches

Barna also discovered that “only one in three pastors is considered ‘healthy’ in terms of well-being.” They based this assessment on pastors’ self-reports.

None of that sounds good for churches.

A few days ago, this new Christianity Today article tried to paint a picture of the current state of Protestant ministry. On the one hand, they deny that there is a Big Quit going on at all, just maybe an uptick of pastors leaving the ministry.

But reading between the lines, pastors may face worsening burnout. They’re reconsidering their future in ministry for a reason.

Let’s start with the opening story of Layperson Guy

To begin their big feature, Christianity Today opens with the story of a declining church in New Mexico. They just can’t find a pastor. Like many small churches across America nowadays, this one faces ever-shrinking attendance and income. Their longtime pastor passed away in 2018. Eventually, they hired a young pastor right at the beginning of the pandemic. As COVID-19 ravaged attendance (and the congregants’ donations) further, that pastor left for a better job.

Ever since, the church has lacked a regular pastor.

Once upon a time, you never heard that kind of story. Just a few years ago, seminaries and Bible colleges churned out graduates like whoa. Those graduates vastly outnumbered available jobs. As a result, hiring churches faced floods of applicants. With so many candidates, church hiring committees rarely even bothered contacting each rejected applicant.

Yeah, I read a lot of complaints in blogs back in the early-and-mid 2010s from job-hunting pastors.

Those days are faded memories. Nowadays, churches spend months or years finding even one candidate for an open pastoral position. Some churches have been pastor-less for years, and not for lack of trying to hire anyone.

Eventually, that small church in New Mexico found a layperson willing to study to qualify to be their new pastor. Even then, he knows he’ll need to be bivocational, meaning he’ll need to get a day job. And he plans to pay rent at the church’s parsonage.

Ominously, he’s also totally looking forward to being on call 24/7 at this church.

Remember Layperson Guy. We’ll be coming back to him in a moment.

Reputable resources indicate less volatility

Christianity Today mentions two reputable sources: United States government reports and an extensive study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Both sources indicate that there may not be a full-on Big Quit of pastors.

In a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, they list all workers employed as clergy. Of note, their page does mention one important caveat:

Industries with fewer than 50 jobs, confidential data, or poor-quality data are not displayed.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Employment Matrix, Employment Projections

That assessment might include a great many small churches. But what they do report is 260,600 people employed in clergy jobs. (You’re looking for “Total Employment,” on the top line, a few cells over. It says 260.6, but it’s measuring in the thousands.) The government projects a rise of clergy workers by 2030 to 267,200.

As for the Hartford study, its creators published it in November 2021. Page 7 is quite interesting; it reveals that many pastors didn’t consider the pandemic their all-time hardest period of ministry. They’d seen worse!

Overall, the institute’s director considered the pandemic stressful and demanding for pastors, but as he wrote in a guest post for Julie Roys’ blog, he didn’t think it was universally that bad for all of them. He thinks the number of pastors leaving ministry has risen since the pandemic began, but it’s not exactly a “pending mass exodus.”

And he thinks pastors who were already facing burnout might be way more likely to leave than they might have been in the Before Times.

Burnout is getting bad for pastors

We’ve talked before about burnout in pastoral ranks. With few resources at their disposal that actually work, little to no personal support, and oceans of demands made of them, pastors get hit hard by professional burnout.

For years now, Christians have known that burnout is a serious problem. And also for years now, they’ve been unable to respond to that problem in any productive, meaningful way.

Oh, there’s no shortage of advice posts for dealing with pastoral burnout. That very 2021 opinion post I showed you above is mostly just a list of suggestions for managing unholy amounts of stress. Back in January, Barna Group offered statistics on burnout and more suggestions along those same lines.

None of this advice seems to have worked.

In April, Barna Group released a list of stressors for pastors. It’s quite telling. Not only has it not changed overmuch from similar lists I’ve seen over the years, but it looks like only more pastors are struggling—and struggling harder, and finding less support—than ever before.

That’s what that current Christianity Today article is saying:

There might not be a Big Quit as such, but what there is instead might be way worse. It’s not so much about empty pulpits, but more about “empty preachers.”

Consumer Christianity, except they’re all consumers

Many Christian leaders have sneered at what they call consumer Christianity.

This isn’t a new term. I saw a 2009 post from Christianity Today talking about it. The term may have come into vogue for evangelicals in the late 1990s, if this Google Books search is anything to go by.

Consumer Christianity is never, ever, ever presented as a good thing. Rather, it’s used as a snarl word by Christians who think they are way more hardcore than those ickie consumer Christians.

In consumer Christianity, Christians treat their churches—and even their god—as commodities to buy and use for however long it pleases them. Such Christians pick churches based on how much they enjoy the experience of belonging there. When they stop enjoying that experience, they seek out another that will please them more.

However, the people using this snarl word always forget that they, too, picked and chose a flavor of Christianity and a church that pleased them and worked for them—just like the Christians they hate so much. When the snarlers switch churches, they just use different words for their situation to make it sound virtuous and necessary. (The only moral church switch is their own church switch.) They accuse the pastor of “not preaching the word,” or “watering down the gospel,” or something like that.

They’d never imagine they’re simply doing what every Christian does: switching churches whenever they think it’s necessary.

Now imagine how pastors, especially the pastors of these hardcore churches, feel when their congregants do this.

If you can’t imagine, let me tell you: they really hate it.

When the leaders and shepherds feel like commodities and servants

Christians talk a very big deal about servant leadership. However, when push comes to shove they like to think of their pastors as the leaders and final “buck stops here” word at their churches.

They just treat their leaders and final words as servants.

For years now, pastors have identified this treatment as a major stressor. Congregations don’t allow their pastors to have much in the way of social support or real friendships. They don’t like it when pastors seek counseling or therapy for their problems. And they expect pastors to be on call every hour of the day, every day of the week to do whatever the congregation wants right then. All of a pastor’s duties must be performed without fail, immediately, and with good cheer.

If the congregant asking for tending is one of the church’s big rollers, one of the big spenders who basically prop up the entire church’s finances (and expects special treatment for it, do not doubt for a second), then the pastor must be doubly vigilant to please that person.

All of these demands get really stressful, especially in This Current Year when emotions in churches are running super-hot and conflicts about politics and pandemic precautions are coming to a head like never before. Many pastors across the sources I’ve provided today express great anxiety and stress over both, and they’ve lost a lot of congregants over the decisions they make after being pushed into corners and ordered to pick a side.

Apathy ranks as one of the top frustrations for pastors, according to another Barna Group study from 2018. One almost wonders what pastors would rather have: apathetic congregants or super-hyper-politicized ones demanding they vocally support Republican/Democratic politicians and denounce/support masks from the pulpit or they’re leaving.

And now, the “absolutely wildly wrong conclusions” part of the show

For their own part, Christianity Today thinks that burned out pastors may dabble in unapproved sex or abusive behavior to ease their stress. After pointing out that burned out pastors may cause a dimming of enthusiasm in other church staff, they write this caution:

But there’s a more sinister risk that accompanies burnout: “Burnout makes a pastor vulnerable to all kinds of ethical and moral failure,” Rivers said. “The more emotionally exhausted you are, the more vulnerable you become to making choices you would not make at healthier times and in a healthier frame of mind.”

Christianity Today, May-June 2022 issue

I don’t agree with this conclusion. For the same reason, I disagree that forced chastity in Catholic priests leads to them sexually abusing children. It’s fearmongering and blame-gaming, nothing more. Yes, some abusive pastors have used stress as an excuse to pursue affairs or groom victims. (Ravi Zacharias did just that to multiple women, as did Carl Lentz.) That does not mean at all that unaddressed stress leads inexorably—or even, as the magazine puts it, “a lot” of the time—to abuse.

I can kinda see what Christianity Today is trying to do here. They want to make congregations aware of how serious pastoral burnout is. But they make pastors look even worse as a group.

Fixing pastoral burnout: let’s suggest the same stuff again! This time for sure it’ll work!

Christians tend to like quick fixes for big problems. Maybe most people are like that.

(We talked about this problem more when reviewing the popular evangelical self-help book The Love Dare. Its completely-unqualified creators substituted busy work, canned prayers, and quick questionnaires for mature conversations).

Regardless, the old advice about burnout has always involved no-brainer stuff like delegating responsibilities, taking breaks to recharge whenever possible, creating a social support network, and praying more often. And yes, I’m sure most pastors would love to do that, if their congregations would only allow it.

Meanwhile, advice-givers have told congregations, in turn, to allow pastors to be human, to have differing opinions, and to enjoy some downtime, and also to give pastors regular encouragement and kind gestures. (Isn’t this what parents do with toddlers?)

Christianity Today profiled a pastor who experienced burnout so severe that he says he “became emotionally decoupled” from his church. Immediately, he said, he went to his elders. Their response: to sympathize and “sit in the dirt” with him to mourn, and then to send him on a long sabbatical.

Their response helped enormously. This pastor returned feeling rejuvenated. But this response blew the minds of other pastors. They couldn’t even believe it. Just having time to themselves when they’re not on-call 24/7 would probably feel like an absolute luxury to them.

Speaking of: One major cause of burnout is on-call 24/7 pastoring

Nowadays, according to a 2021 report from Lifeway Research (the printing and research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), fewer and fewer pastors agree with the 24/7 always-on-call model of pastoring:

Fewer pastors agree they must be ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day, declining from 84% to 71%. Perhaps even more telling, the majority of pastors (51%) strongly agreed with this expectation in 2015, while only a third (34%) strongly feel this obligation today.”

Lifeway Research, October 2021

That makes sense, for what it’s worth. That requirement has always been a serious stressor for pastors. Now that everything else has gone to pieces, it’s become a real thorn in pastors’ sides.

So if pastors are grumbling about being on call all the time, that may mean a subtle shift in how they will allow congregations to treat them.

But in the midst of that grumbling, along comes Layperson Guy to set pastors’ cause back a few feet.

Remember Layperson Guy?

According to the current Christianity Today, he’s currently studying to get accredited to lead that little church in New Mexico that needs a pastor. Once approved, he’s going to get a day job to support himself (making him bivocational). He’s even planning to pay rent while living in the church’s parsonage (which churches are supposed to use to house their pastors for free, but this church desperately needs money). When told about the on-call requirement, he replied:

“I was told, ‘If you move up there, you’re going to be right next door to the church. You’ll be expected to be on call 24/7.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s what I always thought a minister did anyway.’”

Dale Cook, to Christianity Today

Oh, dear.

Knowing what you know now, having read what you have up to this point, can you guess why Layperson Guy raised all kinds of alarm bells for me? He’s stretching himself so thin that there’s just no give left anywhere for him. I hope he can put his foot down if the stress gets to be too bad, because this whole situation sounds like the prologue to severe pastoral burnout.

All too often, it seems like pastors begin their careers amid fantasies of what it will be like. The reality doesn’t look much like the fantasy. Many learn this truth at great cost.

Amid all the changes pastors have had to absorb in recent years, that facet of their lives, at least, doesn’t seem like it’s changing any time soon.


Endnote:

At points, this story relies on evangelical-designed and -led research and surveys. In particular, I draw from Lifeway and Barna Group work. These are not disinterested third-party, nonpartisan research houses like Pew Research. As evangelical-run businesses, they design and conduct surveys to create products they can sell at a profit to fretful church leaders. All of these problematic facts lead to their work suffering from biases and errors in analysis. Where I can, I will always offer third-party and nonpartisan research to back up my points.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...