Pastoral Ministry: Enter at Risk

hazardousA quick glance over to the bookshelf beyond my desk, four titles catch my eye:

These titles remind me – as if I needed reminding – that the journey into pastoral ministry ought to be impossible without regularly passing a sign that reads: ‘BEWARE: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A DANGROUS AREA’, or ‘ ENTER AT RISK’, or ‘HAZARDOUS FOR HEALTH’, or ‘SPEEDING KILLS: SLOW DOWN’, or ‘SLIPPERY WHEN WET’.

One such sign appears in the latest edition of the Presbyterian Record (a monthly from the Presbyterian Church of Canada) and its cover story by Sandra Moll and Kristine O’Brien entitled ‘Breaking the Silence: The mental health of our clergy’. Also, a 2003 study undertaken by The Centre for Clergy Care and Congregational Health was recently brought to my attention. The study, ‘Clergy Well-Being: Seeking Wholeness with Integrity’, examined responses from 338 clergy from the six major protestant denominations in Ontario: United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, and the Pentecostal Assemblies.

stress1And the results are in:

* Ministers worked an average of 50 hours per week, but over 25 per cent worked in excess of 55 hours each week.

* In a 30-day period, almost 40 per cent of ministers took three or fewer days off.

* 80 per cent felt guilty if people saw them taking time off during the week.

* 78 per cent felt their position as a minister demanded perfection.

* 51 per cent indicated that they had suffered physically from stress-induced problems.

* 67 per cent said they sometimes projected job frustrations onto their families.

* 38 per cent sought the aid of a clinical councillor;

* 21 per cent a psychologist;

* 15 per cent a psychiatrist;

* 45 per cent the advice of a family doctor regarding stress and anxiety issues.

* 20 per cent had been diagnosed with an emotional condition;

* When asked to specify the condition, 16 per cent named depression.

* 62 per cent said they sometimes appeared outwardly happy while they were in emotional distress.

* 75 per cent were afraid to let their parishioners know how they really felt.

* Close to 49 per cent of ministers identified two or fewer close friends in their church or community.

* 60 per cent said evenings with friends usually involved ‘church talk.’

* 55 per cent indicated that they sometimes feel very lonely.

* stress-1181 per cent experienced a situation in which they required personal pastoral care in the past five years.

* Only 71 per cent sought and received such care.

* 40 per cent of ministers indicated that they had someone who was their personal pastor, but only 16 per cent indicated that they had a spiritual director.

* 80 per cent were sometimes jealous of the success of other ministers.

* 83 per cent believed ministry was a calling from God and the church. [How this informs/deforms one’s doctrine of God is significant in itself]

* 91 per cent agreed that being a minister felt more like a job than a calling.

* 77 per cent felt more like CEOs than pastors.

* 83 per cent felt their churches wanted a CEO, not a pastor.

* 94 per cent said they read Scripture for sermon preparation, but it rarely spoke to them personally.

* 86 per cent prayed regularly with others but had little time for personal prayer.

* 71 per cent did not feel spiritually affected while leading worship.

* 89 per cent sometimes felt like they were simply going through a ritual when they led worship.

* 70 per cent felt unfulfilled in ministry.

* 33 per cent had considered leaving their denomination.

* 60 per cent indicated that they had at some time considered leaving ministry.

stress-31All this caused me to pause and pray for those families in pastoral ministry (particularly my students), and then to recall words penned long ago by one who though he lived in an age when the shape of pastoral ministry was significantly different from our own, also knew the burden, demands and cost of ministry:

‘There are churches that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where men decay and worship dies. There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power. It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration. Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God. We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress. We occupy more than we can hold. If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth. And the preacher, as he is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers. And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension. In God’s name we may thwart God’s will. Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees. Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense. Before long the going power flags, the petrol gives out on a desert’. – PT Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987 (1915)), 119.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Forsyth’s wee essay, ‘How To Help Your Minister’. Until then, check out this short piece and long blibliography.


  1. Wow Jason, I remember hearing last year (or was it earlier) or some job satisfaction rating that came out and pastors/ministers were either at the top or high up on the list. I thought at the time, that it must be because they thought they were supposed to appear positive… which all further indites the whole state of the church. Why do most responses to this issue fiddle around with individual psychological stuff?


  2. Hey Jason. I wonder about some of the assumptions about pastoral ministry which are present in the concerns of the study itself. “70 per cent felt unfulfilled in ministry”; “71 per cent did not feel spiritually affected while leading worship”; “55 per cent indicated that they sometimes feel very lonely”. Here we are being presented not just with a picture of the current state of the ministry (in, I suspect, a particular socio-economic context), but one that presumes an alternative picture of ministry – the minister as “fulfilled”, as “spiritually affected while leading worship”, as anything but “very lonely”, as having a proper balance between work and life, as having a congregation who understands and has realistic expectations, about them – the sort of picture summed up in the title of the study: “Clergy well-being: seeking wholeness with integrity”. It is this picture, this “oprafication” of the ministry, that needs, I think, to be deconstructed just as much as what the (supposed) alternative of the pastor as the stressed-out CEO, not least because both suffer from a kind of myopia. As a real alternative to the pastor as stressed-out CEO, I would like to follow Donald MacKinnon in proposing Graham Greene’s equally stressed, thoroughly disillusioned, anything but fulfilled, utterly haunted by the judgement of God, desperately lonely, and yet also aware of a peace that is not as the world understands it, whiskey priest as an appropriate model for the ministry.


  3. Yes Andre. I was thinking the same thing. How we assess a lot of the stats depends on whether the whisky priest is our role model or the self-actualised professional. Some of the stats still haunt me – they have to do with the self-alienation that comes with clericalism, to the extent to which the clerics have internalised the values of the questions they are asked. If I am constantly ‘representing Christ’ (in the drama of Word and Sacrament) and never receiving the grace that comes to me as a sinner, or at least never acting that part in the regular drama. Constantly ‘taking responsibility’ for Word and Sacrament rather than receiving it then what does that do to me, let alone to the congregations perception of me. Does it leave me with a sense of expectation (both internally and externally imposed of spiritual heroism – there is a structural ecclesiological issue surrounding ordination that needs to be addressed.
    I very much like your point about the suffering that goes with the territory. But because of the ‘peace that passes understanding’ the priest ought to know that suffering goes with the territory. I think what bothers me is that there is little awareness of it in the world I move in and I at times mimetically imbibe the lie.


  4. Interesting results Jason. However, as someone who’s designed a number of questionnaires, I am interested in the methodology of the survey, as I believe many of the questions may be leading. Also, do we have comparative data from other occupations. For example, policing, teaching, social work, counseling, medicine. This kind of information will help to the put the “toxicity” of pastoral ministry in perspective.


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