On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I

‘The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy’. – G. Jeffrey MacDonald, ‘Congregations Gone Wild’.

As one charged with both a responsibility for the training and supervision of pastors, and who has himself crashed – and watched many colleagues crash – against the rocks of burnout and depression, this is a topic of particular interest to me. To be sure, I am no expert on these issues, but I thought that I might use this forum to do some tentative thinking out loud about this topic over coming months. [Recent weeks have seen some attention in the media and around blogdom given to the matter of clergy burnout: see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. This is, of course, no new news to clergy, though others seems to be interested.]

As sobering as much of the reading and statistics are, on their own they are more paralysing than aiding. Still, they do point to part of the story, and so are worth recalling. So, for example, consider the conclusions found in the USA and published recently by Pastoral Care Inc., namely that:

  • 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
  • 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.
  • 95% of pastors do not regularly pray with their spouses.
  • 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.
  • 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors.
  • 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
  • 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.
  • 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
  • 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
  • 10% of ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
  • 94% of clergy families feel the pressures of the pastor’s ministry.
  • 80% of spouses feel the pastor is overworked.
  • 80% spouses feel left out and underappreciated by church members.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose a different profession.
  • 66% of church members expect a minister and family to live at a higher moral standard than themselves.
  • The profession of ‘Pastor’ is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above ‘car salesman’.
  • 4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
  • Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.
  • Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without cause.
  • Over 3,500 people a day left the church last year.
  • Many denominations report an “empty pulpit crisis”. They cannot find ministers willing to fill positions.

And the #1 reason listed in that survey for why pastors leave the ministry was that ‘Church people are not willing to go the same direction and goal of the pastor. Pastor’s believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow or change’. Perhaps this reflects MacDonald’s statement above.

[NB: Pastoral Care Inc. attribute these figures to research carried out by themselves, by The Fuller Institute and by George Barna. Mick Crowl has rightly, to my mind, flagged some concern about the accuracy of these statistics. Still, their general tone is confirmed in other findings.]

And Anne Jackson, in her recently published Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (pp. 48–9), lists the following (sobering) figures on (US) clergy health:

  • 71 percent of all ministers admitted to being overweight by an average of 32.1 pounds [14.59 kg]. One-third of all ministers were overweight by at least 25 pounds [11.36 kg], including 15 percent who were overweight by 50 pounds [22.73 kg] or more.
  • Two-thirds of all pastors skip a meal at least one day a week, and 39 percent skip meals three or more days a week.
  • 83 percent eat food once a week that they know they know they shouldn’t because it is unhealthy, including 41 percent who do this three or more days a week.
  • 88 percent eat fast food at least one day a week, and 33 percent eat fast food three or more days a week.
  • 50 percent get the recommended minimum amount of exercise (30 minutes per day, three times a week); 28 percent don’t exercise at all.
  • Four out of ten ministers (approximately 39 percent) reported digestive problems once a week, with 14 percent having chronic digestive problems (three days per week).
  • 87 percent don’t get enough sleep at least once a week, with almost half (47 percent) getting less sleep than they need at least three nights a week. Only 16 percent regularly get the recommendation of eight hours or more per night.
  • 52 percent experience physical symptoms of stress at least once a week, and nearly one out of four experiences physical symptoms three or more times a week.

I am not interested here to engage with the details of these statistics. To be sure, they indicate important and painful realties for many pastors, their partners and their children. I am interested here, however, in thinking more generally about this prevalent reality, and to exploring some theological and other resources that witness to more life-giving ways for pastors … and for the rest of us.

_______

Other posts in this series:

7 thoughts on “On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I

  1. Ministry is like serving in war. Few who hear the call to serve also hear the call to suffer that is a part and parcel of the Christian ministry and life. Paul succinctly pointed out that it is given to believers not only to believe but also to suffer (Phils.1:29). Sadly, many church members are looking for a place of comfort and rest, not a challenge to a life long, thankless struggle where most of the rewards are in the next life. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and other committed believers in the history of the Christian Faith accepted the fact that they were in it for the long haul, for a life of hardship. The Pilgrims summed up the issue very well, when they declared that their aim was to advance the Kingdom of their Lord and Savior and that they were willing to be the stepping stones for others to do it.

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  2. Thank you, Jason, for engaging this issue. I know you’ll do so with your characteristic thoughtfulness.

    Regarding the #1 reason for burnout: the pastor is not called to have a vision, or to ask people to go along with it! Our duty is not to set an agenda for ministries, but to help a few people to become better hearers and bearers of the gospel.

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that if we give ourselves to our legitimate duties we won’t experience conflict; actually, I expect we’ll encounter even greater resistance. But it’s a different kind of resistance, and one that doesn’t affect us in the same way. I think most of us pastors need to hear and understand Bonhoeffer’s warning: ‘God hates visionary dreaming’.

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  3. Also, Bonhoeffer directed his students never to complain about their parishioners, even in prayer. I think there’s wisdom in that direction. I don’t think that the problem is with the ‘church members’ and their treatment of the pastor. The problem is at least as much in our expectations and ambitions. Too many of us come into the ministry on the strength of our ‘natural’ gifts and expect those to carry us to the promised land. In fact, it is precisely this natural giftedness that has to be crucified, in order that the humility and generosity of Christ might transform us into the kind of men and women who know how to love others toward the Kingdom.

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