Is your pastor at risk of burnout? Over the last few years, I have participated in the Pulpit and Pew Project, funded by the Lilly Foundation and administered through Duke University. This group was formed to study the status of pastoral leadership in America and to recommend best practices for ministry.
Recently, the group received a study related to the reasons why clergy leave the pastoral ministry. Based upon this report by Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, the four primary reasons that pastors leave the pastoral ministry are described below.
Factor One: Concerns over the “call” or the congregation.
Many pastors leave the pastoral ministry because they discover that pastoral ministry is not a good fit for them as originally thought. The majority of pastors reported leaving simply because they preferred another type of ministry or vocation. Many pastors find that their skills are a better fit for chaplaincy or campus ministry of some other form of non-parish based ministry. Others leave to pursue or are offered secular employment.
For some, feelings of disillusionment over the direction of congregations today fuel the decision to minister in other settings. Some simply find their personalities are not well-suited to pursue the “fuzzy goals” of congregations.
To the extent that your pastor feels a strong sense of call to the pastoral vocation and maintains a sense of hope about congregations in America, he or she is less likely to experience burnout.
Factor Two: Conflict with staff or laity in the congregation.
Conflict with staff or members of the congregation was a frequent reason cited by clergy who had left the pastoral ministry. The majority of pastors who had left pastoral ministry recalled stories of stress faced as a result of challenges within the congregation during the last year of their ministry position.
About one-third of congregations pastored by those in the sample experienced a serious conflict during their tenure. “Pastoral leadership style” was the most frequently cited reason for the conflict.
Clarifying expectations is a key factor in helping your pastor avoid burnout. While conflict is normal in all organizations, if your congregation has taken sides and can no longer focus upon the issues of the conflict, this is high risk factor for your pastor.
Factor Three: Conflict with the denomination or its officials.
To the extent that the relationship between your pastor and your denomination is healthy, your pastor is less at risk of burnout or leaving the pastoral ministry.
Unhealthy relationships can take many forms, including: dissatisfaction over where your pastor was “placed” by the bishop or executive, feeling that the denomination itself lacks vision or is sending conflicting messages to congregations about the criteria for successful leadership, or feeling like the denominational official took the side of the congregation during a conflict intervention.
Healthy denominational relationships enhance healthy clergy.
Factor Four: Needs of the family cannot be met.
Many pastors reported leaving the pastoral ministry because the needs of their families could not adequately be met by staying in the pastoral ministry. The fact that one half of congregations today are found in towns of less than 10,000 and rural areas can make it difficult for spouses to pursue their careers.
Clergy salaries often do not allow for the pastor to be the only wage earner in the family. Others left because the demands of the ministry did not allow for adequate time with family.
Pastors sometimes talk about living in a “glass house.” Marital problems and problems with children often are much more exposed in a clergy household. When problems become public, some congregations are more supportive than others.
To the extent that your congregation is caring for the needs of your pastor’s family, you are helping your pastor avoid burnout.
Jeff Woods is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Ohio.