Growing Interest in Pastor Stress and Burnout

The issue of the biopsychosocial consequences of acute and chronic stress on church ministers has attracted nationwide attention over the last few years, and the level of attention appears to be on the increase. Our post Stress and Burnout Endanger Clergy Health published on August 4, 2010 rapidly rose to second all-time most-read among Stresshacker readers. Clearly, the issue stirs interest among all of us, and especially pastors, church leaders and judicatories, not only for its health implications, but also for the consequences of chronic stress on interpersonal relationships, productivity, job satisfaction, the danger of burnout and of increasingly rapid turnover among church leaders of all denominations.

Research


Obesity 18, 1867-1870 (September 2010) published the research High Rates of Obesity and Chronic Disease Among United Methodist Clergy by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Sara H. LeGrand.

Researchers used self-reported data from United Methodist clergy to assess the prevalence of obesity and having ever been told certain chronic disease diagnoses.

Of all actively serving United Methodist clergy in North Carolina (NC), over 95% (n = 1726) completed self-report height and weight items and diagnosis questions from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS).

The questionnaires were used to calculate BMI categories and diagnosis prevalence rates for the clergy and to compare them to the NC population using BRFSS data. The obesity rate among clergy aged 35–64 years was 39.7%, or 10.3% higher than their NC counterparts in the general population.

Clergy also reported significantly higher rates of having ever been given diagnoses of diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, angina, and asthma compared to their NC peers.

This research is the most recent, most completed and empirically validated. Clearly it does not address but a few of consequences of stress and burnout. Its results cannot be extrapolated to other organizations, other locales and other manifestations of stress. Nonetheless, it is valuable as a snapshot that identifies an area of investigation that is worth exploring.

 

Broadcasts

Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health was broadcast by National Public Radio on Talk of the Nation (August 3, 2010) with guests: Paul Vitello, religion reporter, New York Times; Robin Swift, director of health programs at the Clergy Health Initiative, Duke University Divinity School.

The broadcast discusses how priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are generally driven by a sense of duty to answer calls for help. The guests touch on research, which shows that in many cases, pastors rarely find time for themselves. The hypothesis of the broadcast is that members of the clergy suffer from higher rates of depression, obesity and high blood pressure, and many are burning out. Listen to Talk of the Nation: Clergy Burnout [30 min 18 sec]

 

Articles

Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work, written by Paul Vitello and published in The New York Times (August 1, 2010)

“Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”

Also published in the New York Times, Congregations Gone Wild, written by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (August 7, 2010)

“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.”


Peter Drucker, the late leadership guru, has been widely quoted to have said:

The four hardest jobs in America (and not necessarily in this order) are the president of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital and a pastor.

The setting in which this quote was uttered is unknown, but it continues to be reported as factual. A recent retelling of this quote can be found here.


Episcopal clergy ‘very stressed,’ but ‘very happy’, written by Herb Gunn and published in the official web site of the Episcopal Church USA (August 12, 2010)

“Through analysis articulated in the Clergy Wellness Report (2006) and the initial findings of the Emotional Health of Clergy Report (2010), we have observed that there is more to the challenge of clergy stress than fickleness of congregations and the cultural pressures of increased consumerism among churchgoers.

This research points to interesting conclusions that differ slightly from the research Vitello noted, as well. CREDO’ s research found that the only major health factor for which Episcopal clergy are at greater risk than the larger population is stress. Yet, remarkably, work-related stress, which frequently leads the general population to employment dissatisfaction, job loss or job change, exists alongside notably lower “turnover intent” for Episcopal clergy. Compared to the general population, Episcopal clergy report significant levels of well-being, self-efficacy and meaning in their work.”


What Pastors Want, written by Rich Frazer of Focus On the Family (2009).

“We in the United States lose a pastor a day because he seeks an immoral path instead of God’s, seeking intimacy where it must not be found.

Focus On the Family statistics state that 70% of pastors do not have close personal friends, and no one in whom to confide. They also said about 35% of pastors personally deal with sexual sin. In addition, that 25% of pastors are divorced.”


On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part III, written by Jason Goroncy and published on the Christian-themed blog Cruciality (August, 2010)

Mistaken attitudes to the issue surrounding clergy burnout are not helped by the frequent interchangeability of the terms ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’. While related phenomena, burnout and stress describe different realities. In his wee booklet Ministry Burnout (Grove Books, 2009), Geoff Read makes the point that ‘stress is essentially the physiological or psychological response to many different sorts of situations and demands … Burnout is one response to sustained exposure to certain sorts of stressors. A person reaches a state of burnout when the three factors of emotional exhaustion, detachment and sense of lack of achievement have reached a level of such severity that the person’s ability to function is significantly impaired’ (p. 6).”

 

Statistics

This is a list of sources that have published statistics, from various sources, on the state of physical, relational, managerial and financial health of church ministers across a wide spectrum of US denominations. Some of the statistics are second- or third-hand reports of data published elsewhere, and the original source is not always identifiable. Thus, readers are cautioned about drawing specific conclusions from these data.

Pastor Burnout Statistics by Daniel Sherman. Many of Mr. Sherman’s numbers below come from H. B. London’s book, Pastors at Greater Risk:

  • 13% of active pastors are divorced
  • Those in ministry are equally likely to have their marriage end in divorce as general church members
  • The clergy has the second highest divorce rate among all professions
  • 23% have been fired or pressured to resign at least once in their careers
  • 25% don’t know where to turn when they have a family or personal conflict or issue
  • 25% of pastors’ wives see their husband’s work schedule as a source of conflict
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family
  • 40% of pastors and 47% of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations
  • 45% of pastors’ wives say the greatest danger to them and their family is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual burnout
  • 45% of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health
  • 56% of pastors’ wives say that they have no close friends
  • 57% would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do
  • 70% don’t have any close friends
  • 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation
  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse
  • 80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure
  • Doctors, lawyers and clergy have the most problems with drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide.

The following pastor demographic and church statistics compiled by Mr. Sherman come from George Barna’s book, Today’s Pastors: A Revealing Look at What Pastors Are Saying About Themselves, Their Peers and the Pressures They Face:

  • 97% of pastors are male
  • The median age is 44
  • 96% are married
  • 80% have a bachelors degree and half have a master’s degree placing the pastorate among the most educated professions – but among the lowest paid as well
  • The average length of a pastorate is about four years
  • The median pastor salary is about $32,000 a year including housing allowance and other benefits, while the national average among married couples (1991) was nearly $40,000
  • 24% of the American population is 50 or older but 51% of church attenders are at least 50 years old
  • 40% of church attenders read the bible during the week
  • 30% of congregation members would seek help from their pastor during a difficult time in their lives
  • 53% of pastors believe that the church is showing little positive impact on the world around them
  • 60% of pastors believe that church ministry has negatively impacted their passion for church work
  • 51% of pastors expect that the average attendance at their church will increase by at least 10% in the coming year
  • 4% of senior pastors (say they) have a clear vision for their church

The following list of pastor statistics (and the comments that accompany them) was compiled by Jim Rose of Year of Jubilee. In some instances, the primary or secondary source of the data is provided.

  • More than 70% of pastors do not have a close friend with whom they can openly share their struggles. The dominant cause for pastors to leave the pastoral ministry is burnout. Number two is moral failure. These are alarming statistics.
  • 80% of pastors believe the pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families (Life Enrichment Ministries – 1998)
  • Only 50% of pastors felt that the education they received adequately prepared them for ministry. Most pastors rely on books and conferences as their primary source of continuing education. (George Barna – 2002)
  • 25% of all pastors don’t know where to go for help if they have a personal or family conflict or concern. 33 percent have no established means for resolving conflict. (George Barna – 2002)
  • 40% have no opportunity for outside renewal like a family vacation or continuing education. There is a very clear relationship between the amount of time a pastor takes for personal renewal and his satisfaction in his job. (George Barna – 2002)
  • At any given time, 75% of pastors in America want to quit. (Church Resource Ministries – 1998)
  • More than 2000 pastors are leaving the ministry each month (Marble Retreat Center 2001)

Several web sites cite research done in the 1991 Survey of Pastors by The Fuller Institute of Church Growth. This institute, connected with Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, does not have a web site and may no longer be in activity.  The original research could not be located for this post. The numbers refer to the situation as it may have existed among pastors over twenty years ago. It may indicate that what pastors are experiencing now is not new.

  • 90% of US pastors work more than 46 hours a week
  • 80% believed pastoral ministry affected their families negatively
  • 33% believed ministry was a hazard to their family
  • 75% reported a significant stress related crisis at least once in their ministry
  • 50% felt themselves unable to meet the needs of the job
  • 90% felt inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands
  • 70% say they have a lower self esteem now compared to when they started in ministry
  • 40% reported serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month
  • 37% confessed to having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend

Alan Fadling  published the following ministry burnout statistics in 2009, unfortunately without referencing the source of his data.

  • Churchgoers expect their pastor to juggle an average of 16 major tasks
  • Pastors who work fewer than 50 hours a week are 35 percent more likely to be terminated.
  • 87 percent of Protestant churches have full-time paid pastors.
  • 50 percent of all congregations in the United States are either plateauing or declining
  • Two-thirds of pastors reported that their congregation experienced a conflict during the past two years; more than 20 percent of those were significant enough that members left the congregation
  • The typical pastor has his/her greatest ministry impact at a church in years 5 through 14 of his pastorate; unfortunately, the average pastor lasts only five years at a church.
  • 90 percent of pastors work more than 46 hours a week.
  • 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
  • 75 percent report they’ve had a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 50 percent feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 40 percent report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 40 percent of pastors say they have considered leaving their pastorates in the last three months.
  • 19 percent of pastors indicate that they’d been forced out of ministry at least once during their ministry; another 6 percent said they’d been fired from a ministry position

The Francis Schaeffer Institute Statistics on Pastors was compiled by Dr. Richard J. Krejcir. The numbers and his comments are published here verbatim.

“Here are some startling statistics on pastors; FASICLD (Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development). This quest started in 1989 as a Fuller Institute project that was picked up by FASICLD in 1998.

From our recent research we did to retest our data, 1050 pastors were surveyed from two pastor’s conferences held in Orange County and Pasadena, CA—416 in 2005, and 634 in 2006 (I conducted a similar study for the Fuller Institute in the late 80s with a much greater sampling).

Of the one thousand fifty (1,050 or 100%) pastors we surveyed, every one of them had a close associate or seminary buddy who had left the ministry because of burnout, conflict in their church, or from a moral failure.
Nine hundred forty-eight (948 or 90%) of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued, and worn out on a weekly and even daily basis (did not say burned out).

Nine hundred thirty-five, (935 or 89%) of the pastors we surveyed also considered leaving the ministry at one time. Five hundred ninety, (590 or 57%) said they would leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work.
Eighty- one percent (81%) of the pastors said there was no regular discipleship program or effective effort of mentoring their people or teaching them to deepen their Christian formation at their church (remember these are the Reformed and Evangelical—not the mainline pastors!). (This is Key)

Eight hundred eight (808 or 77%) of the pastors we surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage!
Seven hundred ninety (790 or 75%) of the pastors we surveyed felt they were unqualified and/or poorly trained by their seminaries to lead and manage the church or to counsel others. This left them disheartened in their ability to pastor.

Seven hundred fifty-six (756 or 72%) of the pastors we surveyed stated that they only studied the Bible when they were preparing for sermons or lessons. This left only 38% who read the Bible for devotions and personal study.
Eight hundred two (802 or 71%) of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

Three hundred ninety-nine (399 or 38%) of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.
Three hundred fifteen (315 or 30%) said they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner.

Two hundred seventy (270 or 26%) of pastors said they regularly had personal devotions and felt they were adequately fed spirituality. (This is Key).

Two hundred forty-one (241 or 23%) of the pastors we surveyed said they felt happy and content on a regular basis with who they are in Christ, in their church, and in their home!

Of the pastors surveyed, they stated that a mean (average) of only 25% of their church’s membership attended a Bible Study or small group at least twice a month. The range was 11% to a max of 40%, a median (the center figure of the table) of 18% and a mode (most frequent number) of 20%. This means over 75% of the people who are at a “good” evangelical church do not go to a Bible Study or small group (that is not just a book or curriculum study, but where the Bible is opened and read, as well as studied), (This is Key). (I suspect these numbers are actually lower in most evangelical and Reformed churches because the pastors that come to conferences tend to be more interested in the teaching and care of their flock than those who usually do not attend.)”