As more pastors report struggling with their overall well-being amid the COVID-19 pandemic, record numbers of them including more than half of preachers in mainline Protestant churches, are now “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry a new study from Barna Group shows.
The study, released Tuesday, was conducted Oct. 12–28 and included 507 Protestant senior pastors.
It found that nearly four out of 10 pastors, or 38% of them, said they are “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry. This reflects a significant jump from the 29% of pastors who reported feeling this way in January.
When the data is broken down further into mainline and non-mainline pastors, it reveals that 51% of mainline pastors are “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry. Additionally, 34% of non-mainline pastors reported feeling this way about their jobs.
Joe Jensen, Barna’s vice president of church engagement, told The Christian Post that the growing number of pastors now looking to leave their full-time positions is cause for alarm.
“This particular stat, this is the highest we’ve ever seen it,” Jensen said, pointing to the burnout he believes many pastors are experiencing in the wake of the pandemic.
“We’ve been tracking this in our State of Pastors report that we did with Pepperdine University in 2016, 2017. We didn’t have this exact stat but we were tracking burnout. [And] pastors were feeling burnout and the risk factors involved,” Jensen said.
He explained: “2021 is the highest we’ve seen it, which is why as a company, quite frankly, we are alarmed … and we are concerned about the overall well-being of pastors. We’re concerned with how this is impacting the overall health of the Church. I really believe that [at] the heart of every healthy church is a healthy pastor. So this is definitely, almost four out of 10 pastors in America seriously considering quitting full-time ministry in the last year ... cause for concern.”
Jensen said he believes the pandemic has “had a significant impact” on the well-being of pastors based on data they have gathered amid the pandemic. He specifically cited the spiritual, emotional, relational, financial and physical well-being of pastors — a metric he calls the "five dimensions of flourishing."
“We’ve been tracking the overall well-being and health of pastors for a long time at Barna, but we’ve especially been keeping track of just how the pandemic has impacted pastors personally and professionally. We have been paying attention quite closely to these five dimensions of flourishing, where we’re tracking their spiritual well-being … their emotional well-being, their relational well-being, financial well-being and their physical well-being as well,” Jensen said.
“We’ve been doing pastor polls very consistently over the past 18 months since the pandemic started and in January when we asked that question about if they’re seriously considering quitting," he continued. "The 29% actually caused us to really perk up and pay attention because this question really is a culmination of a lot of the other questions."
“This one comes down to, how are they viewing their calling and their purpose in regards to all those other dimensions? It really kind of causes a pastor to focus on taking everything into account and looking at the future and saying, ‘Is this something I’m still called to do?’”
Jensen said in 2020 when the pandemic shuttered many churches, many pastors “were just in survival mode, trying to figure out how to get online when they weren’t, and how to connect with their people even when they weren’t there to connect with them.”
In 2021, as people began to emerge from lockdowns and churches have begun to open up, pastors are now struggling with the slow return of many of their congregants.
“As we went to 2021, especially as churches started to come back in person, we were starting to pay attention to, how did it impact their overall well-being when their people weren’t coming back? Like, they probably were expecting them to. And so 2021 has definitely had all these set of challenges for pastors,” Jensen said.
Recent research from Lifeway showed that while a majority of Protestant churches are now open for in-person services, foot traffic has been slow to return to the pews, particularly for black churches.
Compared to data from January 2020, the Lifeway data showed that as of August, 13% of churches were attracting less than 50% of their pre-COVID-19 attendance. Some 35% of pastors reported attendance levels between 50% and 70% for the period, while another 30% reported attendance levels between 70% and 90%.
Jensen was unable to provide a direct cause for the disparity between the number of mainline and non-mainline preachers who are considering quitting full-time ministry. However, he said there is anecdotal evidence suggesting differences in church culture could be the driver.
“A lot of the mainline pastors I talk to personally come from a liturgical tradition and the liturgical tradition … the way that their whole ministry philosophy is centered on this in-person expression of ministry,” Jensen said.
“I think that was severely disrupted, whereas a lot of non-mainline churches were a little bit more equipped. The midsized to larger churches didn’t have as much a transition into digital as maybe the mainline [churches]. So I think the digital transition, but more specifically the fact that they didn’t get to lead in a way where they could express, they didn’t get to lead in a way where they were able to express how they’re rooted in in-person and body ministry,” he explained.
“Also I think the fact that it was 51% of mainline versus 34% of non-mainline, that’s a significant gap, and I would say whatever attributed to that, I think the bottom line is that the mainline [churches], they have a lot to figure out when it comes to their tradition,” he added.
When it comes to the general increase in pastors looking to quit their jobs, Jensen said the healthier pastors reported they were using the five dimensions of flourishing. They were less likely they were to say they were considering quitting full-time ministry.
“One thing we do at Barna, we don’t make statements about causation from one stat to the other, but we do draw some correlation. So the correlation there would be if you look at all of those, so emotional well-being … 27% of pastors who said they did not consider quitting rate their emotional well-being as excellent versus 7% of pastors who said they considered quitting,” he said.
“That’s a considerable difference, that only 7% of those who considered quitting said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing great emotionally,’ or ‘I’m doing great relationally.’ And so those are the ones that stand out.”
Nearly half of pastors who did not consider leaving their jobs rate excellent across all five dimensions of flourishing compared to 14% of pastors who are seriously thinking about quitting, the data shows.
“I guess in summary I would say that overall health of a pastor, there is a correlation between their overall health and their sense of calling or purpose when it comes to their overall calling as a pastor,” Jensen said.
The current discontent among pastors about their jobs comes even as a Prudential study shows that 48% of U.S. adults, in general, are also rethinking the type of job they want post-pandemic.
Jensen, who was a pastor for 20 years, says pastors should be seen as people “just like anyone else.”
“You asked the question, 'Should pastors kind of maybe be a little bit different than the general population?' And I would say, I was a pastor for 20 years, and I would say I had some of the same struggles as the people I was leading,” he said.
“Pastors, the emotional mental strain of leading in this time, the uncertainty, the chaos, of just what’s going on in culture, how there are so many pressures that they’re facing both publicly and privately. I think that’s contributed to where a lot of pastors are at now,” he said.
When asked if the data reflected any generational disparities among pastors, Jensen said “this isn’t just an age thing.”
“Before the pandemic, we were paying attention to the average age of pastors in America. [It] was in the mid to late 50s. Obviously, a couple of years later, that trend is going to continue to go up as far as average age. We are seeing though that in the data, a lot of younger pastors under the age of 45 are struggling as well,” he said. “And so this isn’t just an age thing.”
The discontent forcing many pastors to rethink their calling also has serious implications for Church leadership, which Jensen notes injects some uncertainty about what the future of Church leadership will look like.
“Pastoral succession, it’s something that we’re paying close attention to because we are going to see, in the next two to five years, a big wave of pastors looking to pass the baton to the next generation of pastors,” he said.
“We don’t know how that’s going to shake up yet, but we are confident that the pandemic has played a big role in how pastors are seeing their ability to pass on the pastorate to the next generation. You know the big question is, what [does] the next generation of pastors look like?”
Jensen also believes there are practical steps that the Church community, in general, can take to help their leaders flourish and steps pastors can take themselves.
“Just to get really practical, I think congregants, elders and deacons, whoever it is that’s kind of surrounding these pastors within congregations, [should] encourage them to connect and have deep friendships,” he said.
“A lot of pastors don’t have deep friendships because their immediate community are the people that they’re shepherding, so it’s really hard for them to find meaningful friendships. I would encourage pastors to reach out to other pastors,” the Barna expert advised.
Jensen noted that pastors, in general, shy away from counseling and mentoring, but they need to understand that it’s OK to ask for help.
“Pastors traditionally don’t feel comfortable for a number of different reasons to seek out counseling, to seek out mentoring. You know it needs to be OK within a Church community and the Church culture for a pastor to say, ‘you know what? I need help.’ I need some counseling. I’m struggling emotionally,” he said.
“But to be quite frank, for whatever reason, a lot of pastors don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable within a leadership context. I really think that churches need to communicate and say, ‘Hey pastor, it’s OK not to be OK.'"
He added, “I think churches should provide counseling stipends for pastors and encourage them. Don’t let financials, don’t let the stigma of it get in the way of you getting the mental and emotional help that you need so you can lead more effectively from a healthier spot."
He further noted that in addition to getting help, pastors and the Church community should also use the challenges that have emerged in ministry from the pandemic to rethink the way we measure success and flourishing in the Church.
“I think the disruption of the pandemic is a great opportunity for pastors to really first of all stop and look inside. These numbers, I think, can actually be a good thing to wake us up to the reality of what we’re really called to do as pastors. Is this something that I’m really deeply called to? Is this just a job? Is this just a position? Or is it a deep calling at the core of my being?” he asked. “I’d encourage pastors to lean into this moment and ask yourself these deeper questions.”
He also wants pastors to “realize that you are not alone, adding: "There are other pastors who are experiencing the same exact thing. So if you are there and you’re thinking, 'Is there something wrong with me? I feel less spiritual because I’m questioning if this is something I want to do,' don’t give in to that sentiment."
“You look all throughout Scripture, and you see leader after leader comes to those moments of doubt and hesitation, and God was there for all of them. For Moses, God was there and said, 'I’ll give you everything you need'. For King David, almost all throughout the Psalms, we read where he was questioning if he could do this. If he could survive just all the pressures and all the conflicts and all of the adversaries and enemies,” he continued. “God reassured him of His presence.”
Jensen admits that because “this has been the most complex time, at least in modern history, to be a pastor,” new metrics of success are now needed.
“The pastoral position has always had its challenges through the ages now with just how, with social media, visible pastors are in so many different ways. There is an increased pressure to have it all together, to hold it all together. There is an increased pressure, especially in the last 20 years or so to be like a certain pastor,” he said.
The metric of success for pastors has been centered around things like the number of church members, how much money is being collected in tithes and offerings and how big the church campus is.
“And that’s why we’re saying at Barna, it’s time for a new metric of success in the Church, where we start to measure pastors and give a different type of metric because I really think that has contributed to this,” Jensen said.
“That pastors have been chasing this idea of what it means to be successful, and we don’t measure up with that. And then you bring in all the complexities of leading in a pandemic and not being relationally engaged with the community and with close friends and the complexity of digital ministry and digital engagement. You bring all those things together, it’s definitely a recipe for confusion and uncertainty and self-doubt,” he said.
“What we really need to start measuring are the things that truly matter,” he said noting that in 2022 that will be the company’s focus. “And we really believe that what matters right now is our people actually growing as disciples of Jesus in all the areas of their life.”