Nearly 3 in 4 Pastors Regularly Consider Leaving Due to Stress, Study Finds

A study by a leading "Christian think tank" has shown that stress and exhaustion in pastoral ministry causes as many as 70 percent of pastors to regularly consider leaving, and many of them actually quit.

In a survey, the California-based Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development found that about three quarters of pastors thought about leaving the ministry due to "clergy burnout," and about 40 percent of them actually did, most after only five years.

Based on the resurvey report, Citizen-Times spoke to pastors in Asheville, N.C., about what needs to be done.

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Pastoral ministry involves being available 24/7 to help meet the needs of the congregation, apart from preparing for Sunday worship and numerous other management responsibilities. Yet pastors are not prepared to deal with it when they study at seminaries.

"In most seminaries today, pastors aren't taught half that stuff," Rev. Bill Buchanan, former pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, told the Times.

"We are taught how to interpret the Bible, we are taught theology, how to preach and teach, but ministry and the church is changing so fast it is hard to keep up," added Buchanan, who started the Asheville Youth Mission after leaving the church. "All of these expectations are legitimate, but it is virtually impossible for one pastor to do all of those things well at once."

Many studies in the past have also found high stress levels among pastors and ministers.

A study conducted last year among more than 1,700 pastors found that clergy are at far greater risk for depression and anxiety, mostly due to stress, than those with other occupations.

The study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Durham-based Duke Divinity School interviewed over 1,726 United Methodist pastors in North Carolina and found that the clergy depression prevalence was 8.7 percent and 11.1 percent respectively, significantly higher than the 5.5 percent rate of the national sample.

The study also showed that the anxiety rate among clergy was 13.5 percent, and more than 7 percent of clergy experienced both depression and anxiety.

"It's common for public health professionals to ask pastors to offer health programming to their congregants," CHI research director Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell said in the survey report. "These findings tell us that we need to reverse course and consider how to attend to the mental health of pastors themselves."

In an article for The Christian Post, Dr. Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently identified seven greatest pain points of pastors, based on nearly 200 separate communications he received from various social media interactions, emails, and a few phone calls.

These included criticism and conflict, family problems, stress, depression, burnout, sexual problems and financial problems.

"Expectations of pastors can be unrealistic," Rainer wrote. "Pastors are often expected to attend multiple meetings, to visit countless congregants, to prepare sermons with excellence, to provide ongoing strategic leadership, to conduct weddings and funerals, and to be involved in the community. Many pastors don't know how or when to say 'no.' And many are not good at delegating, or they really don't have anyone who can handle some of their responsibilities."

In a national survey of Protestant pastors, LifeWay Research found in 2012 that more than one-half of pastors were discouraged. "I suspect that if we surveyed pastors over just a few months, we would find that almost all of them experience deep discouragement," Rainer said.

Faith leaders in Asheville told Citizen-Times that a key reason behind clergy burnout is that many pastors do not set boundaries allowing themselves time away from their church responsibilities.

Other reasons cited include a lack of enriching activities and relationships outside the church, always nurturing others while rarely getting nurtured, not being able to spend enough time with family, and an absence of general self-care needed for holistic development.

However, it is possible for pastors to have a successful and healthy ministry, faith leaders told the newspaper. For that, pastors must tell church leaders openly what they need to nurture themselves so that in turn they can best nurture their congregations, they said. Pastors must also have meaningful lives outside the church community.

The importance of having peer support must not be underestimated either, said Siler.

"This one thing I do know. Pastors need our prayers more than ever," Rainer wrote. "They need our support and encouragement. I am committed to pray for my pastor every day, even if it's only for a minute or so."

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