October is National Pastor Appreciation month. This is certainly a well-intentioned notion, and many pastors will be appreciated in meaningful ways this month — but what about the rest of the year? I suggest that to truly appreciate pastors, congregations need to engage in an ongoing and honest conversation about the wellbeing of the work environment of their pastors, and make changes where necessary to help them flourish.
There have been some tragic headlines lately, as several prominent pastors took their own lives. The shock and grief for the families and congregations involved is no doubt profound. Our hearts go out to them, and we lift them up in prayer. These tragic losses have highlighted something that may come as a surprise to many churchgoers. Pastors have personal difficulties, sometimes involving mental health issues.
We know from recent research that the rate of clinical depression among clergy is at least as high, and possibly higher than the general population of the U.S. (Proeschold-Bell et al., 2013; Proeschold-Bell et al., 2014). Pastors often interact with death and dying issues, and are exposed to various forms of trauma in people’s lives. It is important to understand that sometimes pastors may have a history of adverse childhood experiences or trauma before they even enter into full-time ministry. They also experience a unique form of role immersion, which means they are called upon to live out their professional role 24/7.
We all relate more to our own perception of the role of our pastor, than to who he or she is as a person. As a result, pastors feel isolated. You probably would not guess that this is the case, as pastors are around people all of the time…but pastoral ministry is a lonely job. One of my dear friends and mentors, Dr. Archibald Hart, put it this way, “Pastors don’t get into difficulty because they forget they are pastors…they get into difficulty because they forget they are persons”. Congregations can also forget that pastors are persons.
The role complexity and ambiguity involved in pastoral roles add to the stress. Conflict and criticism are frequent experiences for most pastors. Consequently, the combination and accumulation of all of these stressors results in the hidden reality that pastoral ministry is an adrenaline-demanding profession (Adams et al., 2016). Chronic stress can lead to depression and other mental and physical health difficulties because of how ongoing stress impacts the human system.
Pastors certainly need to take care of themselves. Research suggests that flourishing pastors practice great self-care, including healthy lifestyle habits around exercise, nutrition, and sleep, creating necessary boundaries for work/life balance, prioritizing their marriage and family relationships, and cultivating personal friendships (Adams, 2017; Adams & Bloom, 2017; Bloom, 2019; ). Yet, this is only part of the picture. Dr. Matt Bloom, the creator of the Flourishing in Ministry project at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that unless congregations pay attention to the health of the entire ecosystem in which pastors live and work, in addition to the wellbeing of the pastor, we run the risk of unintentionally adding to the weight of unfair expectations on our clergy.
The Flourishing in Ministry research (Adams & Bloom, 2017; Bloom, 2019) suggests that a mutually supportive and respectful relationship between pastor and congregation is a key factor in promoting flourishing in clergy. Here are some ways that I suggest you can truly appreciate your pastor:
- Create clear, strength-based job descriptions that inform fair expectations, including a team-based approach and an average 50-55 hour maximum workweek.
- Develop policies around providing vacation time, on-call schedules for crisis response, and technology (for example, not expecting pastors to respond to texts or emails after 7 p.m. unless it is a true crisis).
- Provide healthy avenues for positive feedback as well as grievances, so that pastors are not the only person always responding to difficult church members or severe conflict.
- Establish healthy and fair mechanisms for defining and discussing ministry faithfulness and fruitfulness.
- Bring in consultants, denominational leaders, or other outside perspective to intervene when the environment becomes severely unhealthy.
- Introduce opportunities and provide resources for pastors to seek out restorative experiences, including having a hobby, retreats, continuing education, and sabbaticals.
- Support our pastors in seeking out spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and/or leadership coaching.
It is important to encourage our pastors to take better care of themselves, and even hold them accountable to doing so – but only if we also are taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the environment in which they faithfully work. By doing this, we truly show our pastors that we appreciate them.
Rev. Christopher J. Adams is an ordained minister and a clinical psychologist who conducts research in clergy health and well-being. Adams is a part of the Flourishing in Ministry research team, and Azusa Pacific’s Center for Vocational Ministry is the West Coast hub of this project. Focused on the well-being of clergy and their families, the Flourishing in Ministry project examines what motivates pastors and priests to be engaged in ministry—and what disrupts them from experiencing well-being in their work.