Hard Job, High Calling

From Leadership Journal
By Heidi Hall

Reports of clergy attrition are often exaggerated, but pastors still face daunting challenges.

Gordon Atkinson’s decision to leave the ministry didn’t come as an epiphany, nor was it a knee-jerk reaction to a particularly contentious church business meeting.

It began with a headache. A migraine. And then some anxiety, followed by its dark twin, depression. On Sunday mornings he started to feel that he’d rather do just about anything than preach another sermon. One day, after someone mentioned that a church doorknob was broken, Atkinson’s emotional response was disproportionate: overwhelming despair, as if someone told him the building had to be taken down brick by brick and reassembled across the street. But Atkinson didn’t know he’d be leaving until it popped out of his mouth one day in a conversation with a trusted staff member who was describing future plans for the church.

“I’m not going to be here,” Atkinson told his colleague, simultaneously surprised by his admission and the realization that it was true. In 2010, after nearly two decades as pastor, he gathered church leadership, resigned from the pulpit at Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, and began working full time at his side job, managing companies’ online presence.

“People in my church loved me, and I loved them,” Atkinson said. “But I felt like I stayed as long as I could stay, and then I stayed another three or four years after that. There was no gas left in the tank. I sensed the rightness about it. If I could imagine a conversation between Jesus and me, I’d say, ‘Jesus, I can’t do it anymore,’ and Jesus would look into my heart and say, ‘You’re right!’ I felt a moment of mercy.”

So Atkinson joined the ranks of former pastors. Such stories tend to prompt breathless reports on clergy attrition. But often the statistics that pop up online rely on poorly sourced figures.

You’ve likely read that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month, or that half of all pastors leave for a cause other than retirement. The most recent survey dealing with clergy attrition debunks those numbers, but that doesn’t mean being a pastor is easy.

The latest studies confirm that many pastors are dealing with major church conflict, are burned out, or are overwhelmed with the job demands.

A “Brutal” Job

These challenges are not unique to the ministry, of course. Stories of burnout abound in other professions. But ministry has some unique dynamics. Dealing with spirituality and individuals’ and a congregation’s relationships with God is unlike banking, or practicing law, or any other profession.

“When you attach spiritual meaning to human behavior and you are dealing with heaven and hell, who is in and who is out, it makes things infinitely more complex,” said Joshua Graves, teaching minister at Otter Creek Church of Christ near Nashville, Tennessee.

“It’s almost impossible for seminary to prepare you, because churches are people,” he said. “You can understand narrative theology and the integration of psychology and theology for pastoral care, but churches are full of messy, complicated situations. You see the best in people and the worst in people, sometimes in the same day.”

There are practical considerations to leaving the ministry, as well. Some pastors who aren’t bi-vocational can’t even consider a job change because they’re tied to one source of retirement income—the church pension—and don’t feel qualified to do anything else. Enter the job market with a resume that lists nothing more than a decade or two serving a church, former pastors say, and hiring managers aren’t interested.

Considering all of this, “brutal” isn’t too strong a word to describe pastors’ jobs, said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research vice president, in a Baptist Press article on a job-satisfaction survey of 1,500 pastors of evangelical and historically black churches.

Released in September 2015, the survey revealed the real-life challenges pastors face.

  • 84 percent say they’re on call 24 hours a day.
  • 80 percent expect conflict in their church.
  • 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.
  • 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.

But while about half of pastors are overwhelmed and wonder if they should quit, the study found only 13 percent left their posts over the past 10 years for reasons other than retirement or death.

McConnell said survey questions that delved deeper revealed problems around downtime. Nine out of 10 pastors agreed that they protect time with their family, but only two-thirds strongly agreed with that statement, and 85 percent agreed that they have a day of rest once a week, but only 59 percent strongly agreed.

If they don’t strongly agree, it’s unlikely they’re consistently doing it, McConnell said, and that leaves a large number of pastors who aren’t taking the time to refuel.

Pastors may face physical challenges as well. A much-publicized 2012 Duke University study of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina showed their obesity rate was 40 percent, compared to 29 percent of the general population. They also posted high rates of chronic diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension.

Ten percent said they suffered from depression—about double the national rate. At the same time, they were less likely than the general population to say their health issues affected their work. Researchers concluded that members of the clergy understand they should be taking care of themselves, but they simply won’t do it.

Interpersonal conflict ranks high on the list of challenges for pastors. The LifeWay survey asked pastors whether they experienced conflict at their last church; 64 percent said yes. Asked the reason their predecessors left, 26 percent cited conflict, the second-highest reason after “a change in calling.”

Those figures resonate with Julie Craig, who formerly pastored a small Presbyterian Church USA congregation near Milwaukee. She’s now a full-time nursing student.

It didn’t take long for conflict to emerge at Craig’s last church. Its former pastor stuck around, continuing to serve as their spiritual leader, Craig said, and he lived with various families in the congregation instead of settling into his own home. The expectations for what Craig would bring to the congregation and her actual skillset weren’t a match. She wanted to be a spiritual leader; they wanted an executive to increase membership and giving.

“The mismatch was exacerbated because we’re talking about holy things,” Craig said. “Some people thought that since I was working for Jesus, I should be more willing to do things outside my gift set.”

The local presbytery ended her call at the church, and she searched unsuccessfully for opportunities to use her ordination in full-time ministry before deciding on nursing school.

It has been a painful transition, Craig said, but one made easier through the support of an online community for clergywomen, RevGalBlogPals.org. She fills in for vacationing pastors, but she and her husband still haven’t found a permanent church home after six years.

“I think my relationship with God suffered at first and is better now, because I have learned that God is God, and God’s people are God’s people, and I don’t confuse the two anymore,” Craig said.

Surprised By (Vocational) Joy

Though stories like Craig’s abound, they’re not the norm. One of the most long-term, in-depth studies on clergy, the Lilly Endowment-funded “Clergy Into Action” study done between 2010-2013, supports the idea that attrition rates have been overestimated.

Principal investigator David Gortner, an Episcopal priest, psychologist, and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, said the Lilly Endowment requested the study as a follow-up to determine the impact of all the projects it had funded addressing the transition from seminary into ministry.

“Part of what motivated some of this funding for these projects was a cry in the early 1990s through early 2000s about attrition rates in the Presbyterian Church and other denominations,” Gortner said. “The numbers cited were anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent,” and that didn’t sound accurate, especially considering he knew that many transition from the pulpit to school or hospital ministries.

The Clergy Into Action study’s authors got their information from denominations themselves and found that the attrition numbers varied. The denominations also examined different lengths and periods of time.

Among United Methodist Church pastors, 7.2 percent reported that they’d left the ministry within 10 years of their ordination. Five years after their ordination, 4.8 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastors weren’t preaching in an ELCA church.

Between 2001 and 2013, 9 percent of Episcopal clergy left the ministry. Nearly a quarter of people ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA from 2000-2002 were either unemployed or left their ordination for a variety of reasons, a 2013 study showed.

The Clergy Into Action study compared those rates to other common jobs: More than half of people who earned undergraduate degrees in education either never taught or quit within 10 years, it found, and 17 percent of American Board of Internal Medicine physicians quit within 10 years.

A separate study by the National Association for Legal Professionals Foundation found that, in 2010, firms with 251 to 500 attorneys lost 19 percent of their associates.

“It may be that the most important question to ask, when considering the future of clergy formation, is not ‘How can we prepare seminarians so they don’t quit in their first five years of congregational ministry?’ but rather ‘How can we help seminarians be better prepared to meet the needs and challenges of a changing church in a changing world?'” Clergy Into Action concluded.

Overstating clergy attrition rates belies the joy most pastors feel at their calling, argues Lawrence Wilson, former pastor of Fall Creek Wesleyan Church in suburban Indianapolis. He became so frustrated last year at seeing that “1,500 a month leave” figure cited in religion blogs over and over that he’s taken to his blog to debunk the statistic and urge others to stop spreading the misinformation.

His research showed the figure came from a rough estimate in a 1998 “Family News by Dr. James Dobson” piece.

“Yes, some pastors burn out, but I started to add up the numbers, and that’s tens and thousands of people leaving, and it didn’t ring true,” Wilson said. “There are so many things about ministry that are good and really high highs: dealing with people at turning points in their life, baptism, marriage—all these pieces on burnout and lack of support didn’t describe the pastors I knew, even those dealing with difficult things.”

Wilson himself left the pulpit in April to become a freelance writer, editor, and speaker. It’s his second transition between a pulpit ministry and publishing—he was editorial director at Wesleyan Publishing House before serving Fall Creek—and said he simply followed a desire to go back to working with words every day.

Self-Care Essentials

Statistics aside, there’s no avoiding the fact that pastoral work is unique and challenging, and pastors say there should be congregational and denominational attention to minimizing the pressures.

Graves, the Church of Christ minister, is in his eleventh year in the pulpit and said everyone he knows with decades-long careers as pastors follows the same basic spiritual disciplines: first, having a community of other men and women in the clergy where you can confess sins and discuss family issues, anxiety, and any other problems; and second, keeping a regular Sabbath. At 1,800-member Otter Creek, he said, a pastoral team of lay members handles issues on Mondays, and the 12-minister staff is not allowed to work on that day.

Shelly White Wood, senior pastor of Orchard Park Presbyterian in Indianapolis, said staying in the pulpit begins with self-awareness of one’s own limitations. Her first career was counseling victims of domestic violence, but her call to ministry was a Road-to-Damascus one, the voice of God clear as she sat quietly in meditation one day. It’s a moment she’s never questioned, but there have been painful journeys with parishioners, harsh emails, the occasional sub-par sermon, and the reality of disappointing people.

In some ways, that’s like other jobs, Wood concedes. But other jobs have typical protections and pressure valves. For instance, a social worker must file reports and get feedback from colleagues, a banker can grab cocktails with coworkers after hours. She suggests more clergy accountability for self-care, perhaps requiring pastors to attend support-group meetings and report to church leadership that they went, or the requirement of a spiritual director and therapist for pastors.

That might be tough for unhealthy clergy, Wood said, but it’s a necessity.

“I am really self-aware and do a lot of preventative stuff like yoga, taking vitamins, drinking a lot of water,” she said. “But I’ve had funny things happen—such as at a major session meeting, my eye will start twitching or all of a sudden my teeth hurt. And I’m not perfect. I used to run, and I don’t run anymore, I drink way too much coffee, I’ve gained weight in this job.

“I have friends who have left. I grieve for their pain, the loss to the church and their feeling of failure. But after they work through it, they feel so much better. Life did go on. They did get healthier.”

Heidi Hall writes about engineering, religion, and culture. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.