There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the state of health and happiness among the people who lead U.S. congregations. One widely-circulated blog post expounded on the stresses and strains that led one pastor to call it quits – not just from his church, but from the profession itself. The responses to that post led many observers to speculate about the “great pastor resignation.”
All that buzz led me to wonder if there is some barometer of clergy wellbeing that might be more reliable than Twitter comments. Are all the pastors out there ready to quit?
The Big Picture
Yes, there are some good sources for seeing the big national picture. PRRI.org does extensive research on American religion and is a highly reliable resource. They have recently released a report that focuses directly on the wellbeing of clergy in “Mainline Protestant” denominations.
Like many social scientists doing survey research, they define “Mainline” to include United church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist Churches, and the United Methodist Church. [Note: to get more on the history and demographics of these denominations, visit the very helpful pages at theARDA.org.] The current splintering of the UMC muddies the definition a bit, but this grouping can still tell us a lot about some of the important historic – white – Protestant denominations.
Because PRRI is interested especially in public policy and influence, their report leads by reporting that the average Mainline clergy tends to be more liberal and lean more Democratic than the average Mainline parishioner.
But that may or may not be related to questions about clergy contentment with their jobs. On that question (how often they are frustrated with their work), about one in four clergy say they feel frustrated at least once a week. But on the other side, three quarters report that at least that often they have a sense of making a positive difference in people’s lives. There’s lots more to explore in this report, which you can read here.
What About COVID?
A somewhat different angle on this question comes from the Exploring Pandemic Impact in Congregations (EPIC) project. They have been interested in tracking lots of ways the pandemic changed congregations, but they have also asked about clergy burnout. While only a small number of clergy report that they think often about leaving their current church (or the ministry entirely), the number who say the thought has crossed their minds at least a few times has risen considerably in the last two years.
By most measures, most clergy are handling the stress remarkably well, but there are indeed caution signs out there. Not surprisingly, things like financial stress and internal conflict make clergy think harder about leaving. Again, there’s lots more, and you can read it here.
“Despite the numerous stressors…clergy generally cope well.”
Resources for Health
A final source to note here is the work being done at Duke Divinity School. Comparing findings from 84 studies of helping professions, they found that “the moderate levels of burnout found for clergy, despite the numerous stressors associated with their occupation, suggest that clergy generally cope well.” Not only are the Duke researchers digging deep into the sources of stress – and strength – in the work of clergy, they are working to highlight things that help keep pastors healthy.
So how would you find out if your clergy are doing well? The questions on these surveys might be a reasonable starting point for a more anonymous assessment, but the best measure is a good conversation – preferably one that takes place regularly and in a supportive environment. Beyond the congregation itself, there are sources in local pastors’ groups, denominational offices, and nearby colleges or seminaries that clergy can draw on for surviving in the midst of carrying lots of other people’s burdens. Take a look around – you’re not alone.