The pulpit stands empty at the front of Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University. Photo by Lucian Himes
Christianity has been declining in the United States since the late 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center, and amid a shrinking flock, the ministers who shepherd it are experiencing record levels of fatigue.
The Barna Group did a study in March 2022 revealing that 42% of American pastors considered quitting full-time ministry over the course of the prior year, an increase from 29% the year before. This increase is an indicator of the exhaustion many ministers are experiencing.
“It’s exhausting in particular ways that just ‘going to work’ isn’t,” said Adam Mearse, Bible and Logic teacher at the Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City, and a former youth pastor of 20 years. “It’s based on pouring something of yourself out, which means at some point you can run out of stuff to pour.”
The fuel for burnout
Barna found that the top three reasons pastors considered quitting were stress, loneliness and political division. The leading reason, “the immense stress of the job,” may be challenging to quantify, but for many in ministry, it can feel like a round-the-clock job.
“You start to be like, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to not feel like I’m ministering all the time,'” Mearse said.
Even when Mearse was off the clock, he said he would be with people from church, so it felt like he was still working. Danny Quintero, a youth minister at the Inland Valley Church of Christ in Ontario, agreed.
“You don’t know what the line is between your life and others’ lives,” Quintero said. “You need time for yourself, and people need your time as well.”
A minister’s place in the community is also a prominent one, leading to less privacy than most people enjoy, Mearse said.
“We might as well have the fishbowl-kind-of life,” Mearse said.
Mearse said occasionally the “fishbowl-kind-of life” included criticism of aspects of his private life that other occupations don’t experience.
Mearse also said those closest to a minister share some of the burden, especially spouses and children.
“Where I have experienced burnout has been for me in the pressure between family and ministry,” said Amy Bost-Henegar, chaplain at the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and former associate minister at the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York.
For Bost-Henegar, someone caught in this “unique intersection” is her son, Aidan Henegar, a Pepperdine junior Religion and Economics major.
“Growing up in a church and having someone [from his family] on the ministry staff, it definitely made me always feel like I was a little bit more like, bound to that and a part of that,” Henegar said. “Which is sometimes good and sometimes bad.”
Bost-Henegar also said being female in a male-dominated field can compound fatigue.
“The church traditionally is pretty patriarchal, and so women are dealing with sexism and systemic bias,” Bost-Henegar said. “That can be really, really exhausting.”
Another challenging topic of conversation for ministers is finances.
“I remember one time I asked for a raise at a church that I was working at,” said Zac Luben, director of graduate school ministries at the Hub for Spiritual Life. “It felt almost like I had asked to sacrifice someone’s kid.”
Luben said he has felt the disparity in pay between himself and colleagues in other fields. The average annual salary of clergy in the United States is $57,230, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“People were like, ‘Oh, man you get to go camping. We’re sending you on vacation and we’re paying you for it, that’s great,’” Luben said. “I’m hanging out with 15 to 16-year-old guys, 24 hours a day, sleeping in really gross cabins. That’s not a vacation, and if it is then your definition of vacation probably needs to change.”
Other financial stressors arise when discussing church organization. Luben said many churches are organized like businesses even though pastoral care is challenging to quantify like a business.
“There’s an anxiety and I think that anxiety can drive us into business models,” Luben said. “But it seems problematic when, on one hand, we identify and recognize that spiritual growth isn’t super easy to assess, and then we’re forcing sort of these business-like assessments into a church setting.”
Finally, political division has led to frustration for many ministers, said Adam England, youth and family minister at Westside Church of Christ in Bakersfield.
“That’s a big part of the burn up that I experience, at least because there’s just so many sacred aspects now,” England said. “Almost anything and everything is going to tick someone off, and we’re so conflict averse that it just becomes regular confrontation.”
England specifically said he doesn’t experience burnout as much as “burn up,” which he said is when he knows why he’s doing what he does, but experiences detachment from it as a result of fatigue.
Quenching the fire
Eric Wilson, preaching minister at the University Church of Christ, said at one of the first churches he worked at, he saw up close what burnout looked like in his co-minister.
“I was close to watching somebody implode,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Hey, man, do you think you should probably take a break?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and he didn’t, he just kept on pushing through, and it was disastrous.”
This experience made a distinct impression on Wilson, helping to form a philosophy he said he has carried throughout his whole career.
“That’s when I committed to myself: If I saw red flags, I would respond to red flags,” Wilson said.
Wilson rests when he feels it is necessary, he said, and that it is not just about reducing stress but recalibrating toward God.
“It’s a job that requires constant awareness of the presence of God in my life, in everybody else’s life and in the world, and to show up as a caretaker of all that,” Wilson said.
For Henegar, the moments of self care in Jesus’ own ministry give a frame for what is needed in ministry.
“Even Jesus at the start of his ministry was very aware of his own needs and conscious of and set on what he was meant to do,” Henegar said.
Having a network of people outside of the church is also an important way to eliminate some of the stresses of the job. Mearse, England and Bost-Henegar all said this strategy is helpful.
“What you start to learn over time is you need some confidants,” Mearse said. “Some people in your life that you can be really honest with and those people can’t really be in the same church that you’re in.”
Ultimately, the solution comes down to more awareness, communication and mindfulness of how churches are organized and how those in ministry feel about their workload, all of the ministers said.
“The leadership needs to know that you are not Jesus and you need to know that you are not Jesus,” Quintero said.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one, England said.
“If the person who’s reading this article is sitting there wondering, ‘Do my people have a problem?’ They probably do, because they don’t know,” England said. “A good leader will read that and go, ‘I know where my person is struggling,’ or ‘We’ve worked through the struggles that they’ve been having.’”
The problem is not confined to the church alone, as Wilson said — the church is a “reflection of society,” so ministry burnout is indicative of a more widespread epidemic.
“Let’s also not pretend that all other sections of our country are just humming along, right?” Luben said. “That there’s only this particular area where burnout is being experienced. The minister really has a really significant role to play as they help other people live through burnout.”
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