Pastoral Burnout: Who’s at Fault… the Pastor or the Church?
Pastoral Burnout: Who’s at Fault… the Pastor or the Church?
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Michael MacKenzie, D.Min., and Kari MacKenzie, D.Min.
This article was originally published June 2016 as a CounselEd article, a monthly research article that is one of AACC’s presidential level member benefits.
Charles was the senior pastor of a large and growing church. He had been in ministry for 20 years, so he knew the ropes; yet he came in for counseling with a question he could not figure out.
“What is wrong with me?” Charles asked with a hint of desperation and discouragement as he sat down.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I think I will need some more information.”
Charles then began analyzing himself, “I am wondering if it is depression, or maybe a mid-life crisis, or maybe my testosterone is low. What do you think?”
“Again, I think I will need more information,” I replied. “How about telling me about what has been going on in your life and ministry?”
Charles then began to unpack his last three to four years, which included events such an extended church building and fund-raising project, the death of his sister to breast cancer, his hand-picked associate pastor having an affair with a lead volunteer in the youth ministry, the near church split from fallout from the affair that included numerous families leaving the church, his teenage daughter taking a walk on the wild side, and his being diagnosed with, and treated for, prostate cancer. And these events were above and beyond the normal stressors of running a large church that include staff and congregation conflicts, hiring and firing, leading the staff team, preaching, funerals, casting vision, etc. (It might be wise to always schedule a two-hour intake with pastors if you are going to be going over the items on their plates!)
After Charles finished his list of stressors, I asked him if he had taken any breaks during the past three years. The answer was basically no, as the “breaks” were conferences or taking a day or two to help following a family member’s death and funeral. A couple of things were obvious after interacting with Charles. First, he had dealt with enough challenges in the past three years to send anyone into exhaustion, depression or burnout. Second, Charles wasn’t looking after himself and no one else was looking after him either.
In the Christian community, the difficulty of the pastorate position and, more specifically, the high dropout rate of those in ministry have gotten much attention over the past 15 years or more. While recent research would suggest the rate of those who leave ministry and the overall job satisfaction are not as bad as feared, it does confirm that the Christian leader’s role is a struggle and churches, in many cases, are not doing an adequate job of caring for their leaders.
Lifeway Research recently did a large research project interviewing pastors in the ministry and pastors who left the ministry. Scott McConnell, Lifeway Research vice-president, had this to say in reflection on the research on the pastoral position, “This is a brutal job,” McConnell adds, “The problem isn’t that pastors are quitting—the problem is that pastors have a challenging work environment. McConnell estimates a total of 29,000 evangelical pastors have left the pastorate over the past decade, an average of fewer than 250 a month” (Green, 2015, para. 5). While this number is much lower than some of the numbers thrown around for the last decade, it still represents a significant amount of distress to those who are leaving, their families, and the churches left behind.
According to Lifeway Research, here are some of the ways pastors experience their roles:
- 84% say they’re on call 24 hours a day.
- 80% expect conflict in their church.
- 54% find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.
- 53% are often concerned about their family’s financial security.
- 48% often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.
- 21% say their church has unrealistic expectations of them (Green, 2015, para 4).
In 2008, I (Michael) did my doctoral research on what the main issues those in Christian ministry struggle with, if they are struggling. My method was a survey that was filled out by those in attendance at The Caregivers Forum, a conference for people who provide care for those in ministry. I asked: What are the most common issues you see Christian leaders having who come to your counseling, retreat, or spiritual formation centers and what are the most serious issues (meaning the issue has negative consequences for the Christian leader’s life and ministry)? I combined the scores for the most common issues and the most serious issues to come up with what I called, “significant issues,” which are the issues that had the highest scores of commonality and severity combined. The top six significant issues were: 1) Stress, 2) Burnout, 3) Marital Problems, 4) Sexual Problems (pornography use, same sex attraction, affairs), 5) Depression, and 6) Conflict (with staff, congregation, leadership) (MacKenzie, 2009).
The questionnaire also asked, “In regard to the issues with which pastors struggle, do you have any reflections on some of the contributory factors?” The number one response was “isolation” or “lack of a support system.” The next most common response was “high expectations,” which included high expectations from others and from the pastors themselves. “Poor boundaries” or “inability to say no” rounded out the top three responses (MacKenzie, 2009).
As therapists, several questions are raised by these findings. First, what goes on in the Christian leader’s environment that makes him or her susceptible to these significant issues? Second, what goes on in his or her internal life that contributes? And third, what could be done to prevent Christian leaders from falling into one of these problems, especially to the point where it takes them out of ministry?
Internal Factors and External Factors
The research used for the basis of this article includes the Lifeway Research survey of pastors; The Pastor Summit, a research program funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. to research resilience for those in ministry; and my (Michael’s) doctoral research done through the Caregivers Forum on the issues ministry leaders deal with regularly.
When trying to separate the external factors from the internal ones, it quickly became clear that many of the components that negatively impact pastors are a combination of both/and, meaning there is an external and internal factor at play at the same time. This “fusion” of internal and external is further complicated for the pastor who, in general, struggles to differentiate in any way personal life from ministry life. Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie capture this dynamic in their research through The Pastors Summit, “One of the unique aspects of pastoral ministry is how it affects and defines all areas of life. Work, family, and personal responsibilities blur together through the week, so that pastors have difficulty distinguishing when they are on and when they are off duty” (2013, para. 128). Similar to how pastors find it difficult to know when they are on and off, we also see there is a struggle in differentiating between whether the problems in ministry are internal or external—or in other words, whether the stressors they face in ministry are church-caused or self-caused.
For example, Lifeway Research found, “Most expected conflict to arise, and it did—56% clashed over changes they proposed, and 54% say they experienced a significant personal attack. Yet nearly half (48%) say their training didn’t prepare them to handle the people-side of ministry” (2016, para. 8). Obviously, the external stressor is the conflict that is a regular part of ministry, which weighs on many in ministry. The internal factors at play here include the practical and the emotional. Practically, many in ministry do not get adequate training for handling conflict. While it is easy, and perhaps fair, to blame the Bible college or seminary involved in the pastor’s training, at some point it is the pastor’s responsibility to get equipped to lead in the Church… and leading in the Church always includes dealing with conflict.
Many leaders in ministry do not get training in conflict management and, while there are practical reasons for that (lack of time and money), there is also possibly an internal resistance to getting trained—not wanting to deal with conflict in the first place. The internal factor is also the pastor’s personal beliefs about conflict. Regularly in our work at Marble Retreat, we will have a pastor complete the phrase, “Conflict is…” or “Conflict equals…,” and we regularly hear, “Conflict is bad,” “Conflict equals all hell breaking loose” or they just plainly state, “I hate conflict and do my best to avoid it.” Avoiding conflict in your church is like avoiding cancer in your body… it doesn’t turn out so well.
According to Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research, “Almost half of those who left the pastorate said their church wasn’t doing any of the kinds of things that would help.” He adds, “Having clear documents [job description], offering a sabbatical rest, and having people help with weighty counseling cases are key things experts tell us ought to be in place” (2016, para. 21). Again, while it could be easy to place the focus on the external, what the Church is not doing to care for its pastors (and definitely many churches do not care well for their pastors, especially in the areas just mentioned), the pastor also often plays a role in not getting the help they need. This lack of assertiveness begins upon being hired. Many pastors do not “negotiate” a fair and balanced job description and compensation package. And the pastor’s inability or unwillingness to ask for what they need can continue on from there. We were working with a young, talented, passionate ministry couple who was leading a church plant in a poor and violent community. They were doing incredible ministry, but were under supported and under resourced and quickly burning out. When we suggested they ask the ministry leadership for what they needed, they quickly responded that they could never do that. When we had them unpack why, it came down to two major issues: they didn’t want to admit they “couldn’t make it work” and it felt selfish. After some reinforcement from the therapy group on how they would completely burn out if they didn’t ask for help, this young couple had a meeting at the ministry headquarters and, much to their surprise and pleasure, the leadership was more than happy to work at meeting their needs. However, many in ministry never ask, so it is important to understand the internal factors that contribute to why. These could be any number of beliefs that the ministry leader holds.
Burns, Chapman and Guthrie (2013) found that, “Ministry leaders collapse under the overwhelming pressures to ignore their own needs motivated by busyness, people-pleasing, the tyranny of the urgent and their own lack of priority on personal growth” (para. 346). So while it is true that for many in ministry there is real and tremendous pressure, this pressure often plays right into issues the pastor already struggles with, including people-pleasing and self-negation.
Pastors who leave the ministry do so from a mix of internal and external forces. Lifeway found, “Forty percent say they left the pastorate because of a change in calling. They also cite such issues as church conflict (25%), burnout (19%), personal finances (12%) and family issues (12%)” (Green, 2016, para 11). In each of these reasons for leaving, there are ways the Church is dropping the ball, but often there is also some responsibility on behalf of the pastor.
Check out this list of comparisons between pastors in ministry and those who left ministry:
- 21% of current pastors vs. 49% of former pastors believe their churches have unrealistic expectations.
- 35% of current pastors vs. 62% of former pastors report feeling isolated.
- 89% of current pastors vs. 68% of former pastors feel free to say no to unrealistic expectations.
- 92% of current pastors vs. 61% of former pastors believe their congregations provide genuine encouragement to their families.
- 94% of current pastors vs. 74% of former pastors say they consistently protect family time (Green, 2016, para 19).
Here again, one can see that both internal and external factors contribute to why pastors leave the ministry or are resilient in ministry. It is, therefore, important when you find yourself in the role of helping pastors that you consider both internal and external factors. Support of both is absolutely necessary.
Research comparing those who stay in ministry versus those who leave show that churches with resilient pastors are doing things differently than those that do not. “The churches in which they serve look markedly different, according to the surveys. Current pastors report their churches are more than twice as likely as those of former pastors to offer a sabbatical plan and a list of counselors for referrals, more than three times as likely to have a lay counseling ministry and a document listing expectations of the pastor, and more than four times as likely to have a pastor support group” (Green, 2016, para 21). These features help support both the internal and external realities of a minister.
Before looking at some thoughts on solutions and interventions, let’s briefly recap what we have learned from the research so far:
- While the dropout rate for pastors is lower than feared, what is confirmed is that pastors have a very demanding job.
- There are some key changes churches can make that often greatly help pastors.
- Whether a pastor experiences conflict, high expectations, financial struggles, blurred lines between being “on” and “off” or any of the other potential stressors in ministry, there are usually both external and internal dynamics at play creating problems for pastors.
- Research continues to confirm the problem of isolation for those in ministry.
- Both internal and external changes support long-term resiliency in ministry.
To begin, one of the obvious and immediate conclusions on a macro level from this recent research is that work conditions for the pastor can, and must, be improved if we expect to lower the dropout rate and increase job satisfaction. In many cases, a few simple interventions by churches do make a huge difference, including a clarification of job responsibilities, support in the counseling needs of the Church, and a regular sabbatical for the pastor. Second, pastors need to be better prepared for the rigors of ministry. Ed Stetzer captures the big picture of what needs to happen, “When we see a number of items all looking a little less healthy, they can add up,” he said. “But many of the gaps are preventable. It’s going to take a combination of the seminaries, academia, denominational folks, and even outside ministries putting their heads together and seeking God on how best to support pastors” (Green, 2016, para 22).
Another macro issue that needs consideration when it comes to helping Christian leaders is the isolation many ministry leaders face. MacKenzie’s (2009) research found isolation to be the number one contributing factor to struggles in ministry, and Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie (2013) also found this to be a problem. They have this to say in capturing both the necessity of community in healing and the problem of isolation in ministry, “Vulnerability in safe relationships makes learning possible. Therefore, it is not surprising that the isolation and loneliness of ministry often turn hardships into damaging experiences rather than ones of growth. Intimate relationships are necessary for spiritual growth” (para. 511).
As humans, all of us can get tunnel vision and lack perspective when we are in the midst of a difficult situation. We regularly work with Christian leaders who are taking responsibility for things they should not and not taking responsibility for the things they should. We have learned that they find great benefit in talking through their situations and getting feedback from therapists and peers in a group setting to clarify exactly what their role may or may not be in difficult situations.
So, what can one do for those in Christian leadership?
- They often need a time and place to grieve and lament the legitimate difficulties and losses of ministry and life. Additionally, pastors need for the weariness they feel to be normalized. Many in Christian leadership think focusing on their pain is self-pity or being a victim. They feel the pressure to be “overcomers” and need their struggles normalized with the hope that they will truly prevail by walking through a season of grief.
- After working through their real and legitimate pain, some need to look at themselves to see if they are part of the problem with the struggles they are having with the Church. Do they live like they are indispensable and invincible? If so, why? Does a fear of rejection, or some form of shame, guilt or fear, motivate their behavior and keep them from saying no and setting boundaries? Do they find value through accomplishment and, therefore, have trouble setting limits without feeling a sense of devalue? Do they avoid conflict and blame others? If so, where does this come from? What is fueling their problem with conflict? What do they need to enter confidently into leading others through conflict? Are pastors asking for what they need or do they not value their own needs? If so, why? Help them accept what normal health needs are and are not.
- When Christian leaders have taken ownership for their parts, they can more objectively look at the problems of the organization. Recently, I was talking to a senior pastor who was sending an associate for counsel… in passing, he mentioned that everyone on staff gets a day off per week, but no one seems to take it. He asked, “I wonder why? Is this an organizational problem or a personal problem of those on staff?” These are issues that need to be explored because most of the problems staff face are both organizational and personal in nature and need to be understood.
- After pastors have worked through their grief, pain, or resentment and clearly identified their issues, as well as the Church’s, then it is appropriate to deal with these issues with practical solutions, both internal and organizational.
Therefore, caregivers to those in ministry must be able to help leaders explore internal and organizational dynamics at play in their distress. The danger for a helper is leaning too heavily on viewing the problem through only a lens of internal difficulties or one of only the organization as the problem.
Whether it is external or internal dynamics at play, or a combination of both, pastors and other Christian leaders have a role wrought with stress, pressure, unrealistic expectations, isolation, and spiritual warfare. One of the toughest dynamics Christian leaders face is that often when they need the Church the most, it not only doesn’t show up, but actually inflicts even more pain. This gives Christian counselors a great opportunity to be the Church for these leaders. When working with Christian leaders, display the fruit of the Spirit and give grace and truth. They will be blessed, you will be blessed, and the Kingdom will be better for it.
Pastor Charles, our client referenced in the beginning of this article, worked through his grief from the real and legitimate losses he had experienced and eventually persevered through the frustration and resentment he was carrying toward the Church. He realized he had been trying to do it all as a result of his belief that he was invincible and the Church, including leadership, had happily gone along with it all. He found great value in his identity as a fix-it man with all the answers. With the realization that his identity did not come from what he did and who he pleased, he was able to map out a clearer job description that not only permitted him to focus on his primary calling, but also allow enough buffer each week to care for his marriage and himself. Then, he took up fly-fishing.
Michael MacKenzie, D.Min., and Kari MacKenzie, D.Min., are the Directors of Marble Retreat, as well as the Directors of the Doctorate of Ministry pastor care track at Lincoln Christian University. Mike has been a licensed professional counselor for 20 years and Kari has been a registered psychotherapist for 14 years. Both have completed their Doctorate of Ministry degrees specializing in counseling Christian leaders, with their doctoral work focusing on research in the area of caring for Christian leaders. In addition, each of them also have a Masters in Counseling from Lincoln Christian University, an M.Div. equivalency from Denver Seminary, and have completed doctoral studies in Marriage and Family Therapy. Kari also has an undergraduate degree in psychology from Butler University, while Mike has an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Prince Edward Island.
Their backgrounds include a variety of ministry experiences: Mike’s six years as a hospice chaplain, Kari’s three plus years as a missionary in China, both being on staff at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, overseeing the pastoral care and marriage and family ministry, both working at Blessing Ranch for two and a half years (which is also an intensive counseling center for Christian leaders), and for eight years they owned and operated MacKenzie Counseling Services, a counseling practice north of Denver that specialized in working with those in ministry, as well as the general public. Mike and Kari have one son, Dylan. They thoroughly enjoy their ministry and living in the mountains.
Burns, B., Champman, T., & Guthrie, D. (2013). Resilient ministry: What pastors told us about surviving and thriving. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks.
Green, L.C. (2016). Former pastors report lack of support led to abandoning pastorate. Retrieved on May 17, 2016 from http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/01/12/former-pastors-report-lack-of-support-led-to-abandoning-pastorate/.
Green, L.C. (2015). Despite stresses, few pastors give up on ministry. Retrieved on May 17, 2016 from http://lifewayresearch.com/2015/09/01/despite-stresses-few-pastors-give-up-on-ministry/.
MacKenzie, M. (2009). Curriculum for pastor care specialists addressing significant pastor issues. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Lincoln Christian University, Lincoln, IL.