by Martin Thielen
February 23, 2022
“COVID-19 and its associated restrictions around in-person gathering have created unprecedented challenges for religious congregations and those who lead them.”
—PMC: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
“I’ve reached my breaking point as a pastor.”
—Peter Chin, Christianity Today
In January and February 2022, I communicated with several dozen clergypersons across the country, seeking their perspective on pastoral morale after two years of serving churches during a pandemic. Participants included a diverse mix of gender, age, location and denomination. Almost all of them said that clergy morale, including their own, stood at an all-time low. “Morale is markedly down,” commented one of the pastors. “More than any other time in my journey as a pastor, close friends and I have discussed the possibility of leaving parish ministry.” My modest and informal effort to capture a pulsebeat of today’s clergy confirmed findings from several recent surveys.
For example, a November 2021 Barna Research survey revealed that 38 percent of U.S. pastors have “seriously considered” quitting full-time ministry in the past year, a 9 percent increase from just nine months earlier. 46 percent of pastors under the age of forty-five have considered leaving the ministry, along with 51 percent of mainline pastors. According to their research, the Barna Group claims that only one in three pastors is “healthy.”
A 2021 United Methodist clergy well-being survey saw “a steady decline across almost all dimensions of well-being of United Methodist clergy.” The physical dimension saw obesity, diabetes, and hypertension on the rise. The emotional dimension saw an alarming increase in depression and stress. The social dimension saw increases in work-life balance and social stressors. And the spiritual dimension saw a diminishment in spiritual vitality. The one exception to this dismal trend was the financial dimension, which saw some improvements over 2020.
Why Are Clergy So Discouraged?
So, why are clergy in such a funk? A long list of contributing factors surfaced in my recent communications with pastors. Many are directly linked to the pandemic. Others were brewing before the pandemic arrived. A few examples follow:
- Attendance. Worship attendance has long been the key measure of congregational success and health. But for the majority of churches, in-person worship attendance has been decimated by COVID. One pastor told me, “We used to run about 250 in worship. Today, on a good Sunday, we’re lucky to have 75. It’s extremely depressing.”
- Finances. Although some congregations have enjoyed stable or increased giving during the pandemic, many have seen decreases in their income. One pastor said, “We made major cuts to our budget, and I’m afraid more are on the way. If we cut spending much more, I don’t see how we can remain viable.”
- Divisions. “My members used to leave their politics at the church door,” said one pastor. “But not anymore. The raging culture wars in my congregation over the past few years have depleted me beyond repair.” Another pastor said, “The most draining aspect of the pandemic has been that everything—every action, every ministry, every decision—is a battle. Will we require masks? Will we continue to distance? Will we meet indoors? Can we have a potluck or a fundraiser? Can we host a funeral? There is no decision that is easy or that isn’t second-guessed or challenged.”
- Criticism. Criticism is a perennial problem in ministry. The pandemic made it worse. For example, pastors who implemented strict safety precautions during the pandemic have been criticized, often harshly, by people who disdain mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccines. Those who have not implemented strict measures have been criticized by members on the other side of the battle. One pastor told me, “No matter what I do about COVID protocols, I get attacked. I’m exhausted to the bone.”
- Decline. A few decades ago, only 5 percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated. Today that number is almost 30 percent. For most of the twentieth century, 70 percent of the American population belonged to a faith community. Last year that number fell to 47 percent. These depressing trends have gotten significantly worse during the pandemic. As one pastor told me, “It’s not much fun working in a dying institution.”
Other morale-killing factors were also mentioned, some pandemic related, some not. For example, one pastor said, “When I first started out, ministers were highly respected in their community. That’s not true anymore.” Another pastor expressed frustration that church members “get their theology from Fox News and Facebook rather than reputable biblical sources.” One said, “I miss being a pastor. Calling people on the phone or talking to them on Zoom isn’t the same.” Many of the pastors cited politics as a cause of discouragement including “the unprecedented wretched campaigns and term of the previous president” and “the perverse co-opting of the faith by the right.”
Virtually every United Methodist pastor I spoke with (the majority of my contacts) expressed anxiety about the imminent denominational schism over gay clergy and same-sex marriage. One pastor said, “My church is divided right down the middle on this issue. No matter what the church decides at General Conference this year, I’m screwed.” I could go on, but the point is clear. Large numbers of American clergypersons are struggling with low morale. One pastor summarized this clergy morale crisis by saying, “This job just isn’t any fun anymore.”
What Can Be Done to Help?
There’s no magic bullet for overcoming today’s challenging conditions in congregational ministry. Nobody has easy answers. Still, I asked clergy who participated in this project to recommend possible solutions. Seven of their suggestions follow.
- Remember your call. Almost every pastor I spoke with admitted times were tough. However, many of them found strength for these hard days by remembering their call. As one pastor said, “On the days I want to quit, which happen more frequently than I’d like to admit, I remember that God called me into this work, and that gives me the motivation to press on.” Another pastor said, “My response to the current malaise among clergy is to recognize how important it is to be in ministry in this stressful time and that it is an honor to represent Christ.”
- Celebrate the positives. For all the negatives, pastoral ministry also provides a host of positives. The clergy I spoke with talked about close pastoral relationships, meaningful experiences of pastoral care, leading their church to engage in ministry in spite of tough circumstances, creating poignant worship moments for their congregations, and much more. When they feel discouraged, they try to remember the many positives about ministry.
- Practice self-care. One respondent said, “During these difficult days, it’s absolutely crucial that clergy take care of themselves.” I asked this group of pastors what self-care disciplines they were practicing. They mentioned things like taking a day off every week, using all their vacation time, keeping a journal, having nonchurch interests and hobbies, setting clear boundaries, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and practicing spiritual habits like prayer and Bible reading. One pastor colorfully said, “I feel like a long-ass sabbatical may be in order.”
- Seek support. Finding support from others was the most common coping strategy mentioned by participants in my survey. They spoke extensively about intentionally seeking support from family, friends, mentors, therapists, colleagues, and clergy support groups. A twenty-five-year pastoral veteran said, “Pastors cannot make it alone in this profession, especially during this awful pandemic. Every clergyperson needs to either join a support group—or create one—if they want to survive—and thrive—in today’s difficult environment.”
- Redefine success. Most respondents agreed that new metrics for congregational success are desperately needed. Old standbys like attendance, giving, new members, programs, and building projects don’t work anymore—even before the pandemic. Several suggestions were offered. For example: What percentage of our congregation is actively involved in community ministry? How many of our members are practicing tangible spiritual disciplines? How many people are we engaging online? One pastor told me, “If I can’t find metrics of success beyond attendance, giving, and membership, I’m not going to make it in this profession much longer.”
- Keep on learning. Most of my respondents agreed that traditional methods of doing ministry are not working as well as they used to. Therefore, developing new pastoral skills is essential. For example, one pastor said, “Online ministry is here to stay, so clergy must become adept at navigating that reality, whether we like it or not.” Participants agreed that remaining vibrant and relevant in today’s climate requires constant growth and learning. “The status quo is no longer acceptable,” said one pastor in his mid-fifties. “If I want to thrive during my final decade of ministry, I have to constantly push myself out of my comfort zones.”
- Dream a new dream. Several of the pastors told me they are using this time in the wilderness to reimagine a preferred future. One of them said, “The pandemic has motivated me to dream a new vocational dream—one bigger than traditional professional advancement.” He added, “For the past twenty years, most of my energy has been devoted to what happens within the four walls of my church. Over the next twenty years, I want to devote most of my energy into what happens beyond the four walls of my church.” A recently retired pastor said, “My only advice for clergy is to dream again or retire. Because the same old stuff is no longer effective.”
More than Surviving Another Day
Years ago I had a long and engaging conversation with a Vietnam veteran. He told me, “When I first went to Vietnam, I had a clear sense of purpose. I went to save the world from communism. But as the weeks and months wore on, and I saw the overwhelming insanity of the war, I gained a new purpose—to survive another day.”
Clergy can be forgiven if, during this season of pandemic, they have mostly been trying to survive another day. Even that can be seen as a victory given the brutal realities of pastoring during this long and divisive chapter. But in the long run, surviving another day is not enough. Therefore, as difficult as it may be, today’s clergy must find (and choose) concrete and tangible strategies for moving beyond mere survival. My hope for them is that they will soon laugh and love and dream again—and find renewed joy in their unique and much needed vocation.
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