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Just Released: 2023 Annual Report // Read Now

Just Released: 2023 Annual Report // Read Now

Understanding Pastoral Wellbeing:

What does it take for your pastor to thrive on the long road of ministry?

The past few years have brought attention to the plight of clergy, who are increasingly burdened by the difficult work of ministry. In 2021, a national survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research revealed that 37% of clergy had considered leaving their call at least once 1. By the fall of 2023, that number had increased to 53% 2. This growing discontent with pastoral work is a proxy for the important issue of clergy wellbeing. Simply stated, “How can pastors maintain their holistic health as they do these difficult jobs?” In Geneva’s research into the wellbeing of PCA pastors, one minister framed the question like this:

“It feels like a matter of time before something tragic happens or I go out of ministry. It feels like half the ministers that I’ve ever known or half the people I went to seminary with are out … And I want to know, Do I have the longevity for this? Do I have the resilience for it? Because it doesn’t seem like most do.” 3

Thankfully, we know quite a bit about how pastors can sustain their wellbeing and resilience. The last decade has produced a significant amount of research related to pastoral wellbeing. Because of this work, we better understand the forces that challenge pastoral wellbeing as well as the practices, disciplines, motivations, and contextual realities that promote it.

An important early work, Resilient Ministry, identified five foundational themes for resilience and fruitfulness in ministry. More recently, in Flourishing in Ministry, Matt Bloom and his team reached similar conclusions. Their study of over 10,000 pastors linked resilience, authenticity, thriving (i.e., living with meaning, purpose, and connectedness), and economic sufficiency with overall wellbeing. In 2021, Geneva Benefits Group partnered with the Center for Transformational Churches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to research the wellbeing of pastors in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Our work defines pastoral wellbeing as “holistic health that leads to flourishing over time on the hard road of pastoral ministry.” And using a modified version of Resilient Ministry’s themes coupled with Bloom’s insights, we studied seven factors that influence clergy wellbeing:

  • Spiritual Formation – Intentionally nurturing faith in, and dependence on, Jesus through the means of grace, in a community of faith.
  • Self-Stewardship – Stewarding the resource of your own health through ongoing development as a whole person (physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health).
  • Emotional Intelligence – Learning to manage your own emotions and calmly respond to the emotions of others.
  • Cultural Intelligence – Reaching across the chasm of cultural difference with love and respect, in a posture of humility, and a willingness to learn.
  • Marriage and Family – Actively seeking relational health with one’s spouse and children.
  • Leadership and Management – Guiding adaptive and constructive change toward a unified vision; providing order, consistency, and tactical guidance and oversight.
  • Financial Sufficiency – having resources sufficient to live comfortably in the community where you minister and the capacity to manage them wisely.

As we analyzed data from our survey and listened to stories from our focus groups, we gained insight into the state of PCA pastors as a whole, and identified three significant tensions pastors routinely face.

Relationships

The first is the tension of relationships. Men and women are created in the image of our Triune God and made for relationships. However, there is something about the pastoral vocation that pulls pastors into isolation. One pastor described the “tightrope we have to walk, especially when it comes to how much we want to share with other couples in our church.” Another lamented, “As a pastor, it’s hard to find a genuine safe area to have friendships. But when you try to add a couple, it multiplies the complexity.” And this pastor captured the essence of the tension when he observed, “We have to decide if we’re fully human and keep pressing for friends, or if it’s safer to stay away.” These honest reflections are the stories behind some sobering statistics.

38% of PCA pastors say they have no trusted friends, and 64% report that they and their spouse are isolated as a couple.

Identity

The second tension that pulls pastors between health and unhealth is the tension of identity. We all know that as Christians, our identity is found in the finished work of Christ. However, pastors face pressure to build an identity based on their own work. This pressure can come from the church itself, which often “sets unreasonable expectations for their pastor.” This can create “a constant struggle to justify your existence … the constant jokes about how much you’re doing or the expectations that are projected upon you, the people who are unsatisfied or who want you to respond to every demand.” However, pastors were also honest about how their own hearts led them to a similar place. One admitted to taking “too much glory in being busy.” Another honestly named how “my fear of man gets in the way” as do “my idols of performance and productivity.” And this observation captures the external and internal cross-pressures which pull pastors toward an identity based on ministry success:

The real issue is pride and a heightened sense of self-importance, which causes us to hide that we’re not keeping up, not able to accomplish everything, we’re slipping, we’re falling behind, and we don’t want to ask for help because we don’t want to look like a failure.

Systems

Finally, pastors face what we call the tension of systems. This stems from the reality that every church is a complex system of interconnected and interdependent relationships in which each person affects and is affected by the behaviors of others. That means that pastors and congregation members are distinct individuals who are also emotionally wired together and mutually impacting. Like the planets in the solar system, each has its own orbit that is influenced by the movement of others. The tension pastors face is one of awareness. Plainly stated, are pastors aware that they lead as part of an interdependent system, or do they mistakenly assume they are autonomous individuals?

To navigate systems, pastors must develop emotional intelligence (EQ). This entails cultivating the self-awareness to manage one’s own emotions and calmly respond to the emotions of others. EQ also requires other awareness, the ability to accurately perceive how one comes across to other people in the system and to understand the often-unspoken emotions of others. Growth in these EQ skills leads to healthy differentiation, which is a leader’s ability to stay connected with others, even in the face of strong emotions, while also maintaining healthy self-possession. Differentiated leaders don’t avoid the difficult emotions of others and don’t get hijacked by them. Instead, they maintain their secure identity while authentically engaging with others in a calm way. One pastor described this dynamic perfectly:

“I learned to process the emotions and anxiety of the church … this gave me the categories to think through not only what other people were doing but how I was engaging the system and how I was contributing to unhealth.”

Growth in EQ often comes as leaders work through conflict. One pastor noted, “It took a relational crisis [to make me aware of EQ].” He went on to admit that he was “over-identifying with some people, getting sucked in, not setting up boundaries … I need someone to help me think through how I’m processing conflict in the church.” Another stressed the importance of iterating and self-reflection when he observed, “There’s an emotional spiral: Conflict. Reflect on what happened. Learn from that. Next conflict.” This pastor sums up how EQ skills are vital to healthy leadership: “I realized if I didn’t learn how to function in an emotionally healthy way, I was not going to be a pastor anymore.”

Help and Hope

Church leaders, especially elders, have the opportunity to grow in their awareness of the unique struggles pastors face and to do their best to help them thrive. Our advice is to engage him on these issues – understanding that he might be wary of sharing all his struggles – and help him assess areas where he can grow. Then, encourage him to start small and help him make a few choices to set him on a path toward greater health. Below are a few practical suggestions:

  • Cohorts – if a pastor has the capacity, a formal peer cohort with other pastors can be a great venue for mutual support and encouragement.
  • Similar Others – pastors can seek out relationships with helping professionals such as clinical social workers, nurses, teachers, or others who work to help others with personal or social needs.
  • Counseling/Coaching – sometimes, a pastor needs counseling for personal, emotional issues or coaching for professional growth. Churches should strive to make resources available so they can use these important helps.
  • Rhythms – Pastors often fail to set boundaries around a job that demands 24/7 attention. Daily rhythms of rest, a weekly off day that pastor and congregation honor, and seasonal opportunities to step away from ministry demands are important components of holistic health.
  • Feedback – Providing honest, gracious feedback can help pastors grow in EQ. this can include regular input from staff, congregational surveys, or occasional 360 reviews.
  • Gospel – 70% of PCA pastors report that the demands of ministry impede their own spiritual growth. Pastors need venues where they hear the gospel and are not responsible for teaching or leading.
  • Advocates – Pastors are often in positions where they have to advocate for themselves to get the resources or opportunities they need. Lay leaders should take up the mantle of advocating for their pastor’s needs so he does not have to.

At Geneva, we are committed to helping pastors achieve and maintain wellbeing so they can thrive on the long road of ministry. To access more resources, visit genevabenefits.org/wellbeing. 

 

(1) Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic” 2023, 14.

(2) I’m Exhausted All the Time: Exploring the Factors Contributing to Growing Clergy Discontentment” 2024, 2

(3) All quotations in this article come from PCA pastors who participated in focus groups as part of Geneva’s research into the wellbeing of PCA pastors.

 

Medlock, Jonathan, Bart Moseman, and Donald Guthrie. 2021. Pastoral Wellbeing: PCA Pastors Reflect on the Tensions of Ministry. Lawrenceville, GA: Committee on Discipleship Ministries.

Bloom, Matthew C. 2019. Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Burns, Bob, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie. 2013. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. 41108th edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

I’m Exhausted All the Time: Exploring the Factors Contributing to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” 2024. Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations. 2024. https://www.covidreligionresearch.org/research/national-survey-research/im-exhausted-all-the-time-exploring-the-factors-contributing-to-growing-clergy-discontentment/.

Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic.” 2023. August 2023. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.covidreligionresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Epic-4-2.pdf.

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