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Pastors Are Burning Out – But Churches Can Help Prevent It

By: Amy Cheng

More and more pastors are burning out and considering quitting, research from a psychologist has found.

Before the pandemic, clinical psychologist Valerie Ling was seeing a lot of ministers and senior ministers come to her with issues of conflict and problems with leading people.

She decided to take a sabbatical to complete a master’s degree on leadership to try and understand burnout and destructive leadership in ministers.

Her research found that there was a surprising level of conflict that pastors were embroiled in, however, it was unclear if this was coming from staff or the congregation.

Approximately 35 per cent of pastors had “seriously considered” quitting, she said.

“When you look at the top three reasons, work stress was the third reason, the top two was because (their) family suffers and (they’re) lonely,” she said in an interview.

“I don’t know about you, but if I felt that with my job people were out to get me, get my family… I’d feel pretty threatened myself.”

Pixels on a Screen

There’s always been a distance between a pastor and their congregation, however, Ms Ling believes this distance has widened because of the pandemic.

“(We’re used to) seeing a person that was in a role – that is, you see a pastor but you only see his role – but now with COVID, we have this additional thing, we see them as a pixel,” she said.

“When anyone becomes just a pixel, we really can just fling around at a picture or an idea.”

She is referring to congregational members complaining about how the church is run, which is made easier because of the distance in their relationship with their pastors.

How Churches Can Care for Their Pastors

Sometimes this distance in the relationship can mean that pastors are neglected by their churches, however, there are ways to change this, Ms Ling said.

“Churches can get to know and understand their minister as a person and actually understand their history and their backdrop and why they may feel certain things are really important.”

This means being intentional about asking how they’re going and asking about their family, she said.

It could be asking about the medical appointment their dad had or remembering the parent-teacher interview they had at their children’s school and using that opportunity to ask how their children are going.

“Churches can get to know and understand their minister as a person.”

Importance of Prayer

Praying for pastors is also important, according to Ms Ling.

“Prayer is a most amazing and powerful thing and it’s God’s gift to us, when you actually sit down with someone (and) bow your heads together,” she said.

“When we start this practice of asking our pastor how he is going, then we start getting insights into what his world is like, to invite conversations with our pastors beyond just their role.

“That helps the pastor to access their personal life and integrate that into their relationships and into their conversation, so they’re not always talking about the theological and church stuff.”

“Prayer is a most amazing and powerful thing and it’s God’s gift to us.”

While prayer is important, sometimes it’s as simple as just spending time with pastors.

“(It’s) pastors and congregants doing more casual things together, hanging out together, crossing that divide.

“Going out to the movies together; if you’re conscience allows you, going to a pub together… I think sometimes we’re overcrowded with programs that we don’t have time to just hang out.

“One of the nicest things that my husband has experienced as a pastor was just regularly going fishing with some guys; he wasn’t (just) a role, they were hanging out.”

Longings and Belongings

Ms Ling’s ultimate aim for her research is to gain a better understanding of feelings of “longing and belonging” in the church.

“There are certain longings that we have as Christians in our church family and we also have belonging needs, we need to belong,” she said.

“(Some things) get in the way of our fulfilling our longings because we don’t have a sense of belonging.”

She would like her research to move beyond looking at just the clergy to focusing on how the church is “belonging with each other”.

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash