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PC(USA) pastors report widespread fatigue, burnout and isolation

Minister Survey indicates most pastors still derive satisfaction from their call

by Dr. Angie Andriot and Dr. Susan Barnett, Research Services | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Herman Sanchez via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — PC(USA) ministers are generally satisfied with their life and find fulfillment in their call, according to research published in the Minister Wellbeing Report available in English, Spanish, and Korean by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services. However, this overall positive finding hides some underlying issues regarding minister wellbeing. Although 9 in 10 ministers are satisfied with their life, only 41% are very satisfied.

So, what’s the problem?

Minister fatigue, burnout, and isolation are widespread within the PC(USA). Nearly half of ministers, 49%, report fatigue as a part of their daily experience, while 35% are concerned about burnout and 32% are concerned about isolation. These concerns are greater for bi-vocational ministers, i.e., ministers who work in a secular position in addition to their ministry call. Additionally, specialized ministers, i.e., ministers serving in another form of ministry than congregational ministry, tend to report greater satisfaction — and less burnout — than pastors who serve in a congregation.

As fatigued, burnt out, and isolated as ministers are, one third do not take a day off from work and chores each week. In addition, only 34% of ministers have taken a sabbatical. Pastors are most likely to have taken a sabbatical — 36 % of ministers whose call is to a congregation have taken one. More than half, 55%, of ministers in a call do not meet monthly or more often with other ministers for reflection, study, or sharing. It is not that they don’t want to take care of their spiritual wellbeing — 42% of ministers are concerned about their own need for spiritual renewal.

Fatigue affects ministers and ministry, with 13% of ministers reporting they are worn out most or all the time. Fatigue isn’t entirely call-related either; 29% of ministers are concerned about caring for aging parents. According to the findings of this study, the more fatigued a pastor feels, the less time they spend with their congregation.

Presbyteries can help support and bolster ministers by providing a sense of belonging, information, support, and advice. However, support from presbyteries differs by ministerial situation. Those with secular jobs and those without a call report receiving significantly less support from their presbytery than ministers who are in a call. Among those in a call, pastors report receiving greater support from their presbytery than specialized ministers. What presbyteries provide more than anything is a sense of belonging — and this is greatest for pastors. As one pastor put it, “It’s like family … Sometimes great, sometimes not-so-great; but it’s always wonderful to belong.”

In addition, although ministers are generally satisfied with their life, those without a call and those working secular jobs rate their satisfaction much lower than those in a call. And the highest life satisfaction is reserved for those who are retired.

Despite all these issues, ministers in a call still overwhelmingly feel that their call is rewarding: 93% report gaining a lot of personal satisfaction from working with people in their ministry, 90% report having enthusiasm for their work, and 89% agree that their ministry gives real purpose and meaning to their life. As one might imagine, call satisfaction increases with the extent to which a minister feels appreciated.

The study results provide several topics for individuals, congregations, mid councils, and the national church to consider. How can ministers be encouraged to take time off from work? Are there ways to provide financial support so all ministers can take a sabbatical? What changes in expectations and structures are needed to enhance the wellbeing of ministers as they respond faithfully to God’s call?

Want to learn more? The findings in this article come from the Minister Wellbeing Report with links above. This report is based on data from the PC(USA) Minister Survey, a massive 110-question survey which fielded from September to November of 2019. Invitations were sent by postcard to all ministers for whom the Office of the General Assembly had an address. The survey was also one of the Board of Pensions’ Call to Health challenges. This partnership contributed to nearly half of all responses. Twenty-three percent of the denomination’s 19,243 ministers (n=4,495) responded to the survey.

The survey was completed prior the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not related to a consultant’s visioning process report released Sept. 16 on recommended changes to the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The challenges and stresses of the pandemic impacted all of life — ministers and ministries included — and may have resulted in different responses in some instances had the survey occurred during the pandemic. The results, nonetheless, provide insights into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of PC(USA) ministers.

This is the fifth in a series of eight articles on the survey results. Those articles, being published on a weekly basis, are:

Join “Coffee with Research Services” from 4-4:30 p.m. Eastern Time on each Thursday from Sept. 23 to Nov. 11 for a conversation about the survey and reports. Use this link to register for any or all of the sessions of Coffee with Research Services.

Additional areas of concern regarding ministers include:

  • 38% of bi-vocational ministers are not satisfied with their ministry salary and benefits
  • 29% of ministers are not satisfied with their continuing education opportunities, such as part-time or short-term classes or training to bolster knowledge or skills they could use in their ministry
  • 34% of pastors feel little to no sense of belonging from their presbytery
  • 23% of ministers are not satisfied with their relationships with other ministers
  • 13% of ministers feel negative or cynical about the people with whom they work
  • 12% of specialized ministers do not regularly participate in a worshiping community
  • 29% of ministers are concerned about caring for aging parents.

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