When you see pastors leading the service and greeting the congregation on Sunday morning, you see only a tiny snapshot of what their jobs entail. If you were to write up the actual duties of the average church pastor, it would not make an attractive job posting by most standards. “WANTED: Person to teach, preach, and disciple others by offering amazing insights every week. Master’s degree required, doctorate preferred. Will actually spend majority of time managing a business operated by volunteers, setting up systems, managing conflicts and politics of competing priorities, and creating and defending budgets. Volunteers will simultaneously be friends, congregants, counseling clients, critics, and the bosses who decide your career path and compensation. You’ll work on the day others are renewed and be expected to work the other days ‘normal’ people are in the office.”
Yet each year hundreds of people choose to attend seminary to become church pastors. And when they actually get started in ministry, many are shocked and surprised by what working in the church demands of them and their families. Bob Burns, dean of lifelong learning at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as a pastor and a researcher in vocational ministry, points to a typical day on the job as an example of what contributes to this disconnect.
“A pastor could have lunch with a businessperson who’s dealing with an ethical issue, then spend the afternoon working on sermon preparation, which is interrupted by three phone calls requiring pastoral care. The pastor then goes from there to the hospital, counseling a family with someone in crisis or even dying, and spends the evening at a church board meeting defending the way the budget is being spent.”
Pastors average more work hours per week than other managers and professionals, according to Jackson Carroll, professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, and
a long-term clergy researcher. Most pastors will admit, when asked about their personal and professional lives, that serving God in a church often also means loneliness, lack of opportunities for ongoing professional and personal development, and external and internal pressure to overlook one’s own health in the service of others. The stresses of the job will cause many to choose (or be forced) to step away from church ministry altogether.
Alarmed at statistics on pastoral burnout and forced exits, the Lilly Endowment invested $84 million in the early 2000s into research projects on pastors. Donald Guthrie, at the time a dean at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, enlisted fellow seminary faculty members Burns and Tasha Chapman to develop the Pastors Summit project. In addition to the Lilly data, the group had concerns about pastors’ sustainability from a basic health perspective. “The research on the lack of physical and emotional health in our pastors was rather shocking to us . . . how many pastors were on sick leave due to stress-related illnesses, and how many pastors were obese, or had heart-related illnesses, compared to the general population,” says Chapman.
The Pastors Summit focused not on preventing burnout but on identifying the positive practices required to stay in the pastorate. Participants were selected using criteria including strong ministry expertise evidenced by fruitfulness and overall emotional health in ministry. The Summit included 73 pastors, representing 26 states, who met in small cohorts three times per year for two years, along with their spouses and occasional outside experts such as psychologists. Each Summit meeting was recorded and transcribed, resulting in 12,000 pages of material to be analyzed, which eventually became the book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (IVP Praxis, 2013). The researchers found that five common themes emerged, areas in which pastors and future pastors should pursue growth to establish their ministries for the long haul: spiritual formation, self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management.