The faith leader who stands behind the pulpit in your house of worship each week may be silently weeping inside, filled with despair and overcome with the exhaustion that comes from unfailingly putting the needs of a congregation before his or her own.
It’s not happening in every church, synagogue or mosque, of course, and many clergy members successfully balance their work and personal lives.
But there is a national epidemic of “clergy burnout,” with an alarming number of faith leaders leaving traditional ministries — or sticking with the job and living unhappily and unhealthily.
It’s a job description not for the faint of heart, and the work schedule is brutal: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In addition to often being a spouse and parent, a clergy member is often simultaneously a writer and orator (sermons), Biblical scholar, chaplain to the sick or dying, teacher, executive director, CEO, human resource manager, therapist, liaison to other community organizations and point person answerable to church hierarchy and the governing bodies of their denominations.
“In most seminaries today, pastors aren’t taught half that stuff,” said the Rev. Bill Buchanan, who left his pastorate at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to start the Asheville Youth Mission with his late wife and fellow pastor, Aimee Wallis Buchanan.
“We are taught how to interpret the Bible, we are taught theology, how to preach and teach, but ministry and the church is changing so fast it is hard to keep up,” Buchanan said. “All of these expectations are legitimate, but it is virtually impossible for one pastor to do all of those things well at once.”
The Rev. Allen Proctor, a retired Presbyterian minister now living in Asheville, agreed that leadership and management skills are most often learned on the job and from experienced mentors — if the pastor is fortunate enough to have one.
“Seminary prepares pastors to be preachers and teachers and pastoral counselors; it does not prepare them to be leaders of a congregation,” Proctor said. “Saying seminaries prepare pastors (to lead) is like saying cooking school prepares you to operate a restaurant.”
The fallout from those myriad expectations is seen in a study by the Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development showing 70 percent of pastors were so stressed they regularly considered leaving the ministry; 35 to 40 percent of pastors actually left, most after only five years.
Another research project in 2005 and 2006 showed that of 1,050 pastors surveyed, 100 percent had a close associate or fellow seminarian who left the ministry because of burnout or conflict within the church.
That survey also showed that 89 percent had considered leaving; 57 percent said they would leave if they had a better option to make a living; and 71 percent said they battled depression.
Local faith leaders — all of whom said pastoral ministry can be a joyful and fulfilling career — said a key issue leading to problems is a pastor’s failure or inability to set boundaries allowing downtime away from church responsibilities. Many succumb to a mindset that they are failing as church leader if they are not everything to everyone all the time.
Other issues are an absence of enriching activities and relationships outside the church; the quandary of being the nurturer but rarely the nurtured; strains on marriage and family as the pastor spends long and unpredictable hours tending to church-family needs; and an absence of general self-care needed for physical, mental and spiritual health.
Some of those problems can be addressed by pastors being more open with church leadership about their struggles and needs, but that’s not always an easy conversation.
“Pastors do give a lot, and that’s their job, to care for the congregation — there’s no ambiguity about that,” said the Rev. Steve Runholt, leader — happily, he said — of Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church.
“But it’s also true that pastors are human beings, and they need some support … but it’s an awkward thing because you don’t want your congregation to feel they have to take care of you — that gets the roles backward,” Runholt said.
“That being said, I think it’s important for congregations to find ways to support or recognize their pastor, to let them know they are appreciated and not taken for granted,” he said. “A bit like marriage, where you find ways to show your partner you respect, love and appreciate them. It should also be said that some congregations are very good at this.”
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