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5 Reasons Your Pastor Daydreams about Quitting

Recently researchers from the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School did a study of 1,700 clergy finding that the instances for depression and anxiety were well above the national average.

There are a number of reasons why pastors struggle. Here are just a few:

 

1. Nothing seems insignificant

Think about some the areas where pastors spend their time:

  • Sermons
  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Counseling

From a pastor’s point of view, each of these events are ripe with eternal significance. There’s not a lot of room for phoning it in. The constant second guessing that goes on long after these events are over can be debilitating. Could I have said it better? Was I misunderstood? Should I have said that? Could I have done more?

And even when they’re not on, there’s pressure to be on. Something as simple as a poorly chosen word or a misunderstood gesture can create immense drama.The constant scrutiny pastors feel, both internal and external, creates constant, palpable pressure.

No one feels spiritual all the time, and the need to go through the motions can create feelings of inadequacy and hypocrisy in spiritual leaders.

2. Everyone sees their job differently

Ask most people what their pastor’s job description is and you’ll get a variety of answers. And the smaller the church, the more those expectations are stretched across fewer individuals.

Not only are they responsible for religious duties: sacraments, teaching, crises care, and counseling, clergy need to provide vision and direction. Beyond that, they’re often expected to attend significant life events for people in the congregation: birthdays, graduations, weddings, even helping people move.

A minister never really knows what people expect from them—until they don’t deliver.

3. They deal with never-ending criticism

Something has to be particularly amazing to garner much praise, but the slightest disappointment solicits harsh feedback, pointed suggestions, and complaints.

Just like no single raindrop ever blames themselves for the flood, no individual considers their contribution to the deluge of criticisms clergy must weather. On top of the frustration this constant barrage of negativity creates, the fact that many complaints are in opposition to other feedback creates a sense of paralyses. One person’s tired of singing hymns and another wants more.

The fact that you’ll never please everyone is more than an adage—it’s a painful fact that often results in someone choosing to leave for good.

4. They’re constantly trying to make peace

More draining than the constant complaining is the constant war brewing between individuals or factions in the church—a war clergy are always trying to negotiate into nonexistence.

Feeling slighted or wronged over the pettiest issues, people are pretty quick to sow disharmony and build an army of other disgruntled or hurt individuals. A pastor may be able to quell the storm, but the unresolved relational issues crouch at the door and wait to be provoked again.

This leaves a pastor feeling like, not only are they responsible for people with nursery-level maturity, they’re failing in their goal. Every time they have to deal with some gossip-ridden battle royale, they rehearse every teaching they’ve ever given on forgiveness, kindness, and community, and wonder what they’re doing wrong.

I have had many a church leader tell me that they wish they could lock congregants in a room and tell them to come out when they can start behaving like Christians.

5. Office hours are a myth

I know hundreds of ministers who try and protect their personal time; I know zero who are able to do so. That’s just the way it is. The pastoral ministry is a calling and not a vocation, and you need to be available when needed. Real ministry never happens at convenient moments.

Sadly, there are always a couple people who keep you on speed dial and will intrude at the drop of a hat. These “extra grace required” individuals will suck up as much bandwidth as allowed, and are often just unstable enough that ministers never feel completely comfortable creating rigid barriers. Clergy will often resent these individuals and then feel crushing guilt about their lack of compassion.

The constant anxiety that the church is going to fall apart if they’re not available 24–7 weighs on them. And too often it’s confirmed the moment they try and take a vacation or sabbatical.

BONUS: They suffer crippling loneliness

The politics in many churches is kind of weird, and may pastors can tell you horror stories about the drama created by building too close of a relationship with one person, staff member, or family. Relationships for pastors can often dissolve into petty jealousies, suspicions, and congregational jockeying for imaginary power relationships.

Having friends in the church also means a minister can never really be open about the frustrations of their job. One misspoken word can create a mountain of mayhem, so they’re often guarded and closed.

There’s also the feeling of isolation a minister feels when a person or family they’ve invested much of themselves into decides, for whatever reason, it’s time to move on.

Pastors spend a lot of time feigning their part in a community that they never really feel free to embrace.

What can you do?

  • Cut them some slack. Ministers are under a great deal of pressure (both real and imagined) and they need your support.
  • Encourage them to be involved in relationships and groups outside of the church where they’re receiving friendship and ministry, too.
  • Respect their need for boundaries.
  • Take responsibility for your spiritual maturity. Don’t perpetuate gossip. Don’t create drama. Don’t be mean.
  • Allow ministers to be faulty people.
  • Be lavish in your encouragement and feedback about things you enjoy or find beneficial.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know about it in the comments.

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Karl Vaters #

    Great post! I know so many pastors who feel everything you talk about. They could really benefit from a congregation that would take your advice, Jayson.

    September 7, 2013
  2. Very insightful. I majored in Youth Ministry in college, but still can’t bring myself to work in a church setting for each of those reasons listed. I know someone needs to do it, but I just don’t think it can be me. Thank you for the reminder to all of us that being in ministry, particularly as a pastor, is more of a challenge than we know.

    September 7, 2013
  3. I’ve not been a pastor, but having worked in a church setting, I can attest to the truth of these insights. Ministry can be a tremendously rewarding experience, but it can also be very taxing in all of the ways you’ve identified. Thanks for inviting people to understand and encourage pastors, and by extension, others in full time ministry service.

    (On a side note, I’m amused by the numbering system you’ve used for your list. I mention this not at all to criticize, but to draw your attention to it in case you’d like to edit your numbering, as well as your article title to reflect the 6 points on your list. (Feel free to delete my comment if you wish, as once you’ve read it, it will have accomplished its intended purpose.)

    Blessings to you! 🙂

    September 7, 2013
    • Thanks for pointing that out. I was doing some rewriting after it had been published and I inadvertently saved it. 🙂

      September 7, 2013
    • Sid Wood #

      Regarding the “numbering system”, this tacking on of another item is a fine old Biblical tradition. Check out Psalm 62:11, Proverbs 6:16, 30:18, 30:29, and Amos 1:3, 9, 11, 13. You are in good company Mr, Bradley. EXCELLENT posting. Should be required reading for all prospective new church members.

      September 9, 2013
  4. This is heartbreaking. We need to do church differently.

    September 7, 2013
    • Hear, hear Lori

      September 7, 2013
      • Anita Rushton #

        So how do you suggest it is done differently

        September 17, 2013
        • I suggest small groups of people meeting to break bread together, living in close proximity, praying together, encouraging one another, engaging community together, serving together. You could have a director if you choose, but the director has full or part time work outside of the community of faith. This is the model I see in the New Testament, the Acts church, if you will. A group of people on a faith journey together.
          After leaving what I call ‘big church’ this is the kind of church community I’m now part of. My ‘pastor’ is one of my closest friends and he hardly ever wants to quit.

          September 17, 2013
  5. Just emailed an encouraging message to one of our pastors. We forget how difficult their jobs can be – thanks for the reminder.

    September 7, 2013
  6. I agree that pastors have an extremely difficult job. That said, I think most people have it difficult. I’m in middle management, and everything you describe here applies to me in huge doses.
    I don’t know about all pastors, but each of them that I’ve been close to, have praise heaped on them in abundance. Personally, I’d like to see the everymen of the congregation given a little bit of recognition by the rest of the church.

    September 7, 2013
    • Bill Millar #

      Pastors are people with needs .

      September 8, 2013
  7. As one married to the minister for the last 18 years… I can attest first hand the truth of this article. too often we hear what’s wrong with “the church” and by that they mean “him” and too little is he encouraged by those he spends a life-time serving. In the past couple years, God has sent more muslims and unbelievers to encourage him to make up for it. He (God) is good like that. What’s that saying about the rocks crying out… 😉

    September 9, 2013
  8. Yup. Truth.

    September 9, 2013
  9. Great points raised. My church is in a place right now where a small minority of us struggle to effect some changes (nothing violent or rebellious, though) and it can really get discouraging when the top management is unyielding and refusing to acknowledge some real problems in the church. But yes, thank you very for the reminder that they too are imperfect. We really need to build each other up in love, not to tear down and destroy.

    September 9, 2013
  10. Lauren #

    So very true. I grew up in the ministry and watched those very things destroy my father. People are ruthless and church politics are shameful. I feel it’s the judgmental part of human nature that the Christian people can’t seem to overcome that causes a lot of these stresses. I speak as a jaded innocent bystander who had no choice but to see behind the closed doors and it isn’t all that pretty.

    September 9, 2013
  11. Laura #

    I am a former church-goer and have a different view. I think It is the pastors who put themselves in a position that concentrates all of the power onto themselves. They are the only ones who have a voice before the congregation. They are the ones who divvy out the jobs. The run it all, and they are the ones who don’t loosen the grip of power they hold. I don’t see a precedent in the bible for expensive buildings, paid staff, camp outings, and numerous other pet projects that pastors seem to love (and badger relentlessly for $$ about). In fact, I see very little precedent for their position of “professional Christian” in the bible at all.

    I also have seen more than my share of arrogant men on power trips, using their position in a wholly unrighteous and political fashion. The multitude of manipulations that I have heard from the pulpit in my 30+ years of attending gives me a stomach ache. I’ve been to a variety of denominations over the years and almost every place, it was the pastor’s way or the highway.

    I do have sympathy for the 57% who want out, because they have no prospects for employment. Their degrees are worthless in the job market. And after hearing about the clergy project, I think that quite a few of those who wish they could leave, do so because they no longer are believers.

    Peace, Laura

    September 10, 2013
    • I am truly sorry that so many of my colleagues have been such a disappointment. That’s not the way it works in the congregation I serve. Only a foolish, small-time leader attempts to control the people rather than teaching them to discern God’s still smal voice for themselves.

      September 10, 2013
      • Laura #

        Small churches or big ones, I’ve seen it everywhere. Independent fundamentalism being the absolute worst.

        September 11, 2013
  12. Debra Boland #

    Working at a church and being good friends outside of work with the Pastor and his family, I can say this is 100% true.

    September 10, 2013
  13. Julie Frank #

    Nailed it with this article. As an ordained pastor serving in congregational settings for 22 years, these are exactly some of the situations that I have dealt with…and it’s a shame that people (lay and clergy) treat each other this way.

    September 10, 2013
  14. Chris Smith #

    Spot on. While I don’t think of quitting the ministry, I am drained by the constant demand/criticism and mean-spiritedness which seems completely counter to the message of grace and forgiveness. On the other hand, only one perfect person ever lived and the Church hated him, too. Why would I think I would fare better?

    September 10, 2013
  15. All of this is so true. I love the parameters that my Pastor sets to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen at our church. Before, I felt he was very standoffish. Now that I am on staff, and I receive only a fraction of these very same draining experiences, I fully understand. I take every step to protect my Pastor and his wife from these things because I know now first hand just how frustrating it can be, though rewarding. Great tips! Will definitely take them all to heart.

    September 10, 2013
  16. Mark #

    Totally, 100% agree! I have lived it all. In only 8 years as a Pastor, those 8 years did me in. I burned out and it took almost 12 years to return to ministry, in a different way this time. Hopefully, God will never call me to Pastor again!

    September 10, 2013
  17. You nailed most of it. Many parishioners truly do encourage pastors to take their time off–just as soon as their own particular need/project is attended to first. Now multiply that one small project by 10-15 similar requests. Add in the hours spent recruiting leadership from among people too busy with priorities they rank higher than the work of the church. Now factor in the wear and tear of media ridicule, and lowered public regard with salaries to match. And yet we keep doing the work–because the sublime moments are so rich and fulfilling that we are lifted and carried by grace through another day, another week, on the hope that is poured into our hearts. One person, one moment of knowing The Holy One has worked a work through us restores our own sense of significance, and we get up to do it again. I’ve been doing that for nearly 30 years. I know I could get another job, I’ve thought about it. I am certainly part of the 89%. Yet I stay, and most often count it as a privilege.

    September 10, 2013
  18. Amen! So very true… We must all remember (whether a minister or congregational member) that we are fallible people. If we are looking for infallibility from our pastor, we are looking in the wrong place. Only Jesus is perfect. If people would truly realize that, I’m sure some of the tension would be relieved. Regardless, ministry is a tough job no matter what aspect you serve in. Thank you for a great article and reminder. 🙂

    September 11, 2013
  19. Tomo #

    Jayson, good article it proves I am not alone as I am part of the 89%. The Church in which I minister is going through a time where one family in leadership made false accusations against another family in leadership and when the Church board took action and the first family left, it became my fault in the eyes of the congregation because I could not stop it. They say it is lonely at the top, well it is lonely at the bottom too. Why do I stay because like Jeremiah the Word of The Lord is like a fire shut up in my bones I am weary of holding it in, indeed I cannot.

    September 12, 2013
  20. Jennifer Graves #

    All these things are true. And depending on the denomination, the pastor may not receive much support from his or her superiors. (District Superintendents, the Cabinet, the Bishop, etc) United Methodist pastors often catch it from both sides. The analysis of the denominational structure, and how it actually feeds into some of the catty stuff that happens on the local church level, is of course much harder to write from the perspective of an insider who hopes to remain employed!

    September 12, 2013
  21. Kathy McAbee #

    I am one of those with the Duke Clergy Health Initiative (Spirited Life). I am better than I was 2 years ago but I still think about leaving…Is what I am doing really making a difference? Getting the “you really need to” conflicting advice from different members. And even though the district and conference have resources in place to help, well, the resources are expensive for me &/or the church to take advantage of. And yes, I feel alone in what I do. I know others feel this way and we can talk but there doesn’t seem to be a solution.
    I’m going to keep on plugging along until God tells me to stop or I go insane…which ever comes first.
    Thank you for an honest article.

    September 12, 2013
  22. Deb #

    I am a pastor, and every one of these are SO true! Thank you for writing this.

    September 12, 2013
  23. I am a pastor. This article speaks truth and I resonate with everything you write here. I’d love to see you flip the coin and write on the benefits of being a pastor. Not for some “look on the bright side” thing, but because every role/calling/job in life has its pros and cons. You nailed the cons, but I stay in it because of the pros. To me, the role is extreme and intense because of the lows (well noted in your post) and the highs. Also, I think Laura (in the comments section) is onto something. I think the “system” of pastoral leadership also generates issues and challenges. Anyhoo, what do you think are the pros?

    September 20, 2013
  24. Spurgeon, who was given to major bouts of depression, wrote that depression was the lot of the preacher because God will not share his glory.

    February 6, 2014
  25. Jen #

    One more thing…PK’s are normal kids and shouldn’t be held to some unrealistic standard of behavior. It was tough to have people love and adore my 5 children, and tell me they were always “so well behaved and polite” until the day my husband was voted in as Music and Administration Pastor, then it was, “Your kids are rude, they didn’t hold the door for so and so or they were running in the hallway.” Yikes! They had always been the same kids but people looked at them through very different and very critical eyes.

    February 7, 2014

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