After 25 years in the ministry, during which he never once considered leaving, Pastor Tim Kuperus admits that the last three years have been difficult enough for him to consider a different path.

A lot has happened in a short period of time—from the unique challenges of the pandemic to the poisonous political climate—says Kuperus, who explains how these factors affecting church members have affected his joy of ministry. He has witnessed, for example, how “arguing over a piece of cloth” has managed to divide the church, and although he has seen his fair share of critical situations in a quarter of a century as a pastor, these tensions have led to turmoil he has not experienced before. 

Kuperus is not the only one who has struggled with the idea of leaving the ministry. The numbers reported in some Barna surveys are quite surprising, but before we get to them, let’s take a look at the testimonies of other pastors who have faced burnout and the desire to leave the ministry.

The pastor and the “triple whammy” of recent years

It was during the pandemic that Pastor Ronnie Martin felt tempted to quit—the endless discussions about controversial issues such as the wearing of masks, and the fact that 60 members left the church over disagreements, took him through dark times. He wondered if he was the right man in the right place or if he would be more helpful elsewhere, but this period of doubt and turmoil didn’t last long. He decided to stay in the ministry and see how God would use him in those circumstances.

Jeremy Writebol saw his church split when he prayed about the violence that swept the country after the murder of African-American George Floyd. Half of the 350 members thought their pastor was part of the “woke” movement; no amount of argument could convince them otherwise, and the result was that they left the local church. Overwhelmed by what was happening, Writebol began to wonder where he had gone wrong and whether it was still his calling to pastor a dwindling congregation.

As protests organised by the Black Lives Matter movement swept through his neighbourhood, Pastor Michael Keller found that the issue of justice had become a bone of contention—some of his congregants were outraged that he wasn’t talking about it enough, while others felt it shouldn’t be mentioned at all.

The pandemic, racial unrest, and the 2020 presidential election were “a triple whammy”—anything pastors said about these issues scandalised one side or the other, which was “really demoralising,” Keller concluded, noting that more than theological differences, differences on social and political issues can undermine the unity of the faithful.

Why do pastors leave?

According to Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant, the most difficult jobs in America today are those of the president of the country, the president of a university, the administrator of a hospital, and the pastor of a church. While one might partially agree with Drucker’s assessment, many would consider it a joke to include pastors in this ranking.

From the outside, the job of a pastor seems (too) easy to many, but studies show the complexity of the challenges pastors face and the most common reasons why they leave their ministry or, if they do not leave, sometimes consider it.

In March 2022, 42% of pastors in the United States said they had considered leaving the ministry in the past year, according to a Barna survey. The survey showed a sharp increase in the number of pastors considering leaving, up from 29% in January 2021.

The top three reasons cited were high levels of stress (56%), feelings of loneliness and isolation (43%), and political disagreements (38%). Other reasons given were the steady decline of the church (12%), the impact of ministry on one’s family (10%), a lack of optimism about the future of the church (9%), the fact that the vision of the church was at odds with the direction in which the church was going (8%), or the realisation that they lacked qualities that would ensure success in ministry (4%).

Surprisingly, leaders who had not considered resignation said that the main challenges they faced were those mentioned by those who had considered the resignation option: a high level of stress (34%), division caused by political decisions (32%), and loneliness and isolation (18%).

Three-quarters of those who had not considered resigning strongly felt that they had a calling to serve, 67% said they had the support of their family, and 59% had the support of their community.

Other studies and surveys have identified a number of challenges and stressors. For example, 90% of pastors said they worked between 55 and 75 hours a week, 84% said they were “on call” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 80% felt that pastoral ministry had a negative impact on their family (78% of pastors said personal time and family vacations were interrupted by responsibilities and issues related to the churches they pastored, and 35% said the demands of their ministry prevented them from spending time with their family).

In analysing the work of pastors, organisational psychology professor Rick DeShon found that it involves demanding, uninterrupted activities that must be performed at a fast pace. “The breadth of tasks performed by local church pastors coupled with the rapid switching between task clusters and roles that appears prevalent in this position is unique. I have never encountered such a fast-paced job with such varied and impactful responsibilities,” DeShon said.

This shift from one task to another, each requiring different skills and knowledge, “is costly in terms of cognitive effort, behavioural control, and emotion regulation,” notes Matt Bloom, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

A study carried out two decades ago, which interviewed hundreds of pastors who had left the ministry, identified other difficulties and challenges faced by pastors and their families. Many pastors feel that their efforts are not appreciated, while they face unreasonable demands, conflicts in the church (especially over financial and spiritual issues), problems created by people who do not want to change or lack vision and purpose. Sometimes pastors themselves are too rigid, lack the ability to negotiate, and adopt an aloof attitude, making their mission more difficult.

Many of those surveyed admitted to struggling with unrealistic demands and pressures from members of the congregation, who often expected the pastor and his family to have higher spiritual standards than they did. These expectations led some leaders to distance themselves from the faithful, feeling that they could only be themselves at the risk of disappointing them.

The study found that the leaders’ most pressing problem was the isolation and loneliness they felt. Even when surrounded by many people, pastors reported that they often felt isolated and lacked the close fellowship they observed among believers or had themselves before entering the pastorate. One survey found that 70% of pastors do not have a close friend or confidant. The reason for being close to believers is usually to support them by providing encouragement or advice on spiritual, marital, financial, or other issues.

Most pastors say they can’t share their problems and worries—members of the congregation would be intrigued by the idea that a spiritual leader might be overwhelmed by discouragement or exhausted by his duties, or they might think there must be something wrong with a pastor who admits he needs help and encouragement.

How can we support our pastors?

Having served as a pastor for six years, Professor Shawn Wilhite knows quite well the needs of a leader and the kind of support he needs.

First and foremost, the pastor needs the prayers of the believers—for their spiritual growth, for their service, and to overcome the challenges and temptations they face. Wilhite also points out the importance of praying with the pastor, so that he is reassured that he is not carrying the burdens of the church alone.

In addition, talking to your pastor about his sermon (which he spends 10 to 20 hours preparing), asking questions, or expressing gratitude for the teaching that was tailored to your needs not only provides positive feedback, but also motivates him to prepare powerful sermons. Pastors are also encouraged to hear their members share their experiences with God and how they are growing spiritually.

Christian author David McLemore shares some simple ways we can encourage our pastor in an article. A simple “thank you” can be helpful, as pastors don’t often hear that word. An email or a handwritten letter can be a good choice, as the recipient may come back to them after long and seemingly dull days of ministry.

Not creating unnecessary problems is one of the best ways to support your pastor, McLemore writes, pointing out that he often has to deal with the hard parts of ministry, carrying the burdens of others and stepping in at times of crisis.

Another recommendation from the Christian author is to speak well of the pastor and stop the gossip that circulates about him. Even if he doesn’t preach in a memorable way or has traits we don’t particularly like, if he presents the gospel and is devoted in his walk with God, we shouldn’t punish him just because he hasn’t been endowed with the qualities we would expect.

Our attendance at church and our participation in church activities, according to our gifts, are practical ways of encouraging our pastor. At the same time, we need to be aware that we are not serving the pastor, but God, and therefore we can never do too much for him, concludes McLemore.

One of the surest ways to care for your pastor is to care for his children, writes Pastor Gavin Ortlund, who suggests three ways to do this: respect their privacy (which means showing interest in them, but not barging into their lives uninvited and pressuring them to be involved in the church the way we want them to be), pray for them, and avoid holding them to different standards just because they’re the pastor’s children.

Those who want to be supportive of their pastor will not remain passive or silent when he has to fight for a just cause, and will not let all the pressure fall on him.

Highlighting the dangers of “celebrity culture,” Ortlund stresses the importance of valuing the pastor’s piety more than his skills and talents. Even when it comes to giving feedback on a sermon, our appreciation should be directed to how we have been blessed by the message, rather than focusing on the speaker’s talent. We really want to encourage and edify, not flatter and appeal to pride.

Commenting on a study showing that less than 1% of pastors resign each year (even though 54% often find the role of pastor taxing, 48% frequently feel overwhelmed by the demands of the job, and 21% say the church has unrealistic expectations), Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, stressed that pastors are not leaving the ministry in droves. At the same time, churches should be aware of the challenges of the job and support their leader as best they can, McConnell said.

Rev. Glenn Packiam sums up a pastor’s deepest needs: “We need sages to advise us… peers to remind us that we aren’t alone, healers to dress our wounds and companions who carry us when we can’t carry on.”

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Times Romania and ST Network.