My name is John Chaffee, I am 37 years old and I have essentially worked in paid ministries in different capacities for now 20 years.
When I read your recent article that 38% of US pastors have thought about quitting full-time ministry in the past year, I was, in a sense, validated by reading it. It was validating to read that I wasn’t the only one, and it rather gave me the feeling of being noticed. Ministry is incredibly difficult and you likely do not know it or believe it unless you have done it yourself.
Now, what kind of experiences do I bring to this discussion? Or, who am I to even try to talk about this massive topic?
Well, as I said above, I have worked in ministries for the past 20 years in a variety of ways… From my home church, to college chaplain, to camp counselor, to camp director, to youth intern, to camp counselor, to hospital chaplain, to youth director, to taking a break and hiking the AT, to camp speaker/preacher, to youth director, to college professor, I have been around Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Non-Denominational, Calvary Chapels, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Exvangelicals, and plenty that have straight up left the church altogether. Along the way, I have had the good fortune of an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology.
All that is one thing…
It is altogether another thing to say that I have experienced burnout myself, and that is why I am writing this. I hope that you, the reader, can know what is going on WITHIN a person (myself in the past) as they contemplate walking away from all of it.
Ministry work is incredibly rewarding, rich and a privilege. Let me start with that.
I have sat with people, young and old, as they sift through experiences of the death of loved ones, suicidal ideation, cutting, substance abuse, abusive homes, depression, lostness, feeling misunderstood, loneliness, doubt, rage, etc. I have been with people at their weddings, held newborns, seen people choose to grow, overcome an addiction, redirect their life path, accept their own radical and unconditional acceptance before God, etc. To be able to share those experiences is simply a gift, a treasure, a grace.
With that being said, hold that paragraph above in tension with everything below.
Here are some reasons (in no particular order) why I believe there is nearly a 50% chance that pastors under 45 have thought about quitting full time ministry:
- Working boundaries are crossed regularly and doing so is often rationalized as necessary. Not only that, but ministry is one of those fields in which you are applauded and celebrated for working overtime/crossing your own boundaries and considered rude or lacking compassion/hospitality for others if you enforce boundaries for yourself.
- Expectations of the pastor vary wildly among congregants (without realizing how much is projected onto the pastor as if they are a parent figure). Many people do not know what they want from their pastor until the pastor does not live up to their expectations, which then is voiced via an email-bomb, gossip or triangulated dissatisfaction rather than constructive feedback. Said expectations are often above and beyond what the job description says.
- Pastors are often not trained adequately in conflict management, self-care, or understanding the church they serve as an emotional system (just like a family but on a macro scale).
- There is rarely a true culture of vulnerability. People love their pastor to tell personal stories but never share their current sadness, anger, depression.
- Pastors are expected to self-care from the trauma of working at a church on their own time and dime. (Yes, I say trauma because according to Dr. Deborah Hunsinger, a professor of pastoral theology at Princeton, a trauma is an event that overwhelms your internal or external resources.)
- Pastors experience pressure to preach on issues OR pressure to avoid preaching on issues, and rarely are they encouraged to preach on issues in a manner informed by scholarship, tradition, reason and the Holy Spirit. The average congregant may not recognize that the role of the sermon is to be an echo of the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament of hopeful critique of the status quo in light of Jesus being the self-revelation of God and the embodiment of the ethics and reality of the kingdom of God, not a pep talk. (This means the sermon is SUPPOSED to shake things up.)
- Even pastors who have been studious and scholarly are quickly dismissed by people, I believe I have witnessed a lessening respect for the graduate level work that most pastors receive.
- Pastors are often unsupported in how to prioritize and value their own health and holiness and as a result are often personally unhealthy physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually and don’t even know it themselves. Although, their closest families and friends could probably point it out.
- Pastors are not encouraged to pass people off to more trained specialists, but often are encouraged to create co-dependent relationships. Yup, read that again.
- Being a pastor is one of those professions, possibly similar to that of a public school teacher, in which people feel brazenly free to tell them how to pastor. This might be a part of a larger cultural issue in the West that is hitting the fields of teaching, medicine, ministry, etc. Along with this goes the inverse reality of the pastor being triangulated or gossiped about. Triangulation and gossip are immature habits and are clinically understood as manipulative behavior.
- Pastors are faulted for teaching “over people’s heads” yet also “not being challenging enough” in lessons, bible studies or sermons. It’s a darned if you do, darned if you don’t type of a thing.
- Pastors are encouraged to gather people around them and I do not believe that is the goal of discipleship. Pastors are taught how to lead Bible Studies, not exactly how to teach people how to do Bible Studies for themselves. (Remember that whole “teach a man to fish” idea?)
- Pastors are routinely and regularly underpaid and overworked, and despite all of the output, are often valued at half or a third of what local teachers make in the community.
- And, lastly, if a young pastor contemplating a 30-40 year career in a field in which they would be unsupported, undersupported, underpaid for their education and experience in their zip code, overworked, overlooked, not given a chance to grow, not having boundaries respected, without a reasonable job description, etc. then it should be no surprise that they look at that possible life and say, “No, thanks.” If you are a parent, you would absolutely tell your grown child to walk away from that field, right?
Strangely, I can admit that I have been triangulated, manipulated, gossiped about, minimized, demeaned, silenced, and scapegoated throughout the 20 years of formal ministry. Now, to be clear, these are all things that are a part of the human experience. No matter where you go, you will likely encounter these things. What makes these experiences so hauntingly dark is that they often happen by church folk who are completely unaware (sometimes) they are doing these things. Immaturity (of any form) will only continue unless it is called out.
Some days, I question if someone should become a pastor before the age of 40. Otherwise, they have not seen enough of life, bled enough and healed enough, gotten over their ego need to produce, and gained the wisdom that literally only happen through experience and self-reflection.
Not only that, but…
If the church were likened to a “one celled organism” then every church needs some people to be in the “organism” as strong anti-bodies. Every church needs mature people of health and holiness that walk around like deeply centered club-bouncers. These spiritual anti-bodies act as people that walk up to the “viruses” and tell them that it is time to mature up, repent, or tell them it is time to move on.
In order for a church to be healthy, it needs to invite people into health and holiness for themselves and if they are not willing to do that work, then it is okay to connect them with a different faith community that will be a better fit for them. Churches do not do well when they chase after people to join or stay that are not in line with the values of being healthy and holy.
This sounds harsh, but it is actually what every family needs: a tough but loving voice keeping the family healthy and well.
But let’s shift for a moment.
Here are some ways to help the pastor or person in ministry that you know:
- Do not deny help to a pastor when they say they need help. It is extremely likely have been needed helping for a while, but helpers are not exactly wired to ask for help themselves. If you can’t give the help, then defer them to some who will, not to someone who “might.” Oh, and certainly do not reprimand them for asking for help. (Yes, that does happen.)
- Respect their boundaries, or even go so far as to help them set their boundaries if they don’t have them. Unless it is a life or death situation, it can wait until the next day, or when they are back from vacation. Even then, hopefully there are protocols for who else to contact instead of crossing said boundary.
- Gently talk with them when they start to exhibit unhealthy relational behaviors. No one is above reproach or correction. The longer it goes on the more it will likely grow or become experientially understood as acceptable.
- Absolutely pay them according to their experience, education and the local zip code, (and if you can’t, then simply increase their vacation time) so that on top of caring for others, they are not left worrying about their own ability to pay the bills. More often than not, places look for reasons to not give a raise beyond the rate of inflation rather than look for reasons to give said raise.
- Moderate your own expectations for them. Without knowing it, you might be projecting onto them your own unconscious needs for a fulfilling parent-relationship. This is even more the case if the pastor is older than you, but it actually may be the case if they are younger as well. The role is that of a mentoring one, and that carries certain nuances with it.
- Encourage them to stay up to date with what seminaries are teaching today. It is easy, just like a schoolteacher, to fall behind and not know what is considered “best practices” or “best principles.” Every field changes and grows and learns from its yesteryears, ministry is no different.
- Encourage them to chase after continuing education in whatever their interest is. If the pastor is still growing, then you can be sure that you will keep growing. Encourage them to learn from people outside of their usual circles, it is entirely possible to find your own little echo chamber of scholars all saying the same things.
- Encourage them to maintain friendships completely outside of the social sphere of the ministry of which they lead. If a pastor is only known by people that know them through their title, then that is a problem. Encourage them to have a life completely unconnected to their income and formal ministry.
- Remember that pastors are human and have limits. Pastors are imperfect, so give them grace as they grow and learn to be better human themselves but also do not put them on a pedestal that says they are above constructive feedback.
- Do not become co-dependent on your pastor for your faith development. Your faith development is your responsibility, your investment, your task, not theirs. They simply create the space and craft the invitation for you to dive in deeper for yourself.
- Do your own self-work to be as healthy and holy as you are able. Confront your own unhealthy ways of relating, figure out if you are passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive by temperament, confront your own defense mechanisms, etc. Seriously, this will benefit everyone around you, not least of which will include your pastor.
What are some resources about all this, John?
Now, you might be asking, “Where do we even start studying up on these things? How can I catch up on these topics and learn what the specialists say make for healthy leaders, churches and spirituality?”
I am glad that you asked!
In an effort to be more helpful than anything else, I decided to go ahead and curate an Amazon List of books and resources that have informed and shaped my own understanding of everything above. I would absolutely say that all of these books and resources are non-negotiable books for people in ministry to read, and, if possible for church staffs, elders, and boards to read together.
So, where is the hope?
Well, the hope is that things can change. The hope is that the book of Leviticus does not only talk about how people can repent but even whole communities and nations.
Things can turn around, but only if they are talked about openly… and to be honest, only those with “ears to hear will hear” the fact that things need to chance. Some people may not see a problem, and some people may not want to see the problem. However, I am a full scale proponent of the idea that the problem that calls out to you is your problem to fix. And so, if you notice a pastor or person in ministry burning out, then it is morally your responsibility to do something about it. The problem you become aware of is beckoning you to help fix it.
Don’t blame the parts.
The problem is in the whole, not the parts. I say this because the machine was built in a way that causes the parts to be broken and needing to be replaced by new parts. The problem is not the person, it is the environment which crushes the person. The pastors wanting to quit is not really the problem, the problem is the milieu that has been causing the endemic problem of pastoral burnout. The better question is, “What is going on in this culture/environment/current ways that things are set up that is causing this burnout? Because, the problem may not be in the 38% of pastors that have contemplated leaving ministry altogether.”
In the long run, the Church will be fine… especially if it learns and grows from its mistakes.
Currently the Church is slamming up against a wall and having less and less impact/resonance with the next generation as well as not knowing how to encourage and keep its next generation of pastors around.
The Church never was, nor will ever be, an institution. It is the collective embodiment of the Christ among a group of people. I do not plan to ever stop doing ministry, but I do think that the conventional way of doing ministry is going through a rather full scale re-evaluation.
Strangely enough, I can honestly say that I still believe in the Church but that it is entirely possible for the local church to lose sight of what it was intended to be. It has been my personal life experience that churches often have an unsaid amount of hurt and pain that they are willing to allow or excuse before having to say, “Hey, I think we need to reconsider (repent) how we are doing things here. We need to make a change.”
It is possible that the last reformation was one of reforming our understanding of theology.
It is possible that this current reformation is one of reforming our understanding of the Church.
Grace and Peace to all of you.
PS, And, if you are a pastor or person in ministry that has contemplated leaving the job, please reach out to me. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to start an email correspondence with you.
PPS, Feel free to share this with a pastor or person in ministry that you might know.