The pastoral skills and mental health of clergy were pushed to the limits in 2020, and the first few weeks of 2021 may be doing much of the same.
Recent research shows that leading congregations through the traumatic events like the COVID-19 pandemic and a brutal presidential election season was more than many ministers could take. They often had to become tech gurus, diplomats and expert fundraisers while doubling down on pastoral ministry to counsel distressed church members and friends.
“Leading anxious congregations amidst a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, a civil rights movement, and an upcoming election is destroying the lives of our pastors. Literally,” Jakob Topper, senior pastor at Northaven Church in Norman, Okla., wrote in an August 2020 column for Baptist News Global.
Topper’s submission struck a chord with readers, becoming BNG’s most-read opinion piece in 2020 and its fifth-most-read piece of all time.
In surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020, Barna Research collected data exposing the extent to which pastors have been tested by a divided culture and a dystopian political climate, then by the coronavirus pandemic.
In early fall 2020, many clergy told Barna their emotional well-being was excellent or good, 31% described it as “average” and 20% said it was “below average.” Researchers described the findings as “sobering and concerning” and asked: “How can pastors be expected to tend to their churchgoers’ relational, emotional and mental health struggles when they are wrestling challenges of their own?”
The stresses that at that point had pressed upon churches for just five months now have stretched into 10 months. With the holidays behind, the stark reality of the ongoing pandemic and the nation’s political climate likely have only exacerbated those earlier trends.
Compounding the problem ministers face is their lack of experience and training in helping people through deep trauma such as that experienced in the pandemic.
“Most pastors agree that trauma is an issue the church should address, but many church leaders have had little to no training in the way of trauma care.”
“Most pastors agree that trauma is an issue the church should address, but many church leaders have had little to no training in the way of trauma care,” Barna reported before the pandemic hit.
In a survey conducted with the American Bible Society, Barna found that 73% of Protestant pastors said they were “somewhat” equipped in helping others deal with significant crisis. Only 15% described themselves as “very” well-equipped, and 12% said they felt completely unprepared.
“Protestant pastors without training make up a much larger proportion of those who feel unprepared than of those who feel somewhat or well-prepared,” Barna reported.
But even among those who had training in counseling, the majority – 55% – said they felt only “somewhat” well prepared to guide people through significant personal challenges. And that was before the pandemic.
A frustrating reality for clergy is that even when they are prepared to handle parishioners’ struggles, there often are fewer people to help.
“Data from ‘Restoring Relationships’ show that while pastors might feel somewhat equipped to help their congregants work through a challenging time, it’s not a guarantee that practicing Christians will turn to the church in the midst of their struggle,” Barna said.
Barna noted that while 69% of practicing Christians say they have “grown closer to a church because of a personal crisis,” another one-third have pulled away from congregations in hard times.
According to Barna, 95% of pastors said they knew someone drew closer to the church they lead because of a personal crisis. “On the other hand, more than eight in 10 can recall someone who has distanced themselves from the church they lead as the result of a personal crisis.”
Previous research shows that Christians who pull away from church as a result of traumatic experiences say they did so because they felt unable to be honest about their lives (35%), disagreed with church teaching (17%), disliked treatment by church leaders (15%) or by other churchgoers (16%).
“Clergy can positively impact these trends by being open about their own struggles with their congregations.”
However, clergy can positively impact these trends by being open about their own struggles with their congregations, Barna concluded. “So often, good leadership means leading by example.”
Yet, researchers also found in an April 2020 survey that at the dawn of the pandemic, 58% of pastors never had mentioned the topic of emotional and mental health during a Sunday sermon.
“The more pastors honestly talk about the real stuff of relationships, the more people will know that honest talk is the way forward,” the Barna report concluded.