Between the notoriously long hours, the unrealistic expectations and the severe stress on health and family, church ministry often becomes too much for many — in fact most — ministers to handle.
For some it results in being fired, quitting or trudging through a miserable life.
“Some pastors are just absolutely crushed,” said Greg Atkinson, executive director of ExPastors.com, an online resource for clergy experiencing the spiritual, mental and physical symptoms of burnout while in, or out, of ministry.
ExPastors.com is aimed at ministers experiencing a variety of stressed-out situations. It offers tools to prevent burnout and to bring about its end. Its clients are former pastors and those about to abandon their callings.
The organization conducted a 2015 survey that found 60 percent of pastors consider themselves overworked and 81 percent feel unable to meet the demands of their jobs, Atkinson said during an Oct. 13 FaithSoaring Churches conference call sponsored by The Columbia Partnership.
The survey said 82 percent feel they are burdened with unrealistic demands or that they and their families are expected to meet unwritten expectations.
“Eighty-five percent consider leaving ministry [and] 77 percent consider themselves having experienced burnout,” Atkinson said.
But awareness is only part of the solution. Acceptance and action also are needed — and not only by churches but also by their beleaguered leaders, as well.
Atkinson shared some well-known statistics that contribute to the stress of pastors. They include declining or plateauing attendance in most congregations and the closure of up to 4,000 American churches annually.
Many church leaders take those kinds of trends to heart, which merely adds to the built-in pressures that come with the pulpit.
Ministers often respond to internal and external stressors by falling into an isolation which makes them vulnerable to addictions such as alcohol, drugs and pornography. They in turn speed the process toward mental illness, burnout, termination, quitting ministry and even suicide, he said.
Those who leave the church are doing so at an increasing pace, he added.
Atkinson said he spoke to a pastor who complained about preaching funerals Friday through Monday and being expected by his church to handle all hospital visits.
He told Atkinson, “’I don’t need this. I have an MBA. I can go teach.’” Other former pastors he knows are selling insurance and real estate to support their families.
Some are there because they were unjustly fired from ministry positions. Others were released because of budget cuts and abandoned ministry because a spouse demanded it, he said.
In some cases, those who leave ministry also leave the church altogether.
“I got an email from a pastor who became an atheist,” he said. And a friend was so hurt he didn’t want anything to do with organized Christianity.
“If you don’t get healthy, you won’t return to ministry”
Assessing their situation and attitude is an important step for a pastor. But so is taking the appropriate actions, Atkinson said.
Ministers experiencing stress, isolation and an urge to quit should seek counseling and mentor relationships.
Those arrangements provide contexts in which ministers can air feelings and thoughts that cannot be safely shared with colleagues, congregants and members of their own families, he said.
Exercise and a healthy diet also are musts to providing healthy ministry in challenging environments.
Those behaviors — seeking counseling, eating better, getting exercise — are also vital for those who have left the church.
“If you don’t get healthy, you won’t return to ministry,” Atkinson said.