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Pandemic increased stress but few pastors left ministry

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pastors have faced increased stress during the COVID-19 pandemic as churches have been forced to adapt overnight. More felt that their role was at times overwhelming, but few pastors actually decided to leave the ministry.

A new study from Lifeway Research has found that nearly 1% of evangelical and historically black Protestant senior pastors walk away from the pulpit each year, a rate statistically unchanged from a 2015 Lifeway Research study.

“COVID-19 was neither a small nor short-lived stressor for pastors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Many have speculated that pastors have withdrawn from pastoring as a result. This is not the case. They remain true to the vocation at levels similar to those seen before the pandemic. “

The August-September 2021 study interviewed more than 1,500 pastors serving in Evangelical and historically black Protestant churches.

About 1 in 6 pastors (17%) started in their current church during the pandemic years of 2020-2021. Half of senior pastors facing the ministry disruption brought on by COVID-19 were new to their role, and 51% are serving in their first church as senior pastor.

More than one in three pastors (37%) say he was the top leader of his church 10 years ago. Among congregations that had a different pastor in 2011, most of the previous pastors are now either retired (30%) or pastors of another church (28%).

During that time, some have moved away from the pulpit to another role in ministry (13%) or work in a non-ministerial position (8%), according to the current pastor. Together, these two groups who leave the pastorate before retirement show an annual pastor attrition rate of about 1.5%.

“COVID-19 is not the only pressure pastors face, nor the most likely reason why pastors of ten years ago are no longer pastors,” McConnell said. “Baby Boomer Pastors are reaching retirement age, and although many continue to be pastors for years afterward, retirement is still the most common reason a 2011 pastor is not a pastor. a decade later. “

Thinking of their predecessor in cases where that person works outside of the pastorate, current senior pastors are most likely to say that the previous pastor left due to a call change (32%), a church conflict (18%), exhaustion (13%). , being a bad fit with the church (12 percent), or family issues (10 percent).


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Fewer report a moral or ethical problem (8%), illness (5%), personal finances (5%) or lack of preparation (3%).

Conflict and change

Regardless of how the previous pastor left, the vast majority of pastors are confident in their position. Nine in 10 (90%) pastors say they are confident they can stay in their current church for as long as they want, including 60% who strongly agree.

While a decade ago only 15% of pastors left the pastorate and less than one in six pastors say that the conflict caused this pastor to leave the pastorate, many pastors have experienced conflict in the pastorate. their church.

Of pastors surveyed who were previously pastors of another church, almost half (47%) say they left their last church because they went as far as they could. Another third (33%) say their family needed a change. A quarter say there was conflict in the church (25 percent). More than 1 in 5 indicate that the church does not take its approach to pastoral ministry (22%) or has unrealistic expectations of it (21%). Another 18 percent admit they weren’t suitable for church. Few say they have been reassigned (14%) or asked to leave the church (10%).

Even though the conflict did not cause them to leave their last church, most pastors (69%) say they faced some type of conflict there.

More than one in three report having suffered a significant personal attack (39%), having had a conflict over proposed changes (39%) or having been in conflict with lay leaders (38%). More than a quarter encountered disagreements over expectations about the pastor’s role (28%) or his leadership style (27%). Fewer conflicts experienced over doctrinal (12%) or political (8%) differences.

“Churches are groups of people, and even like-minded people don’t always get along,” McConnell said. “It would be naive to think that a church would not experience disagreements. The important thing is whether this church maintains unity and love for one another as it navigates these differences or leans towards personal attacks as many pastors have experienced.

Their previous experience with conflict leads 4 out of 5 pastors (80%) to expect to face it in their current church in the future. As part of this preparation, 9 in 10 say they are constantly listening for signs of conflict in their church (90%) and investing in processes and behaviors to prevent it (89%).

Overworked and overloaded

Direct conflict with the faithful is not the only type of problem pastors face in their ministry. They often feel overworked and overworked as individuals and worry about the toll their work can take on their families.

Most pastors say they are on call around the clock (71%) and their role is often overwhelming (63%). Half of pastors (50%) say the demands of their job are often more than they can handle. Many say they feel isolated (38 percent) and face unrealistic expectations from their church (23 percent). One in five pastors (21%) admit that they often feel irritated by members of their church.

“The impact of the pandemic may be more noticeable in the increased agreement of pastors that the role of pastor is often overwhelming, which has grown from 54% in 2015 to 63% today,” said McConnell.

“But there has also been a change in the way some pastors think about their work. Fewer pastors agree they need to be “on call” 24 hours a day, from 84% to 71%. Perhaps even more telling, the majority of pastors (51%) strongly agreed with this expectation in 2015, while only a third (34%) felt strongly about this obligation today.

Almost all Black Evangelical and Protestant pastors are married (95%) and their role as spouse, and often parent, can conflict with their role as church leader. Most, however, feel that serving in vocation ministry has been good for their families.

More than 9 in 10 pastors say their spouse is very satisfied with their marriage (96%) and enthusiastic about living together in ministry (91%). A similar percentage (94%) consistently protects time spent with family. Most pastors were able to take a week’s vacation with their families last year (83%) and schedule monthly date nights with their spouses (66%).

As a result, few say their job prevents them from spending time with their family (31%), and even fewer think their family does not like the demands of pastoral ministry (19%).

Yet 2 in 5 pastors say they are often concerned about their families’ financial security.

“Fewer pastors are concerned about the financial security of their families – 41% today compared to 53% in 2015,” McConnell said. “This decrease in the number of pastors stressed by their personal finances may be due to increased generosity from their church or to government financial stimulus checks. It is even more common for a pastor to worry about his own finances than to report a drop in donations in his church. “

Encouragement and support

While families can provide additional stress and responsibilities for pastors, they are also one of the sources of encouragement and support. They are also a channel through which a congregation can take care of its pastor. Nine in 10 pastors (90%) say their families receive real encouragement from their church.

Almost 9 in 10 (86 percent) believe their church gives them the freedom to say no when faced with unrealistic expectations. While few say their church has a plan for the pastor to periodically receive a sabbatical (32 percent), nearly 9 in 10 say they have a day to disconnect from ministerial work and have a day off at home. least once a week (86 percent).

Pastors also rely on others for support and encouragement. Most say at least once a month that they openly share their difficulties with their spouse (82%), a close friend (68%) or another pastor (66%). Others say they are able to speak with lay church leaders (42 percent), a mentor (40 percent), another staff member (35 percent), a Bible study group in their church (23 percent) or a counselor (9 percent).

“The difficult times and seasons that pastors face require an ongoing investment in their spiritual, physical and mental well-being,” said McConnell. “Most pastors and churches have practices that help the pastor in this way, but there are often missed opportunities to encourage, reinforce, and avoid misunderstandings. “

The study was sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Houston and Richard Dockins, MD. 15, 2021, using both telephone and online interviews.

The completed sample is 1,000 telephone interviews and 576 online surveys. Responses were weighted according to region, church size, and faith group to more accurately reflect population. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 2.7 percent. The margins of error are higher in the subgroups.

Comparisons are made with a telephone survey of 1,500 evangelical and black Protestant pastors conducted by Lifeway Research from March 5 to 18, 2015.



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