Carol Howard Merritt: What causes pastors to burn out?

And what if it’s not the individuals’ fault, but their churches’?

Pastors have a 50 percent burnout rate. In the first couple of years of ministry, half of them will drop out.

I expect this from nursing and teaching, but I didn’t know that the rate would be quite so high for the pastorate. Do our churches realize what we’re doing to our professionals? When we put so much time and energy into preparing pastors for the ministry, isn’t it disconcerting to watch half of them leave within a couple of years?

I have often seen people shrug off the burnout. They figure that the ones who were not tough enough left. But what if it’s the healthy ones who are leaving? I wondered about this, so I asked my Twitter community of pastors (I’m @CarolHoward) about why we fizzle out so quickly. This is the feedback that I heard.

The Financial Realities —No one entered the ministry to make a lot of money. But it takes an awful lot of money to go to college and seminary. After seven years of little income and high tuition, most of us have tremendous debt. Pastor salaries are often decided by people who have never had to live with the reality of school loans. The fact that their new pastor might be 40k in the hole never occurs to them. But the financial burden becomes too difficult for the pastor, and she has to walk away.  

The Professional Loneliness —After you become a pastor, going to a party will never be quite the same experience. There are people who will tell you every problem they have had with religion, or every problem that they have in general. They will apologize for cursing or for drinking. Or they are entirely too happy that you’re a minister. And all of it can make a pastor long to be just an ordinary citizen of the world. The problem becomes compounded when the pastor is single.

I recently went to lunch with a wonderful group of clergywomen, who explained that they do not tell guys their profession on the first few dates. They tell them that they work for a non-profit.

 

The Gaping Disconnect —There was also the sense that there was a detachment between the theory we learned in seminary and the practical application that we needed in the church. We weren’t taught enough about finances, budgets, technology, conflict management, or evangelism.

The Downward Trajectory —There was the difficulty of walking into a church that has been plummeting in membership for the last forty years. The frustration, anger, and longing to re-create the past loom large. Then the new pastor is considered to be either the bearer of salvation or the reason for the failure.

The Idea Dam —When a pastor is full of ideas, going into a declining church that is looking back, hoping to re-create the past, can be like a rush of water that hits a giant, concrete wall, and has nowhere to go. As I look at generational theory, I can see that this could be a particularly frustrating thing for Generation X (those who are 28 to 48), because a leading characteristic that marks our Generation is innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. In our churches, our creative flow can get quickly jammed.

Then there was The Problem of Productivity. We live in a world of metrics, reports, and data. Our congregants want to see our output. But what do you do when you spend ten hours of your week counseling a couple through a terrible divorce? What do you do when you read a theological text to prepare for a sermon? How do you measure those hours when you sneak off to the hospital to visit the teenager who just tried to commit suicide, but her parents don’t want anyone in the church to know about it?

So much of our time is filled with work that cannot be measured, sometimes it cannot even be accounted for, but it is incredibly valuable. And it is quite frustrating to be laboring overwhelming hours, and then to have anxious members checking to see if your car is in the church lot.

Can we begin to imagine churches in which pastors can flourish? What do you wish someone had done for you?