A s an Enneagram 8, watching Disney’s Encanto, I easily resonated with Luisa, the middle sister known for her brute-like strength. Without spoiling too much, in the film, Luisa starts to lose some of her supernatural strength. During a particularly tense moment, she sings a song about struggling with the pressure to carry the literal weight of it all.
I serve as both a denominational ministry leader in the Reformed Church in America and a pastor for a church plant. And, over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, I have felt a little like I’ve lost my supernatural edge at balancing everything, too.
It turns out that I’m not alone.
Why pastors are burnt out
Several pastors I attended seminary with or have connected with throughout my ministry have recently left their roles as church leaders. All of them landed in another industry. Many pastors that I have connected with have reported high levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. A major cause: how the pandemic has reshaped their congregations.
People just aren’t returning to worship like pastors had anticipated that they would. For congregations that are mostly funded by the personal tithing of their communities, the longer attendance seems to waiver, the greater the crushing weight ministry leaders shoulder.
But finances aren’t the only reason pastors are feeling burnt out. When people don’t come back to worship, there’s a sense that you’re not adequately serving those who are most in need—a feeling of perpetual failure to get through every time you step up to preach. There are conflicts related to mask-wearing and what it means to faithfully serve Jesus in a pandemic. And there’s the struggle to remain agile as regulations and changes thwart carefully laid plans set months in advance over and over. There’s also ongoing grief—grief for loved ones who were lost during the pandemic, grief over ministry’s ever-changing dynamics, grief for the loss of many things we had anticipated but had to give up. And that’s on top of any personal struggles each pastor may be dealing with in their families, relationships, finances, or health.
In short, it’s a lot of pressure.
This leads me to my larger question: what needs to change?
It’s hard to keep it fresh when you can hardly keep going
Many pastors are bombarded with messages from parachurch ministries and denominations alike urging us to change our approach or to try something different. We’re often told our ministries simply need new and fresh perspectives or strategies. But what happens when congregational leaders are so bogged down by the weight of simply doing what it takes for our ministry to survive the next week that we have no capacity to try something new?
As Luisa puts it in Encanto, “What if I could shed the crushing weight of all the expectations?”
Barna reported in late 2021 that 38 percent of pastors have thought about leaving their roles as full-time ministry leaders. That is a staggering number that we can’t ignore.
So again, I have to ask, what needs to change?
A message for pastors struggling with burnout
I’m not going to tell a bunch of burnt-out pastors to add one more thing to their to-do lists, like “get healthy.” Instead, I’m going to first say, “I see you and you are not alone. You have not failed.”
Second, if you are a pastor who feels the great weight of expectation, I invite you to spend time getting clear on what you need.
Do you need space away from your normal ministry setting, perhaps a short sabbatical? Or would you benefit from greater spiritual direction? Would finding a good therapist or increasing the number of sessions with your therapist help you process your emotions and get the mental health support you need?
Are you clear on what you need right now? If you’ve never asked yourself this question before, try practicing it now. As pastors, we often ask what others need, but it can be challenging to ask ourselves what we need, either because we’re out of practice or because we don’t believe our ministry setting would allow us the space to do what we need for ourselves.
But ask yourself this: how long can I continue going on like this? The answer is likely not very much longer. We can’t care well for others if we don’t care well for ourselves.
How can we better support burnt-out pastors?
For those of us who are not in a church leadership role—seminaries, parachurch ministries, denominational leadership, and congregational leadership—it is time to begin reevaluating how we communicate with, resource, and support pastors.
What church members and consistories can do:
Whether she indicates it or not, it is very likely that your pastor is feeling burnt out. To begin addressing this problem, you could offer to make a regular commitment as a church to your pastor’s personal wellness. Ask (don’t assume) what your pastor needs and then come up with a plan to support them. Perhaps you could redirect funding to cover access to mental health services, regular retreat opportunities, or renewal for your pastor.
However, I believe alleviating current pastoral burnout is only a treatment for the symptoms of a larger problem. To move toward truly sustainable ministry, we must begin to ask a greater question: what do we need to serve our communities best?
If organizations are made their best by excellent leaders, then we must have healthy, whole leaders at the helm of our congregations. If continuing congregational “business as usual” is no longer healthy for church leaders, what needs to stop so that our leaders can thrive again?
My colleague Rev. Billy Norden has mentioned that pastors often feel a sense of duty toward their congregations—that they must sacrifice themselves for the sake of the ministry. In part, this is the call of the spiritual leader, to serve their community with all that they are. However, I would argue that our greatest witness comes from Jesus, who regularly took time apart from his disciples to discern the voice of God through hours of prayer.
What parachurch ministries, denominations, and seminaries can do:
We have to stop “offering” our services and start listening to the voices of those within our congregations.
A listening ear lends itself to two things: one, a greater understanding of what is happening in our congregations. What are the current needs among pastoral teams and lay leaders? What is their understanding of theology and culture? Two, listening is an act of critical reflection on who we are as organizations.
This is a rather dramatic example. However, Christianity Today’s recent reporting on sexual abuse and harassment not only within the church but within its own staff shows the impact listening can have. Their willingness to investigate sexual abuse within congregations led them to take seriously the matters at hand within their own organization.
From small matters related to what congregations need from a pastor, to large issues pertaining to stewardship, equity, and inclusion, the practice of listening is vital for us when it comes to faithfully discerning the next steps we as organizations must take when serving our leaders well.
Finding a sustainable way forward
It is clear that there is a problem with this system of ministry we have developed. Our shepherds, the people we lean on in the most vulnerable of moments, are fading. The next steps that we will take are critical to say the least.
I believe we must begin to ask ourselves how we are contributing to this problem of pastoral burnout. What messages are we communicating? What burdens are we unjustly placing on pastoral leaders? What support have we offered?
This starts with each of us as individuals. Discerning our place in the greater narrative of the problem is important. But we cannot simply jump to sorting out the problem on our own. I believe an important example is set in the practice of Sankofa: looking back to discern how we must move ahead.
The next step for all of us is to draw us back together as the circle of God’s people. Together we must ask, how has our current congregation, seminary, or denomination historically served our pastors well? And where have we failed? Looking back at the past corporately can help us begin to discern the next steps we will take to serve our leaders well.
In reflecting on these questions, I would suggest we take a posture of curiosity rather than one that places blame. Be willing to lament previous failures for the sake of burying them and inviting resurrection of new and restored things.
The solution to this problem will not come from a silver bullet approach. A sabbatical is not going to fix a 100-year-old systemic problem that has been exacerbated by a global pandemic. But a willingness to commit to serving one another well, starting from a place of curiosity and inviting conversation, is a critical piece toward intercepting the problem.
Rev. Annalise Radcliffe
Annalise Radcliffe is director of future church innovation for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with Anna by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.