A new clergy leadership survey has found that a significant percentage of ministers in Australia are grappling with issues ranging from burnout to sexual harassment, and more than a third have wondered whether they should leave the ministry altogether.
Clinical psychologist Valerie Ling, who leads the Centre for Effective Serving and has worked closely with staff and students at Moore College and clergy through the Centre for Ministry Development, ran the survey to see if it would show connections between leadership behaviours and burnout. “I also wanted to, if I could, add information with regard to what is connected to burnout – particularly in the self-reflection to self-insight pathway,” she says.
Australian survey reveals pressures of ministry
A little under 200 clergy took part in the survey and, while they work across the country, they were predominantly in NSW, married and male, with an average of 18½ years in ministry. More than 60 per cent of the respondents were senior ministers, a further 25 per cent worked as assistants or associates, and the remainder were ministry pastors. Just under three quarters were Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist, while most of the others worked at non-denominational Protestant churches.
Mrs Ling says that, for a range of reasons, clergy might put on a bit of a front when dealing with others – in the same way a shop assistant might “put on a nice face and a nice smile” for a customer. This is known as “surface acting”, which in the short term can help manage a situation if they aren’t already feeling burnt out and tired. If, however, surface acting is used as a regular coping strategy to mask true emotion, and no time is spent to reflect or deal with any deep emotions raised, “you never attend to your emotions – you just suppress them and move on... it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts”.
“The top three reasons given by ministers who had considered quitting was the stress of their job, loneliness, and that their family suffers.”
“In my sample, about a third [34.9 per cent] had given serious consideration to quitting the ministry in the past 12 months. About a third of them [37 per cent] had sought out professional help in the past 12 months, and the top three reasons given by ministers who had considered quitting was the stress of their job, loneliness and that their family suffers.
“Ministers who indicated higher scores on burnout also indicated that they were surface acting more than those who weren’t burnt out, and they indicated lower levels of self-insight as well. The higher the burnout scores, the lower their personal levels of insight.”
Another worrying result was in the area of personal safety. Mrs Ling asked clergy the same questions that have been asked of school principals about workplace experiences of conflict, bullying, unpleasant teasing, threats of (or actual) violence, slander and sexual harassment/assault, and found that some were dealing with these issues on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.
“Psychosocial safety in the workplace is something we must look at,” she says. “I think we have a superficial understanding of the type and severity of conflict that ministers experience... If you’re among the 35 per cent that are being teased, gossiped about and are under threat, there’s a toxicity to that that would be internalised as threat. That’s a pathway for post-traumatic stress.”
Stress and burnout are very real problems
A senior consultant at the Centre for Ministry Development, Peter Mayrick, who gets alongside clergy to support them in their ministry, says that the issues of stress and burnout are “very real... and something we have to deal with”.
“We don’t just need pastoral supervision – we need pastoral support as well,” he says. “The truth in our diocese is that it is not common practice to disciple the disciplers... we’re not used to asking people how they’re going in their faith. We theologically believe that everyone should be a discipler, but very few of us actively and intentionally disciple the people around us. It might be fair to say that, generally, we teach people but we don’t always walk with them.”
Mr Mayrick points to recent research by the evangelical Barna Group in the US, which shows that, between January 2021 and March 2022, the proportion of US pastors considering leaving the ministry jumped from 29 per cent to 42 per cent. In addition, over the seven years from 2015 to 2022, those at high risk of burnout leapt from 11 per cent to 40 per cent. For those contemplating leaving, the burnout risk is a whopping 69 per cent.
“between January 2021 and March 2022, the proportion of US pastors considering leaving the ministry jumped from 29 per cent to 42 per cent.”
“The past three years have been extraordinarily difficult for church leaders,” he says. “While 2022 wasn’t classified as a COVID year, the lack of energy across churches and low ability for volunteers to serve was very real and had a significant impact on pastors. As we finished the first quarter of 2023 many pastors were exhausted.
“Many people have come through the COVID years with an earnest desire to shift the way we do church towards more authentic discipleship. The challenge I see is that change management takes real effort and significant leadership. Therefore, change will be very challenging in a period where leaders have depleted energy reservoirs and members have a strong desire to ‘return to normal’.”
“It’s important to help people connect with their emotions, work through emotions, connect with others and encourage one another”
Adds Mrs Ling: “It’s important to help our pastors to connect with their emotions, work through emotions, connect with others and encourage one another, so they’re not just talking strategy and leadership and how to do church – they’re attending to their emotional life for their mental health and wellbeing.
“We don’t want to reinforce superficial conversations but really get to the point of understanding the burden, the hard things that they and we need to deal with.”