Pastors Under Pressure – the hidden complexities most don’t see.

I thought it was normal. But it wasn’t. That afternoon, when the organiser called to thank me for speaking at a breakfast for the 20 local pastors, he confirmed that robust rebuttal and tearful confession after a guest speaks doesn’t usually happen.

When the meeting ended, the pastor scheduled to say a prayer for me confessed that as I started speaking his walls came up. That changed, he said,  when he saw the heart I had for these church leaders to be healthy and well.  And it’s true, I do carry a burden for them. Even though my wife and I folded our leader support ministry late 2019, I do care about pastors and their families. It’s a burden that has never left me.  I know the pressure so many of them (family and included) are under. Over the last decade I have sat in prayer, counsel and tears with too many of them across nations. I  also spent hours scouring academic literature matching my experience to the stats.

So, why the walls, tears and rebuttals? Let me share with you what I shared under the premise that my intention was for me to let them know that I SEE them and believe that more of them, their staff and family should have regular paid access to mental health care professionals like licenced counsellors, coaches and psychologists etc.   I will break this up and keep it as brief as possible. My hope is that if you are a pastor reading this, you might feel seen and affirmed in your role. The complexity of your job is not imaginary. If you are not a pastor, but you attend (or did attend) a church or are in other ministry positions, you might relate and take stock of the pressure pastors are under.

The 4 constant C’s that can assert pressure on pastors are: Calling as a Career. Community & Church. Company matters. Clan.


Calling as a Career.

A couple of years ago I came across an outstanding research article which outlines the history and factors of what we refer to as ‘calling connected to a career’ today (Berkelaar & Buzzanell 2015). I’ve extracted and simplified these five factors. 

a) Are you called?  There aren’t too many jobs in the world where part of your interview process includes the very serious question of “Has God called you to this job?”. If you say yes, you claim God told you.  If you say no, interview over. Most people round up to total certainty at this point. After all, they’ve invested so much to get here already. Now, it’s your word against theirs – plus who heard God correctly. Although this may be deemed as important, it’s already a bit ambiguous and tenuous. I’ve seen people claim they are called to shepherd a flock but their own personal affairs are a mess and/or they might be deemed as mentally or physically unsafe.

b) Who holds the power? Personal agency involves mixed input. There are several voices vying for agency of the pastor in their position; the movement that ordains them, the pastor themselves, the board that elected them (if this happened) and God. So who is in charge of what and when? Pastors may find themselves relinquishing more than they bargained for.

c) Inequalities around gender, race, age, sexual orientation are always visible or invisible forces pastors or potential pastors have to deal with. e.g. Many youth leaders in pentecostal churches are under 30. What if a twice divorced 57 year old Malaysian women who is now caring for 2 grandchildren feels called by God to start Australia’s biggest youth movement?  And what if she IS the one and can’t even get an interview at a church? Get my point?  Inequality is there.

d) Is this is it for life? Contemporary ordination and invocations view calling as ‘a single, directive principle unifying one’s inward and outward life’. I know some men who never worked in any other sector or career outside of the church. I know pastors who, after 10 years felt the call had changed and went into business or took up a ‘regular job’. I know others who had to leave due to family matters. I can tell you who gets the kudos and it’s not the guy laying carpet or starting the small business after leaving the pastorate. It’s not the woman caring for her disabled mother full time. There is pressure many pastors feel to stay in the pastorate because most started in the positions expecting the call to last a lifetime.

e) Economics and calling have been dancing for centuries. The Puritans have much to do with this. The logic of neoliberal capitalism that is dominant in our world states that high profitability and growth are necessary and indicative of sustainable and social change. The narrative and pressure many pastors feel, or are marked against today, does include the markers of success. That being, the size of the congregation and financial status. Combine this with calling and the retarding leftovers from the post-reformation puritans and you have a pushing principle that may sound like ‘If you ARE called, things will go and grow well. If they don’t go well, work harder – everyone is watching. That’s how you might prove you ARE called.’  To demonstrate this, I often ask two simple questions. Firstly, how many amazingly kind pastors and leaders do you see that are, discouraged, fired and replaced because they couldn’t grow their flock or keep things afloat financially? Answer: too often. Secondly, when was the last pastor’s conference you went to when the guest speaker was a small-town pastor whose congregation has stayed at 60 people for a decade while he spent most of his weeks at funerals, teaching R.E. in schools and feeding the poor?  Answer: Never. Because it is the esteemed pastors with big congregations that get the applause – and we all know this is no sign of healthy leadership or personal integrity. Hence, neoliberal economics is felt and very real… and no, it’s not scriptural. It’s cultural.

Community & Church.

I made two points in my talk around the pressure pastors can feel from their local community and also their congregation.  This is broken up into expectations and exposure.


a) Expectations. Many pastors feel the pressure today of socially constructed expectations from the congregation and the broader culture. All agreed the scriptures in the NT on pastors/shepherds are scant but there is certainly strong external dialogue on how pastors are to conduct themselves. e.g. How many breaks should a pastor get from being at Sunday services?  Who should get visited? Should they drink alcohol? Should they hold to the liturgy? Should they drive a new fancy car? Should they swear? Should they support gay rights? What wage should they be on?  How should they parent their children (if they have them)?  Should their kids or spouse be in services every week? Should they teach from a particular translation? Should they hold a certain end-times perspective? Should they speak on certain political issues – and which ones? The list goes on and on and it’s full of SHOULD. Trust me, every pastor feels this pressure to some degree from the community, but also all their own internalised SHOULDS that go with the job?

b) Exposure.  Every pastor at the breakfast nodded when I noted they are exposed to traumatic situations on a regular basis. Only 2 of the 20 had any counselling or social work training, yet pastors are expected to do the job of repairing marriages, attending to the sick, dealing with troubled family members, helping the mentally unwell – oh and discipling people in the faith in the face of traumatic and abusing backgrounds.  Pastors today are over-exposed and under-trained to deal with a lot of this stuff. So many of them have hearts of gold, are people of faith and prayer but too many burn out and don’t bounce back from the things they are called to attend to. Unfortunately, too many Christians today invest very little in their own mental health, expecting God, the church and it’s leaders to provide the solution. Yet, when it comes to the visible and physical realm congregants are quick to call on the GP – and not the the pastor. This must change and it’s leaving pastors exposed to too much trauma.  

A Danielsen study in the US found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in one Christian denomination’s clergy that “was higher than that of post-deployment soldiers.” At the breakfast I sat across from a pastor who had served for years in the Australian Defence Force and been on five tours. He agreed with this indicator – largely because of the lack of mental health support available to pastors compared to those in the defence force. You see, it’s not so much about the exposure to trauma, but how that exposure is dealt with and metobolised in the heart, mind and body that matters.

Company Matters.

I remember a pastor-friend confessing to me about 6 months into his first senior pastor position that he wished he had gone to business school instead of bible college because of pressure and skills he now needed to run an organisation. Insurance, staff, buildings, leases, legals, constitutions, reporting, boards, bookkeeping, A/V, volunteers, finances, maintenance, budgeting, governance, marketing, administration.  The list goes on.  At the time of writing I have nearly completed my honours year on leadership and change management. I can tell you this, a lot of good, called pastors fail to grow and maintain a sustainable congregation because they are simply ill-equipped to keep up with all of the organisational pressures which congregants take for granted when they walk through the doors of a Sunday morning service and it’s all running well.

Clan. The Pastor’s family

Over the years I travelled and supported pastors, their team and families, I discovered a deep and common wound among the spouses and especially children. That was, they often felt sacrificed on the altar of the church and its needs.  I have sat with missionary children who carry this same wound. In fact, some poems I wrote made the forward of a book written by adult children of missionaries. It’s there in black and white. It’s traumatic, tragic and the thought of it makes me empathetically upset. 


With all I have mentioned in the previous points, this one point of sacrifice matters to me the most. It is often the breaking point for most in ministry. It’s why I went off the road and have left ministry positions over the years. To be honest, I applaud pastors and those in ministry who have left their positions because they refuse to sacrifice their own health, their family’s health and long-term friendships on the altar of ecclesiastical expectations, success, organisational demands etc.  Theologically speaking, I do believe Jesus death was meant to be the final and all sufficient sacrifice – even (and especially) for the church. There are too many dead stones and buried bones in the foundations of churches and ministries. I do understand people are martyred in persecuting situations, and respect that. But that’s not what I am addressing, nor is it applicable in most free nations reading this.

Having presented these 4 Cs as areas of pressure during the pastors breakfast, to support the above, I read from this research summary gathered from church clergy by Trihub et al. (2010):

  • Six biggest stress factors to clergy include: financial stress, lack of family privacy, frequent moves, spouse being on call, spouse is busy serving others, and lack of ministry to clergy family.
  • Many pastors feel a lack of organisational support over time, feeling that the primary emphasis is on increased church size, rather than on the health of the pastor.
  • Many pastors don’t want to seek mental health services, as they fear reprisal from their board/congregation/leaders, which conveys weakness or incompetence. (Again, reinforcing the belief that the shepherd must always be OK)
  • If support services were made available to them, then lack of finance, lack of time, and confidentiality were the three most significant obstacles to getting help.
  • Organizational issues that lead to burnout include bureaucracy, administrative support, interpersonal problems and workload.

When I finished speaking, two things stood out in the robust discussion afterwards.  Firstly, everyone agreed on all the major points. Many have written to me since, grateful for the talk. Grateful that the nature of their jobs and efforts are acknowledged. Secondly, there were mixed opinions and experiences with mental health support. Some claimed that they’d seen counsellors and psychs at their own cost and it helped very little. Others, however, claimed it was very helpful. One dear man, through tears claimed that the supervision and clinically safe space literally saved his life from potential suicide. Something growingly common in clergy.  I encouraged everyone, as I would encourage anyone, that just like your physical health and doctors etc, you should shop around till you find someone that can assist you. 

If you are still reading, thank you for taking the time. If you are in ministry, I hope you feel a little more seen and validated. My prayer is that you’ll extend more grace and kindness towards yourself and family. Maybe make some changes. For others, I do hope this has opened some compassionate eyes in you towards ministers and clergy.  I will say, emphatically, that abuse of any kind, in any space must be met with the justice and consequences it deserves. Churches and religious institutions should not be immune or excused from this equation. On the other side of my desire to see pastors and their families walk in greater health is the potential for them to lead healthier and safer local churches. Which is something I believe we all want.

With love

David Tensen


References:

Berkelaar, BL & Buzzanell, PM 2015, ‘Bait and switch or double-edged sword? The (sometimes) failed promises of calling’ Human Relations, vol. 68, no. 1, pp. 157–178, doi: 10.1177/0018726714526265.

Trihub, B. L., McMinn, M. R., Buhrow Jr., W. C., & Johnson, TF 2010, ‘Denominational support for clergy mental health’.

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