The Pastors Are All Right

By Frykholm, Amy | The Christian Century, May 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Pastors Are All Right


Frykholm, Amy, The Christian Century


HAVE YOU HEARD that 71 percent of pastors are burned out? That 80 percent believe the profession has been harmful to their families? That pastors are leaving the field at the rate of 1,700 a month?

If so, don't believe it. Although those statistics have circulated widely and have often been used to tout a book about the psychological state of ministers or spark interest in a conference on ministry, they are almost certainly inaccurate. They aren't backed up by any reputable study.

Some of these alarming statistics were generated over a decade ago by church consultant Richard Krejcir on the basis of clergy conferences that he held in California in 2005 and 2006 for Reformed and evangelical clergy. He surveyed participants in those two years and received results from some 1,050 pastors. In other words, he was working with a small, narrow, and self-selected group of pastors. That was the group in which 71 percent reported they were "constantly fighting depression."

This portrait of ministry is so striking and has circulated so widely that it has come to shape many people's sense of the state of clergy. When the Barna Group recently presented its own, very different data, it proclaimed that its findings were "contrary to conventional wisdom."

Barna's study, published in 2017 as The State of Pastors, is based on surveys of 320,000 church leaders across the spectrum of Protestantism. It found that pastors are considerably more likely than the general population to rate their mental and emotional health as "excellent" or "good." Eighty-five percent of pastors rated their mental and emotional health this way, compared to 60 percent of the general population. About 30 percent of pastors surveyed by Barna said that they were at risk of experiencing burnout--which is still a far cry from Krejcir's claim of 71 percent.

That profile of clergy lines up with the kind of data Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell has seen in her work with the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University, another important source of reliable data on ministers. For ten years CHI has studied United Methodist clergy in North Carolina, using longitudinal surveys, focus groups, interviews, and biometric data to assess the physical and mental health of clergy.

CHI has investigated depression in clergy and found that about 9 to 11 percent of clergy deal with depression. That figure is about 4 percent higher than the general population, but nowhere near the level of distress that Krejcir's figures suggest.

Researchers at CHI are still assessing whether there is something about the ministry that may attract people with a tendency toward depression or whether it's the profession itself that leads to higher rates of depression. Both Barna and CHI indicate that pastors' overall mental and emotional health is quite good.

Proeschold-Bell suggests that clergy's relatively good mental health might reflect the fact many aspects of clergy work are conducive to positive emotions. For example, a study published by the American Psychological Association and conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina showed that there are five activities that when pursued on a regular basis contribute to a positive outlook. Four of the five tend to be a regular part of a clergyperson's day: engaging in spiritual activity, learning, social interactions, and helping. (The fifth factor in a positive outlook is play, and Proeschold-Bell guesses clergy are no better at this than anyone else.)

On the issue of burnout, Proeschold-Bell and her team compared the burnout rate among ministers to that of people in other service occupations. They found that clergy were in the middle range: they experienced burnout at a rate similar to that of teachers and social workers but were coping better with stress than police or emergency workers.

Proeschold-Bell said she had frequently heard that clergy experience unusually high rates of social isolation, so she tried to track down some data. …

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