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Stress, burnout afflicting pastors (UM News)

April 4, 2022

It might help you understand if you think of your pastor as a grizzled bluesman in rural Mississippi.

“Mississippi has produced some of the most amazing folk art and blues music,” said the Rev. Trey Jones, senior pastor at Crossgates United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. “Because of the pain, the sorrow, the grief, the hurt, the injustice. And it’s real, it’s visceral.”

Jones says he felt a bit like that in December when, after a hard year, his scheduled break between Christmas and New Year’s got swept away. Something came up every day of his vacation, including a funeral on New Year’s Eve.

Jones is not alone among United Methodist clergy who are stressed these days, whether it’s from COVID-19, racial unrest, denominational uncertainty or natural disasters that just keep coming.

The Rev. Angela Cooley Bulhof, senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, can relate. That state has been pounded by seven hurricanes and two tropical storms since August 2020. Most recent were Tropical Storm Claudette in June 2021 and Hurricane Ida in August 2021.

The Rev. Martin Thielen, a retired pastor who writes the Doubter’s Parish blog, conducted an unscientific survey of 50 or so fellow pastors.

“I’ve just never seen so many folks having so little fun in ministry ever,” he said. “A lot of those people that were doing better seem to be in the real small churches, because they didn’t have big budgets and big staffs and programs to worry about.”

One common point of division is what Thielen calls “the Trump factor.”

“The ugly politics of masks and vaccines and conspiracy theories and whose side are you on had hit them like it had never hit before,” he said. “They couldn’t win no matter what they did.

COVID-19 was not the worst stressor for him, Jones said.

“The most painful episodes that affected me personally as a pastor were the national election and how divided and angry people were,” he said. “And then the necessary conversation about racial justice in our country.”

After Jones attended a community gathering of Black and white Christians, some church members thought he had participated in a Black Lives Matter march and were offended.  

“It’s that kind of stuff behind the scenes that is a little bit of undermining, a little bit of not coming to me but talking behind my back,” Jones said.

Barna study released in November 2021 found that 38% of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year, up nine percentage points since the beginning of 2021.

“One of the more alarming findings is that 46% of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34% of pastors 45 and older,” according to the report. “Keeping the right younger leaders encouraged and in their ministry roles will be crucial to the next decade of congregational vitality in the U.S.”

The Rev. Miyoung Kang is pastor of United Methodist Church of Sea Cliff in New York and also analyzes psychological assessments and interviews ordination candidates for the New York Conference. She said stress, depression and anxiety increased during COVID-19.

“They have more conflicts in their families and stress with the kids — especially with the kids because they had online worship and online classes,” Kang said. “And every family had to stay in one place and work through the computer.

“It was very stressful for them.”

The problem was magnified for Korean pastors because many maintain negative feelings about seeking mental health assistance, she said.