Coming out of the pandemic, Black people are at the top of most of the lists for risk factors, yet the people in the community who are caring for them are not caring for themselves.
“As a pastor you put your inner self aside to meet the challenges of the moment. As a Black man I put my need for my own healing in reconciling these pieces of cataclysmic social events aside,” says Rev. Eugene Downing, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.
Downing, who holds a doctor of ministry in congregational renewal from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has noticed the alarming rate of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry. He acknowledges that the pandemic created a sense of depersonalization for pastors, but he explains that in the Bible prophet after prophet endures similar situations, being washed out. He pointed to Jeremiah and Elijah having moments of deep duress.
According to a study by Barna Group, the percentage of pastors who have considered quitting full-time ministry increased from 29 percent in January 2021 to 42 percent March 2022. The research group conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.
This same study found that only one in three pastors considered themselves “healthy” in spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational, and financial well-being. The number one factor is the immense stress of the job. Unaddressed pastoral burnout leads to all kinds of severe issues, both for the pastor and their congregation.
Downing wonders what it would look like for pastors to step back to take care of themselves amongst societal upheaval through staggered sabbaticals? “As Black pastors, we’re trying to make it by taking vacation seven to eight days maybe if we’re fortunate because we just don’t have the capacity,” he says.
Ministry is an isolating industry because everybody sees you, but not everybody sees you. For many reasons, pastoral burnout is on the rise. Experts define pastoral burnout (also known as clergy or ministry burnout) as a complex set of symptoms that include emotional exhaustion, stress, loneliness, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. These symptoms break down the leaders’ ability to lead. Unlike the typical 9-to-5 job, the pastor doesn’t leave work to go “home” from the already mentally-taxing job. A good pastor is constantly focused on the burdens of the people and by the burdens of God.
Many people who experience trauma or mental health challenges turn first to religious leaders in their community for help. But what happens when the religious leader gets weary? A renewed conversation aims to support clergy mental health and well-being.
The Stress of 2020 and 2021 has been Relentless and Exhausting
Faith leaders in Denver contend with low pay and a high exposure to problems compounded by the pandemic. For pastors experiencing burnout, there is a gap between their expectations for life and ministry and the reality of their life and ministry. This gap between expectation and reality can lead to extreme disappointment and depression.
Rev. Dr. Valerie L. Jackson, senior pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church, states, “I am a woman and a pastor and I love it. However, because of how we are often socialized about the self-sacrificing roles and responsibilities of women and pastors, I have had to do much work to embrace the path of self-value, self-respect, and self-care.”
In fact, she is in a place of burnout right now, and yearning for time to breathe, rest and regroup. Jackson encourages the divine practice of saying “no” to over-committing, setting boundaries and speaking up when harmed or disrespected.
“Because of my intentional commitment to wholeness and wellness, I am acknowledging to myself that I am tired and at my edge. I refuse to pretend that all is well, and I choose transparency and vulnerability by sharing with key persons in my personal and professional life that I need a break. I schedule rest and renewal ASAP such as solitude, a nap, nail care, a movie, a long hot shower or bubble bath with lowlights and white wine, or a wonderful dining experience.”
Sabbaticals are almost taboo within the African American community and scarcely adopted. The concept of sabbatical is not a vacation. Normally, a sabbatical is a time when you can do work that you are interested in or have a desire for without having to engage in the pastoral work. A pastoral sabbatical can only work through several conversations. This would be similar to when Moses came down from the mountain with the revelation for next steps. The church often doesn’t understand that. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was in charge and the people went wild in the absence of their leader. Sometimes the people don’t appreciate that the pastor is still human, and the needs of the pastor can get overlooked.
In November 2021, a Christianity Today article by Kate Shellnutt entitled “The Pastors Aren’t All Right” addressed how the pandemic impacted pastors. “When churches called off in-person gatherings during the pandemic, pastors lost out on the boost of assurance that could come from worshipping together in a full sanctuary, hugging members after the service, and talking through issues with them in person. So in some cases, they were left navigating intense church conflict, politicized departures, and pandemic trauma without some of the most life-giving parts of their ministry.”
According to Rev. Tony Henderson, pastor of Spottswood AME Zion Church, the pressure on religious leaders has only worsened during the pandemic. He faced COVID-19 alone in a new city. He describes how the pandemic revealed a hidden side of ministry because it forced everyone to live with themselves.
Henderson is thankful that therapy helped walk him through that time of just wanting to give up and quit. His words were used to put lives together, as his life crumbled from underneath him. While Henderson was conducting marriage counseling, he lost his own.
In the Bible, Paul asks how can I preach to you and lose my house? The psychological effect of pastoring can carry heavy weight. A good Christian needs Jesus and a therapist to navigate what I believe was a time of despondency and depression, says Henderson, who earned a masters of divinity degree from Hood Theological Seminary in North Carolina and a doctor of ministry at Payne Theological Seminary in Ohio.
Rev. Quincy Shannon, who became a licensed preacher in 2003 and was ordained as a national Baptist minister in 2010, describes his recent selah or rest taken to understand self.
“I found myself more at church because of the assignment of it being the position in the job that I have more so than it was growing with God,” shares Shannon, who served at New Hope Baptist Church as the youth and young adult pastor. “I’ve not gone from this church indefinitely nor do I have any like negative story or bad beef, but just wanted to reconnect my relationship with God and make sure that I wasn’t somewhere simply out of obligation. It’s hard because so many people are used to you being in a position or in a place.”
He adds, “If we are all suffering from some degree of burnout, then none of us can bear the full weight of care. Maybe we don’t need to. We need to remember that our leaders are human beings, too.”
This work of supporting each other through burnout is not just the work within congregations but might be a critical calling for Christians to their communities.
Talking About Trauma and Dysfunction
Many people suffer in silence and lack trust in leadership, but therapy is an available resource to utilize.
Dr. Robert Davis, CEO and founder of UnBoxed2Lead, says, “I believe that one of the reasons that we’re seeing an increase in pastoral turnover is that pastors often feel ill-equipped to deal with the emotional components of relationships within the church.”
Davis, who retired from pastoral ministry in 2019, adds, “Some of the problems we see in the Black church are the same ones we see in the Black family. We don’t talk about our trauma or dysfunction. Everybody knows it, but nobody’s talking about it. Oftentimes when we have not learned how to manage family of origin relationships from the various challenges that are in our families of origin, the leader of the congregation feels the weight on his or her shoulders.
Davis further clarifies that “when you take pastors and you put them into toxic relationships, which unfortunately is the reality for far too many churches, pastors become overwhelmed, and yes, they become burned out because they just don’t have the emotional tools to handle the conflicts dynamics.”
To help themselves, ministry leaders can do their homework on their family origin. That means learn as much as possible about their own family such as information on how the family manages relationships. Begin to work on family relationships with their mother, father, and siblings and be very intentional. A lot of pastors give so much time trying to work on the relationship with the congregation without ever having worked on their primary relationships.
He says they can also become clear about what it is that they believe. In other words, have a clear set of guiding principles. Then, in calm consistent ways, share those principles with their congregation. Often, people share their principles in times of difficulty in terms of anger and frustration and when things are going rough. Being able to share principles even during times of calm, even during times of peace is helpful.
The nature of burnout is that it occurs when day-to-day tasks become overwhelming and unfulfilling. Sometimes people don’t even notice it, but it can creep up and cause fatigue.
Shannon, who holds a bachelor’s in broadcast communication and received his master’s in divinity from the Samuel D. Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, had to seek his own spiritual journey in a way that would allow him to be more effective. Just because he is not on a pulpit with a robe or in a position at a church doesn’t mean he is any less of a believer.
“I didn’t anticipate in me finding my own peace that it would then become a storm for others. That has been the hardest thing to explain to people. I’m not mad at God, nor am I mad at people in the church,” he shares. “Being asked to do certain things or being relied on in certain ways started to feel disingenuous. It led to the question: when are you somewhere because you should be there or when are you somewhere because you think you should be there?”
Mental health is something that Shannon experiences day-to-day in working as a dean of students at DSST Public Schools. He understands the value of moving the conversation from being afraid to talk about therapy to asking questions and recognizing that it is okay not to be okay. What is not okay is to fake like everything is okay to the point in which it becomes self-destruction.
“There was this level of resentment that I was starting to feel within myself and feelings of abuse. So many people are going through their lives daily putting on fake smiles, putting on fake personas, wearing certain clothes, hoping that nobody will see that they are struggling or that they’re dealing with something in silence.
“One of the best things that could happen is we get to a point in which we don’t have to continue to live through facades and we can actually share the truth with people and talk about it. Our ancestors went through so many things but what they didn’t do is fake,” says Shannon.
A Time to Rest
Rest is not something we do well as human beings. People are living with significant new stress and the grinding mentality is glorified, according to Rev. Dr. James E. Fouther, Jr., senior pastor and teacher at The United Church of Montbello.
He points out the perils of being in a hurried society. The specific stresses are different in every community, and those already suffering from the long-term impact of racism, sexism and other oppressions are further harmed by the pandemic. There’s a retraining and unlearning that must take place in the African American church from enslaved trauma, says Fouther, who holds a master’s of divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry from Eden Theological Seminary.
Fouther goes on to say, “We’re all praying for God to help us through our unprocessed trauma.”
Historically our ancestors were assessed for their physical capacity and their ability to work. The history behind long church services comes from our ancestors not having to work in the field so long as they were in church. It stems from post-traumatic enslaved syndrome, and it always shows up. In a moment when daily life is so difficult, Fouther invites more periods of stillness and silence to listen carefully to God and each other. Imagine clergy and lay people feeling loved and replenished and going out into our everyday work sharing that compassion with everyone we meet.
Pastor Rico Wint, founder of the Purpose Center, has recently returned from a two-month break after five years in pastoral ministry and 10 years of marriage. Naturally one may have a sense of guilt: however, he sees time off as not only valuable, but essential. When you don’t recognize the signs to take a break, you become an empty pitcher trying to pour out something that you don’t have anymore.
Downing believes that the topic of mental health needs to be at the forefront of conversations with congregations. Normalizing mental health and well-being is a practice. When he hired a therapist on staff, he was met with stares and apprehension of people not believing in therapy. Over time, people went from not talking about it at all, to being comfortable talking about it in community, to ultimately being comfortable enough to talk about it as it relates to the pastor. Talking to a therapist lets people unload the weights they carry. That’s a model he believes can be effective.
Editor’s note: If you would like to share an upcoming training or retreat to help alleviate clergy burnout, please submit your press release to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in our DUS Community Notes section.