Hard-Pressed But Not Crushed

The last three years have taken a toll on many pastors, no matter their church’s size, theological tradition or vitality. Whether due to the pandemic, cultural and political tensions, or ongoing demographic and commitment trends, an unprecedented number of clergy members have contemplated vocational change. 

We wanted to learn more. Earlier this year, the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations team (COVIDReligionResearch.org) along with the Faith Communities Today partnership (FaithCommunitiesToday.org) surveyed 5,162 U.S. congregations in a systematic look at how faith communities are faring. The data shows clergy discontent, but also balance and optimism. 

The Results

In the summer of 2021, nearly 2,000 clergy were asked how often they seriously thought of leaving the pastoral ministry since 2020. Results showed 37% had thought about it, 5% had pondered the idea fairly often, and 3% claimed they thought of it very often. 

In spring 2023, however, the percentage of respondents that had ever contemplated an exodus jumped to over half (51%), but still only a very small percentage had those thoughts fairly often (6%) or very often (3%). 

Likewise, 38% of pastors had seriously contemplated leaving their church for another placement, but only 29% had doubted their call to the ministry. Overall, a very small percentage (between 1% to 3%) of religious leaders seriously considered these options “very often” over the past three years. 

Our interpretation of this rise in dissatisfaction and the occasional, at least, contemplation of changes in placement or vocation, is that clergy are increasingly stressed and weary from the continuing events of the last few years on top of challenging ministry contexts that were in place long before the pandemic arrived. Frustrations with diminished attendance, hybrid service modes, uncertain futures and internal conflict have taken a toll, but relatively few clergy seem to be seriously intent on leaving the ministry because of this. 

When asked to rate their physical, mental and spiritual health on a 10-point scale, pastors’ average rating for all three was an 8. Likewise, 67% say there is a very good fit between their congregational members and them. 

The rhetoric and headlines that imply pastors have thrown in the ministerial towel are both inaccurate and downright destructive to clergy morale. These pastors are tired, but they haven’t given up.

Hope for the Future

Our research also revealed many reasons to be optimistic. Eighty percent of congregations are somewhat or very positive about their future. And the 40% of churches that have the most optimistic outlook about their post-pandemic ministry also look more spiritually vital, with a clearer mission. They have rebounded financially and in attendance, are much more involved in their communities, and have healthier clergy. Whether it is the situation that creates the attitude or the optimism that buoys the success is uncertain, but certainly an attitude of pessimism and defeatism does not engender resurrection. 

Likewise, pastors must realize they don’t need to be the hero rescuing the church by themselves. Another survey we conducted of over 3,000 church attendees from 73 churches indicated a strong assertion of hope and future sustainability among members. Eighty percent were excited about their church’s future, and 79% said they were willing to change to meet new challenges. Over half (54%) claimed a stronger relationship with God since the pandemic, 43% stated having a stronger faith and greater trust in their leadership, and 32% said their giving had increased. Just 22% indicated they prefer maintaining past directions and routines. 

In times of unsettledness, a vision of what the future could be is what sustains hope and leads to ministry success. Backed by a supportive community of attendees, pastors might acknowledge that they are under pressure, but they have not given up the ministry battle. 

Scott Thumma is professor of sociology of religion and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University.