Reversing Pastoral Burnout


Barna Trends | David Kinnaman

David KinnamanSince 2020, pastors have weathered a tough stretch of ministry. In early 2022, two full years from the start of the pandemic, Barna’s studies uncovered the highest level of pastoral burnout in our tracking. More than two out of five Protestant senior pastors (42%) said they had given serious consideration to quitting full-time ministry. 

During that season, pastors found themselves as spiritual frontline workers. In addition to the enormous pressures of COVID-19, they were also navigating political polarization, racial reckoning, online misinformation and much more. This, naturally, exacted a heavy toll on pastors’ well-being. 

Other industries faced similar crises among their workforces. People increasingly opted out of the labor pool, whether by resignation or “quietly quitting.” For pastors, the Great Resignation became a five-alarm fire.

Yet, there is good news. 

Our latest research shows a hopeful slowing in this trend. In September 2023, the number of pastors who say they have considered leaving full-time ministry is down to 33%–still much too high, but leaders are settling into the “new normal” of ministry. Now is the time to redouble efforts to help ministry leaders flourish in their roles, recovering from the trauma of recent years and preparing for the road ahead. 

What reasons do pastors give when asked why they’ve thought about stepping down for good? Internal and external pressures loom for leaders: Stress, loneliness and political division are the three items that top the list. The leaders most at risk for burnout and leaving ministry altogether include pastors under age 45, ethnic minority leaders, those with fewer relational connections, leaders who are gifted in strategic thinking, pastors who are struggling to build trust with congregants, and those who report neglecting their own personal spiritual life.

Reversing the burnout trend requires at least three things of us. 

First, leaders must acknowledge their fragility and invest in their own resilience. This can be done by cultivating deep, mutual friendships, investing in family and fun, spending time in avocational pursuits and hobbies, exercising, gardening, hiking, traveling, reading for pleasure—virtually anything that reminds us that our lives are short and our impact fleeting. We must be leaders of peace in an anxious age.

Second, consider retooling for the next stage of ministry. What are ways you can deepen and broaden your skill set for what God is calling you to next? More than ever, the Church needs resilient leaders who are humble, agile, rooted in prayer and committed to being healthy as an essential aspect of effective leadership.

Finally, another critical way for us to reduce the risks is for pastors to share the load. It’s imperative that we develop a mindset and model that empowers lay leaders. We need to cast a vision that grows participants in gospel mission, not just consumers of Christian content. Now is the time for the Christian community to come alongside their pastors to pray and labor beside them so pastors can lead in healthy ways.

None of this is easy—though neither is trying to run a church with an exhausted, lonely pastor who wants to quit. The more we do these things, growing a priesthood of all believers, the better off and more resilient our pastors will be as well.

Learn more about the State of Pastors at a free Barna digital summit on March 6th at 12 p.m. ET. 

David Kinnaman
David Kinnaman

David Kinnaman is the author of the bestselling books Faith For Exiles, Good Faith, You Lost Me and unChristian. He is CEO of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. Since 1995, David has directed interviews with more than two million individuals and overseen thousands of U.S. and global research studies.