An increasing percentage of Protestant senior pastors say they are seriously considering leaving the full-time ministry, according to a new Barna Group survey that found a large percentage of mainline and non-mainline pastors alike contemplating a different career path.
The survey, released Tuesday, found that more than one-third (38 percent) of senior pastors say they are seriously considering leaving the ministry – a significant increase from the 29 percent of senior pastors who answered that way in January.
Half of mainline pastors (51 percent) and just over one-third of non-mainline pastors (34 percent) say they are "seriously considering" leaving full-time ministry. The survey was conducted among 507 senior pastors in October. Pastors were asked, "Have you given real serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year?"
Joe Jensen, vice president of church engagement for Barna and a former pastor himself, said pastors are facing pressures they didn't face pre-pandemic.
"Politics has been around for hundreds of years, but politics and social media together – this is the first time in history that we have these types of cultural forces at hand," Jensen told Christian Headlines.
"You take just the pressures that come from managing political tensions within your church – [and] the racial tensions of trying to bring people to the table and trying to disciple people in the area of racial diversity and everything there and how that's become politicized," Jensen said. "And then you have the hyper-digital world we live in."
The pressures of leading a virtual church service during the pandemic also strained pastors, Jensen said. Often, the dearth of people in the pews sparked financial problems within a church.
Jensen said pastors often tell Barna researchers, "I didn't sign up for this." For example, "I didn't sign up to preach to a camera."
Combined, these external forces impact a pastors' "internal well-being," Jensen said.
"There is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations placed on the pastor – big churches and small churches, all sizes," Jensen said. "There's a lot of external pressure coming from the outside world, from media, from social media. Pastors feel like they're kind of under a magnifying glass. The negative perception of pastors across the country is rising."
Church members often don't view pastors as the "relevant central source of truth in our culture anymore." Pastors "are feeling isolated and burnt out," he added.
"And so they're feeling that, and then they go inside their churches, and there's kind of an expectation in a lot of churches that pastors have to have it all together – that it's not really okay to not be okay as a pastor," Jensen said.
Jensen urged church leaders and church members to go beyond simply encouraging their pastors.
"Shift the measure of success for your pastor," Jensen said. "They don't always have to be perfect. They can actually do things like go to counseling and not be frowned upon in a church or [seen as a] sign of leadership weakness.
"Treat your pastors like human beings that have the same struggles that you do," Jensen said.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/4maksym
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.