Aussie pastors are lonely and burnt out, survey reveals

Five ways to care for your pastors

Workers in Christian ministry dedicate their lives to teaching, encouraging and serving people with the gospel. For many, the decision to enter full-time Christian ministry sounds like the ideal – after all, what work could be more fulfilling than being on board with God’s mission in the local church or Christian organisation?

While it is true that Christian workers are engaged with work of precious value, results from the 2023 Oxygen Christian Workers Survey have revealed alarming levels of loneliness, burnout and mental health issues amongst Christian workers in Australia.

315 respondents filled out the survey, with workers represented across 14 denominations and 15 roles including administrators, assistant and senior pastors, chaplains, children’s ministers, ministry apprentices, missionaries, schools ministry, women’s and youth ministers.

Assistant pastors and ministers were the least likely to have a close friend and the most likely to feel lonely.

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Compared to people working in non-profit Christian organisations, church workers struggled more with job dissatisfaction, loneliness and being part of a healthy team. Of the 15 job roles represented, assistant pastors and ministers were the least likely to have a close friend and the most likely to feel lonely. Of the 14 denominations represented, workers in the Anglican church are the most likely to feel lonely.

A concerningly high percentage of respondents – 29 per cent, or three in every ten people – reported that they were, or suspected they might be, experiencing mental health issues. Of the 15 job roles represented, children’s ministers, youth ministers and those in school ministry all reported high rates of experiencing mental health issues – 67 per cent, 44 per cent and 40 per cent respectively, compared with an average of 29 per cent.

Of the 14 denominations represented, workers in the Anglican Church were the most likely to feel lonely and be experiencing, or suspect they might be experiencing, mental health issues.

“COVID intensified a pre-existing tiredness coming from 20 years in paid ministry.”

The results of the survey also highlighted the impact that COVID had on churches and the mental health of church workers, with the pandemic bringing to the surface many issues that were already pre-existing.

One senior pastor serving in a regional area said: “COVID intensified a pre-existing tiredness coming from 20 years in paid ministry. In 2021 I felt the lowest I have ever been and have not fully recovered.”

Another senior pastor serving in a capital city said: “COVID has made things harder, but I feel they have brought to light what already existed – ministry workers’ expectations of themselves (as well as their congregations’ expectations) are unreasonable, way too broad, way too executive and way less missional than what they should be.”

Others highlighted new discouragements brought on by COVID. One Anglican youth minister serving in a regional area shares the “alarming trajectory” that he now sees among the youth he serves: “I have found since COVID an overwhelming sense of apathy from the youth and young adults whom I serve and seek to disciple well. It’s as if the years spent in isolation sapped their zeal for the gospel and have replaced it with complacency in life, service and relationships.”

Ask your pastor how you can be caring for them and what support they might need.

Considering these results, the team at Oxygen Conference (a conference retreat for ministry workers run by Katoomba Christian Convention) suggests the following ways in which church members can be supporting their pastors in the work God has called them to do:

  1. Pray for them. Pray that God will help them to persevere, guard their hearts (Proverbs 4:23), and to be godly shepherds of God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2). Let your pastor know that you are praying for them.
  2. Encourage them to rest. With so much to do to run a church, pastors can feel guilty for resting. Keep your pastors accountable for Sabbath rest so that they can remain sustainable in ministry. Encourage them when they take regular breaks; offer babysitting or sponsor them to attend conference retreats like Oxygen.
  3. Care for them. Every pastor is different, so care will look different from person to person. Start with asking your pastor how you can be caring for them, and what support they might need in ministry. If they share anything specific with you, show that you care by following up in another conversation.
  4. Encourage them. If you are grateful for their work, thank them for their service and be specific. Share how God is working in your life or how he spoke to you in the sermon this week. Look at the fruits of the Spirit and share with your pastor which one they are displaying lately.
  5. Rest with them. Invite them to hang out with you without an agenda. Pastors find it refreshing when church members want to hang out for the sake of enjoying friendship and quality time.

To download the ‘2023 Oxygen Christian Workers Survey’ results as a digital report, please email the Oxygen team.

To learn more about Oxygen Conference, visit the website.

L-T Hopper is Content and Partnerships Director at Katoomba Christian Convention (KCC). He served as a church pastor for 20 years before moving to KCC.