Conflict and loneliness leading to pastor burnout
Worrying insights from a clinical psychologist’s study
More than a third of pastors had seriously contemplated resignation in the previous 12 months because of loneliness, familial impact and work stress, according to a recent study by Valerie Ling, the founder-director of the Centre for Effective Living, a psychology practice that serves ministry and mission personnel.
Ling, who is married to a Presbyterian minister in a Sydney church, has had a professional interest in pastor burnout for over 10 years.
“Just before the pandemic hit, I noticed that there was a lot of conflict and leadership issues in the lives of my clients. Some pastors were presenting with trauma symptoms, as if they’ve been through war,” shares Ling.
“These levels of conflict are unacceptable by human standards.” – Valerie Ling.
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Something more complex than burnout was happening and Ling’s research aimed to understand “how much of this is coming from a clinical perspective – that is, pastors not doing well in their mental health – and how much is coming from a leadership perspective and the complexities there?”
The last component of the research explored the conflict that pastors face in ministry. “Nobody had looked at that and it revealed that these levels of conflict are unacceptable by human standards,” says Ling.
The survey was completed in 2023 by 260 ministry leaders. The participants were mostly male, between 40 and 49 years old, and based in New South Wales. Many were Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist and independent denominations, with an average 18.5 years of ministry experience.
Offensive behaviour experienced by clergy
Ling reports that “over a third of respondents seriously contemplated resignation in the past 12 months due to feelings of loneliness, familial impact and work stress.” She also found that “female clergy reported higher levels of burnout than their male counterparts and solo clergy leaders reported higher burnout compared to those with teams or staff.”
“In the last 12 months, ministers reported experiencing physical assault, bullying, gossip, slander, and personal teasing,” says Ling.
It was startling to discover the level of personal threat and violence that pastors were experiencing in ministry. “In the last 12 months, ministers reported experiencing physical assault, bullying, gossip, slander and personal teasing,” says Ling.
Some female pastors reported that they were sexually assaulted in ministry. Ling asserts that further research is needed “to find out what’s going on for women in ministry”.
Burnout and destructive leadership behaviour
In her clinical practice, Ling noticed that some ministers she worked with were accused of being narcissists, prompting her to wonder if there was a link between destructive leadership behaviour and pastor burnout. “On social media, you hear about narcissistic leaders. As a clinical psychologist, I’m interested in de-pathologising contemporary narratives,” she says.
“There’s a small percentage of people out there who have narcissistic personality disorder. And there are ministry leaders who are not doing the right thing in their leadership, but there may be other reasons for that.”
“As a psychologist and a Christian, I believe in a redemptive space.”
Burnt-out ministers said they were more likely to use inappropriate leadership styles, being more forceful and pushing to get their way. For Ling, this data was hopeful. “Yes, the behaviour is inappropriate, but there’s also a way for us to address it, as opposed to just labelling someone narcissistic, because what can you do about that?” she says.
“As a psychologist and a Christian, I believe in a redemptive space. We never condemn. We try to understand how you got there and how to get you beyond that. We shouldn’t be writing people off.”
Looking beyond the leader’s resilience
Ling’s research suggests looking beyond individual resilience factors and considering the workplace and ministry context. “The way ministry roles are constructed and designed needs a review. Workload, the tasks that they’re doing and the exposure to significant pastoral issues like domestic violence.”
Leaders in pastoral ministry need their own spiritual tanks resourced beyond reading their Bible and praying. “Who’s encouraging the pastor, who’s holding them accountable, who’s helping them work through their singlehood or marriage or parenting?”
Ling’s survey highlights that pastor burnout is closely linked to the relationship that the pastor has with their church. “If you have a high-conflict church and you feel alone, personal resilience isn’t going to be enough,” she says.
The signs of pastor burnout
When burnt out, people don’t find joy and pleasure in the things that used to bring them joy and pleasure. They withdraw from people and most days, they feel exhausted, depressed or anxious. “It’s red alert if you’re starting to have profound feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, failure and guilt. If you’re feeling panic or always on edge, that’s pushing beyond just burnout,” says Ling.
If you’re feeling some of these symptoms of burnout, Ling recommends that you talk to someone immediately. “You can’t do this alone. Reach out to someone you trust. Visit your family doctor. Look at your emotional health, mental health and physical health.”
She encourages pastors to take time off to recover. “Speak to your doctor about getting a medical certificate and take three to six weeks of leave.” She encourages catching up on sleep and connecting deeply with your family and loved ones.
She also encourages leaders to pay attention to their coping mechanisms. “Are you reaching for alcohol or pornography or anything harmful? If those things are in the mix, you want to talk to someone that you trust and get professional help.”
The road to recovery
Rest and meeting personal needs are important first steps. She encourages pastors to review their spiritual and personal resources. Next, they should initiate a conversation about how their ministry role and environment might be modified. Ling suggests asking, “Are the expectations, ministry demands or hours sustainable with the current resources available? What supports or staffing are needed to fulfil expectations?”
Some of the churches that Ling has worked with told their parishioners post-pandemic that their leaders were exhausted and would do a pared-down version of Christmas this year to give staff time to recover.
Finally, she highlights that the level of conflict within the church may also need to be assessed. “Pastor burnout is a signal pointing to deeper issues within both the individual and the organisation,” says Ling. She reflects that “perhaps we should look at the whole body or organisation and recognise that the wellbeing of individual members is inextricably linked to the health of the entire community.”
How to support your pastor
Praying for and supporting your pastor in small ways can be greatly encouraging. Instead of critiquing the sermon or worship, focus on how you have personally encountered Jesus rather than zoning in on your experience as a consumer in church. Express gratitude or encouragement to the ministry team. “Share specifically about how the leader’s service encouraged you and thank them. Not just the senior pastor, but maybe the media coordinator or worship pastor too.”
Ling’s Clergy Wellbeing Down Under podcast is a helpful resource for pastors to begin conversations about their experiences. The work has been challenging and rewarding and there’s still much to be done. Ling is considering a new research project on the wellbeing of ministry kids.