Pastors today feel more lonely and more stressed than ever before, according to results from the Resilient Pastor research survey. Responses collected from 901 Protestant senior pastors nationwide in 2015 and 585 senior pastors in 2022 sought to measure their well-being across the health spectrum: physical, emotional, mental, and overall.
Results show that it’s tough to be a religious leader in this divisive political climate. And as more Americans continue to shift away from organized religion and weekly masses and services, church leaders are at best frustrated and at worst despondent.
The stress is causing physical turmoil for pastors. Leonardo Blair, senior features reporter for The Christian Post, reported that in 2015, only 7 percent of pastors ranked their physical well-being as either below average or poor. In 2022, however, that number more than tripled to 22 percent. Of the pastors surveyed, 18 percent reported their condition as below average. And while in 2015, 24 percent of pastors reported their health as excellent, in 2022 that number dropped to an alarming 9 percent, a clear indication that societal changes are taking a toll.
What is at the core of this problem? It appears that lack of loyal, consistent friend relationships has played a big part in the mental and emotional decline of pastors. Twenty percent of pastors in 2022 ranked themselves as below average when it comes to having true friendships compared to 10 percent in 2015. In fact, 7 percent ranked themselves as poor, up from 2 percent in 2015. And only 17 percent ranked themselves as excellent, while the 2015 number stood at 34 percent.
In every category of health, pastors are less happy, more concerned about their wellbeing, and lonelier than they’ve felt in the past. In a recent survey, Lifeway Research found that one in five pastors suffers from depression. That number might not seem substantial until you really think about it: If you have five pastors at your church, one of them, statistically speaking, is depressed. You may drive by five churches on your way to work each day – one of them has a senior pastor who’s wondering if life is worth living. Viewed that way, depression and its affects become very real.
Thom S. Rainer is CEO of Church Answers, a community of church leaders that offers support to pastors in the health areas where they most need it. He says that it’s not uncommon for pastors to suffer from depression and to hide it from the outside world.
The sources of pastor depression are lack of close friends, as found in the survey, along with other key components: spiritual warfare, the reality of the position versus its outside appearance, a sense of inadequacy, and the relentless pressure from critics and bullies, according to Rainer.
Pastors face spiritual warfare from a divisive population that further polarizes itself by religion. Bringing politics into religion, spewing hatred, and spreading violence can make standing up for God feel like a losing battle for these church leaders.
Like many career choices, pastors may also be disappointed or even shocked by what the role of pastor is truly like, versus its idealized version. Long hours, no real days off, and the need to counsel trouble souls can and does take a toll over the years, especially when church leaders don’t take time off for a sabbatical or vacation.
Pastors also report a struggle with being too hard on themselves in an effort to maintain their status as a role model and spiritual leader. While they know they are human, they have a difficult time accepting their flaws and mistakes, worrying that they are preaching lessons they themselves are having trouble following.
And their critics don’t help, constantly referring to pastors and Christians in general as hypocrites. They expect perfection and when the all-too-human church leaders don’t deliver that, critics pounce. This has played out in the media enough times to paralyze pastors for fear of making mistakes.
The bright light is that as depression and other mental illnesses have increased across the population, it has become much more accepted and destigmatized. While pastors may hesitate to share their inner thoughts with their staff or those around them, they do have access to mental health services. We need to support them in seeking out those services.