In the fall of 2021 — after more than a year of the pandemic and following a contentious presidential election — former pastor Eric Atcheson was standing in line on a Saturday morning when he realized he had to change his life.
“I had gone out to get my wife and daughter cookies for breakfast. As I was waiting for our order to be ready, even though it was my day off, I started having a seizure. panic,” said Atcheson, who at the time was leading a church in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was my body trying to communicate with my soul: it’s not sustainable.”
This moment marked the “point of no return”, he added.
Although Atcheson was already in therapy, he sought additional help from a spiritual director and began an intense process of discernment. “It took me many months to recognize that in order for me to be whole in any way, I would have to give up congregational ministry,” he said. “When your job gives you panic attacks, it’s time to quit work.”
So last month he resigned, announcing his move to a Twitter feed which garnered hundreds of likes and replies, including some from other pastors who had also resigned.
Across the country, stories like Atcheson’s are becoming more common as clergy suffer burnout and mental health issues they attribute to the pandemic’s double whammy and political polarization. increased.
In March 2022, 42% of pastors were considering resigning, compared to 29% who had done the same in January 2021, according to data collected by Barna. The top three reasons cited by the clergy were “tremendous stress”, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and “political division”. according to Barna.
While some religious leaders are only thinking about leaving, others have resigned or retired early. The wave of clergy departures could have a unique impact on American society: As pastors leave congregations, there are questions about who will replace them.
“I haven’t lost faith in the work that Jesus is doing, but I’ve lost faith in the work that the church is doing,” said Scott Sharman, a retired pastor from Burleson, Texas. anticipated in February.
“I think there will be a new pattern of church in the next generation or two,” he added, pointing to the rise of house churches, or small worship groups in which members share both prayer and their life.
On stress at work
The stress that is an integral part of ministry to a congregation is not new and the impact it has on the physical and mental health of clergy is well documented.
Duke Divinity School Clergy Health Initiative — a program that tracks the health and well-being of clergy at The United Methodist Church in North Carolina — found that these pastors suffer from higher rates of depressive symptoms than their nonclergy counterparts. They are also more likely to be obese or have chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension than other North Carolina residents. Similar trends are being seen among United Methodist clergy nationwide, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, professor of global health and research director for the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.
While anxiety symptoms increased for clergy between 2019 and 2021, “the percentage of clergy with elevated anxiety symptoms doubled between 2016 and 2021, reaching 16%,” said Proeschold-Bell, who attributed some of this to increased political polarization.
Pastors who correspond politically with their congregations had average levels of anxiety, she added. But those who said they were significantly more liberal than church members had surprisingly high rates of high anxiety.
There is a certain level of frustration in the work, noted the Reverend Adam Wyatt, who has been researching pastoral burnout in recent months. “You preach and you want to see the gospel change people’s lives and as you get to know people you realize that they are dealing with a lot of different things. It’s not just sin. That’s just life,” he said.
In normal times, there is also a natural stress that comes from wrestling with a variety of congregational issues – from the type of music that needs to be played during services to the type of outreach the church needs to engage in.
But the pandemic years — which have also included the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death and an election cycle — have put additional stress on faith leaders at all levels, Reverend Wyatt said. The clergy felt like no matter what they chose to do, someone was mad at them. Close the church and go online? Complaints. Reopen and ask the faithful to hide? Complaints. Don’t ask people to mask up? Complaints. Can’t articulate your support for one political party or another? People are walking.
Amid the pandemic, before the 2020 election, “we had a lot of families who left our church because I wouldn’t endorse or embrace or affirm Donald Trump,” said Sharman, who has added that people leave for congregations that pander to their political leanings rather than making a lifelong commitment to a church where their views might be challenged.
On top of all that, the pandemic means religious leaders are now expected to operate as de facto experts on public health, technology and social media.
As the responsibilities of the job have increased, the rewards have decreased. The small, spontaneous, positive interactions with church members that once kept clergy going — stopping in a hallway to chat with a congregant, a warm smile — have disappeared from work in the past two years.
The pressure built up. Pastors under 40 seem especially likely to drop out of congregational ministry, Reverend Wyatt said. He cited anecdotal evidence that more students are entering seminaries, but fewer are being trained for pastoral ministries. He and others also pointed to congregations that had job offers for long stretches and were unable to replace pastors who left.
Experts and faith leaders say that in addition to posing new challenges, the pandemic has also exposed or exacerbated pre-existing tensions in congregations. “People got wilder,” Atcheson said.
When Reverend Trey Jones of Crossgates United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was at breaking point, he found someone to cover for him for two Sundays and told his wife he had to get in his car and drive. “I told him I had no idea where I was going but you can come with me if you want,” Reverend Jones said.
She got in the car with him and they “directed her south,” he said. They kept driving with no specific destination in mind until they literally reached the end of the road: Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States.
“I ran away because I was going to run away,” Reverend Jones said. For now, the short break has proven enough to keep him alive.
But for another Midwestern pastor — who asked to remain anonymous out of respect for the congregation he still leads — the sabbatical he took amid a mental health crisis led to the realization that he had to leave the life of the congregation altogether. He returned to his post only to tender his resignation; his last day as pastor comes next month.
While he hopes to continue his spiritual work, he will focus his efforts on the nonprofit sector where he believes he can more effectively implement the ideals he holds dear, including racial justice. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, he began to feel that too many American churches are complicit in perpetuating racial inequality, he said, adding that he had taken heat after leading some race-related church programs.
“Some people in the parish were angry – very angry – and when I was looking at my emails I had a little panic attack,” he said.
While American Jewry is not experiencing a mass exodus of rabbis, Jewish leaders are also feeling the brunt of the pandemic and political tensions, also said Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
“The big quit isn’t what we see, but we see a huge level of burnout and stress,” she said. “Just as we see many mental health issues in the general population, rabbis are not exempt.”
The shifting conversation about Israel and the Palestinians is an added layer of stress the rabbis face. “A lot of rabbis are afraid to speak (about the conflict) or bring their personal views (on the issue) because whatever they do, they make people angry,” Rabbi Person said. The same goes for voicing their opinions on other hot topics like gun control, reproductive care or trans rights, she noted.
“We have rabbis who receive death threats if they say this or that. It’s hard to be a moral leader,” she said, adding that social media exacerbates the phenomenon.
Make clergy feel loved
Proeschold-Bell explains that there are steps religious leaders and followers can take to prevent burnout and mental health symptoms.
“We have found in longitudinal studies that clergy who have higher spiritual well-being are less likely to become depressed one year later. We also found that high depressive symptoms are associated with burnout one year later,” said Proeschold-Bell, who explained that many people assume the opposite – that people burn out and then become depressed.
“If clergy are feeling depressed, they should go do the things that are helpful for anyone with depression — therapy, medication, physical activity and time outside,” Proeschold-Bell said.
She also pointed out that as mental health symptoms loom, people are inclined to cut back on certain things, including spiritual practices. But this is the exact opposite of what clergy should do when they feel their mood and energy waning.
“Now is not a good time to slack off” on spiritual practices, Proeschold-Bell said. “They should retreat to any kind of spiritual practices that improve their spiritual well-being, which can then help prevent depression and anxiety.”
The faithful can also make a difference by doing small things.
Those who attend services and places of worship should be careful to recognize their religious leaders as people and to pour out to these men and women who give them so much, said Proeschold-Bell, who recommended “asking pastors to introduce themselves – ‘Where are you going on vacation? What are you reading right now? How is your family? What do you like to do in the spring? – something that recognizes the clergy member as a whole person and not just as a fabric person.
The research found that “when clergy feel loved and cared for by their congregations, they do better,” she said.