The issue of post-pandemic burnout is a matter of concern among Christian clergy in the United States, leading many to contemplate leaving their positions, according to a recent nationwide survey.
Conducted in the fall of 2023 and released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the survey reveals that over 40% of clergy surveyed had seriously considered leaving their congregations since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Additionally, more than half had contemplated leaving the ministry altogether.
A noteworthy finding from the survey, part of the institute’s broader research project named “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations,” showed that approximately 10% of clergy frequently entertained thoughts of abandoning their roles. The prevalence of ministers considering leaving is attributed to the “collective trauma” experienced by both clergy and congregants since 2020, as stated by Scott Thumma, the institute’s director and principal investigator for the project.
The reasons for burnout among clergy are multifaceted and must be understood within broader contexts, according to Thumma. The survey disclosed that some clergy members, in response to dwindling attendance, reduced volunteering rates, and resistance to change among members, expressed exhaustion and frustration.
Long-standing challenges, predating the pandemic, were also highlighted in the report, such as a steady decline in median in-person attendance since the start of the century and an aging demographic among congregants. Despite a surge in innovation during the pandemic, congregants are now less inclined to embrace change.
Thumma emphasized the need to consider larger societal factors influencing burnout, stating that focusing solely on the congregation can be insufficient. For instance, a struggling rural town losing population can impact volunteering, aging, and growth possibilities for a church.
The survey found that about one-third of clergy respondents were contemplating both leaving their congregation and the ministry altogether, while almost another third were considering one or the other. Pastors of smaller churches and those working solo were more likely to consider leaving the ministry entirely compared to those on larger staffs and at larger churches.
Mainline Protestant clergy were identified as the most likely to contemplate quitting, followed by evangelical Protestants, with Catholic and Orthodox priests being the least likely. Although clergy reporting conflict in their congregations was prevalent, those considering leaving reported even higher levels of conflict and were less likely to feel close to their congregants.
While the survey paints a challenging picture, it also revealed some positive aspects. Most clergy reported good mental and physical health, although those considering leaving their roles showed slightly lower levels. Moreover, clergy were more likely to have increased various spiritual practices since the pandemic began.
The survey, conducted in the fall of 2023, included responses from approximately 1,700 Christian clergy members representing over 40 denominations, encompassing Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox bodies. This research aligns with similar post-pandemic studies, such as a 2023 Pew Research Center survey that observed a decline in monthly in-person worship attendance, particularly impacting Black Protestant churches.