All the ground that has been gained on Pastoral Health was almost erased.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
In June of 2020, the most recent “State of the Pulpit” survey came out with some slightly more encouraging numbers than the same study from five years before. There were gains made, specifically in relationship to Pastor Health that were much needed. For instance, most younger pastors reported to spending more time with their family than the previous generation which means a decline, or at least the creation of boundaries regarding hours worked so that pastors could shepherd their own families well. While the numbers on Pastoral Depression, lack of friendship with others both inside and outside of their congregations were still too high they did come down a little and less pastors reported experiencing pastoral abuse. The suicide rate among pastors did rise again in the time the study covered and the retention rate did not increase, so while there were encouraging signs in the report, there were more causes for concern as well.
However, in talking with pastors from all over the country and in my own life I am concerned that all or most of those gains were lost. 2020 was an exhausting year for a number of reasons, one of which has been the topic of a recent major Wall Street Journal (Paywall warning) and way too many of my colleagues have reported a net loss in almost every area that the survey showed gains in. Keep in mind, it did not help that Pastors were considered Non-Essential, which meant we did not have access to some of the resources available to Essential workers. 2020 was also made more difficult for pastors in small churches by the amount of the PPP that was consumed by larger churches. This has led to many pastors struggling financially in 2020 and those struggles are not going away in 2021. Again, this was not something we directly experienced but we know many who have.
Let me state for the record that I was fortunate not to face pastoral abuse like many of my colleagues did. I had some conversations with congregants about everything going on that hurt, but nothing abusive. I was broken over my congregation this year, but not broken by my congregation and that is significant in this time. We saw God do some amazing things in a confusing year when we all had a lot less. God made sure we got all the bills paid and met our budget for the year.
But I seem to be rare when it comes to my friends and colleagues, many of them faced stark abuse over everything from their response to COVID-19 to their response to the ethnic unrest to their positions on the presidential election. As the Journal article notes, rural pastors have seen our congregations divided by the world and its politics. In a year when we could have shown our unity and been a light, we become more divided than ever and instead of being salt and light, we were just salty. Then there is this tweet by Dr. Frank Cox:
Just heard from a Pastors wife who is concerned for her husband. He is broken over his church during the Virus season. Listen, every Pastor is carrying a heavy burden for their churches. Pastors need those who will lift them up in pray. I for one am going to pray for her husband.
— Frank Cox (@DrFrankCox) January 4, 2021
Sadly, this is the summation of how most of what most of my friends and colleagues have experienced. I know there have been times when my wife has been concerned about me this year and I am grateful for her willingness to tell me so and help me make decisions for the sake of my own health. I am also grateful for a church board who understands that a healthy pastor will lead a healthy church.
Because while I did not face the emotional abuse that some of my friends and colleagues did. I did experience the exhaustion and massive crash that almost every other pastor experienced in 2020. As a young, rural pastor in an older church, there was a lot to do to keep the doors open in 2020, not from a financial standpoint, but from a technological and logistical standpoint. I got to use skills and abilities and learn new skills that I had not used in years or did not know I could do. I found myself filtering about 70 hours a week worth of work into 45-50, which I do not recommend and had to do in 4 months what most churches take 5-10 years to do, go from no livestream and minimal internet presence to a fully functioning livestream that is as high a quality as we can get with the equipment we have. In a larger church this may have been done by a team of 10-20, I had myself and another gentleman with radio experience. Preparing the slides and trying to do a full video bible study (now replaced by a Podcast) each week took up the time I had spent doing visits (now reduced to Zoom and telephone, so there was no travel time) and then some. This is not a complaint, I enjoy doing these things as a hobby, I was part of my High School’s broadcasting crew in High School and my College’s radio station and newspaper in College, so I had experience with both video and audio, but never thought I’d use them. I was also a graphics operator at my church in High School, so preparing slides was second nature, again, I just never thought I would be using these skills on the fly when everything shut down and using them all at once what has led to the exhaustion and burnout, I experienced in 2020. Like most pastors of small churches, I do not have a secretary, and so all this is placed on top of sermon preparation, preparing the bulletin and announcements, and getting everything ready for Sunday. I preached 50-52 Sundays in 2020 and prepared a bulletin for all 52. This is the prefect recipe for burnout and again, I am grateful for a board who gave me some rest.
I do not want you to think I have a hero complex, that if I had not done this the Church would not have survived. That is not the point, the point is to show you what your pastor may have gone through in 2020. I know I probably went a little beyond what some of your pastors did, but the general workload was probably about the same. Some pastors chose to lead Zoom Bible Studies, some chose to just produce a Sunday Morning Service. And most of them did this while having to put out major fires and deal with abuse from their congregations. There were moments this year when I questioned if I could do this, and I didn’t have people screaming in my face, berating or tearing me down, many of my colleagues are now set to leave the ministry early, or at least on a trajectory that could lead to them leaving the ministry early. This means the retention rate, currently only at 10% (this means only 10% of pastors retire as pastors0 will likely drop in the next five years from 10% to around 5% if historical statistics from previous eras hold true. It also means that, like many in the service professions (Police, EMT, Fire, Nurses, Doctors) the Suicide rate among Pastors is going to skyrocket unless there is a serious attempt at reconciliation. The state of Pastoral Ministry in America was already abysmal and there were many high-profile pastors and church leaders in 2020 who have made things worse, not better. Public trust of clergy was already at an all-time low, for example, and those pastors who have been intentionally divisive and cruel and who have been highlighted by the media, have continued that decline no matter what the faithful pastors do because it is the faithful and consistent pastors who you never hear of (as Jesus intended).
All this means that your pastor is probably burned out and ready to quit, whether he faced the worst of human depravity and pastoral abuse or is just tired from the added workload.
But what can you do? How can you help?
I am guess about now, if your pastor does not have a secretary, especially as Annual Reports and Meetings approach, could use your help preparing reports, preparing bulletins, designing service graphics. You may even volunteer to be a lay reader or put in so many unpaid hours ding office work. As I told my board, I cannot do all the things I am doing and keep the family together by myself, it is an impossible task. Ministry is meant to be done together, and right now, if you can make phone calls, you can help ease the load of your pastor in helping keep the family in the know. All you need to do is ask, to just say: “How can I help?” If you know of malicious gossip or the abuse of Church Members towards your pastor, you can at the least build up your pastor to those who have heard this gossip or of this abuse. You may not be able to confront the person, but you can be a positive voice for your pastor. If you are the one who is spreading the malicious gossip or has been abusive to your pastor, you should go and repent before God and ask your pastors forgiveness. Finally, you can pray for your pastor, pray long and pray hard for their encouragement, for help to arise for them. We can retake the hill we are losing among pastoral health on account of 2020, but it takes all of us.
May God help us all to be better than we have been, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center