In the current fast-paced, high-pressure American culture, pastors are stressed and they know that needs to change, a recent study shows.
According to the latest release in Lifeway Research’s 2022 Greatest Needs of Pastors study, of all the mental challenges U.S. Protestant pastors face, stress stands out above the rest. Distractions and discouragement are also significant factors for pastors when it comes to mental challenges in ministry.
Top mental challenges
In this study, Lifeway Research interviewed 200 U.S. Protestant pastors who identified 44 issues they face in their roles and then surveyed 1,000 additional pastors to determine the greatest needs U.S. Protestant pastors face today. The nearly four dozen needs were divided into seven categories: ministry difficulties, spiritual needs, mental challenges, personal life, self-care, people dynamics and areas of skill development.
Of these seven categories, 6% of pastors say mental challenges are currently the most challenging area for them or the area that requires the most attention. This study identified six specific mental challenges in ministry: depression, discouragement, distraction, loneliness or lack of friendship, lack of contentment and stress.
Most pastors point to stress as a mental challenge they are facing in ministry (63%). Nearly half of pastors say discouragement (48%) and distraction (48%) are ministry mental challenges, while less than one-third of pastors point to loneliness or lack of friendship (28%), depression (18%) or lack of contentment (17%). Another 14% aren’t sure or say none of these are mental challenges for them.
The youngest pastors (ages 18–44) are most likely to say they deal with stress in ministry (78%), while the oldest pastors (ages 65 and older) are the least likely (47%). Furthermore, pastors of the smallest churches (with worship service attendance of fewer than 50), are less likely than pastors of churches of any other size to say they face stress in their pastoral ministry (52%).
Age similarly affects a pastor’s likelihood of saying they face discouragement in ministry, with pastors over the age of 65 being least likely to say they struggle with this issue (35%). Pastors with doctoral degrees (30%) are also less likely than pastors with any other educational background to say they face discouragement.
Younger pastors are also more likely to say they face distractions and loneliness in ministry. Pastors ages 18 to 44 (54%) and 45 to 54 (51%) are more likely to say distractions are challenging for them compared to pastors over 65 (39%). Furthermore, pastors ages 18 to 44 (37%) and 45 to 54 (30%) are more likely than pastors over 65 (20%) to say loneliness or lack of friendships are a challenge for them.
“Americans have become much more aware of mental wellbeing, and young pastors have grown up in a culture with much greater transparency around these challenges than previous generations,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “The high number of young pastors wanting to address these mental challenges means although awareness is higher among them, many have not yet successfully embraced the boundaries, habits and preventative measures they need.”
In half of the categories of mental challenges explored in this study, white pastors were more likely than African American pastors to say they face that challenge in ministry. Whereas half of white pastors (50%) say they face discouragement in ministry, 35% of African American pastors say the same. Similarly, nearly half of white pastors (49%) say distractions are a challenge for them, while 37% of African American pastors agree. When it comes to stress, the most cited mental challenge in this study, white pastors (64%) are once again more likely than African American pastors (52%) to say this is a ministry challenge they face.
Greatest mental challenge
When asked to narrow it down to the area of mental challenges they most need to address today, stress, distractions and discouragement top pastors’ list. More pastors identify stress (31%) as their greatest mental challenge in ministry than any other challenge. Nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23%) say distraction is their greatest mental challenge in ministry, and 18% say discouragement.
Fewer identify loneliness or lack of friendship (9%), depression (2%) or lack of contentment (2%) as the mental challenge they most need to address today. And 15% of pastors say they’re not sure or none of these are their primary mental challenge in ministry.
“Being a pastor is stressful,” McConnell said. “It’s important for pastors to learn healthy ways of maintaining their mental health amidst the variety of pressures that continue to come their way. Ignoring stress is not the answer. Resilience requires investment.”
Once again, younger pastors are more likely than the oldest pastors to say stress is the primary mental challenge they face in ministry. Whereas 37% of pastors ages 18 to 44 and 33% of pastors ages 45 to 54 say stress is their greatest mental challenge, 23% of pastors over the age of 65 say the same.
Pastors of large churches are also more likely to identify stress as their greatest mental challenge than pastors of smaller churches. While 41% of pastors of churches with attendance greater than 250 say stress is their primary challenge, pastors of churches with attendance of 0-49 (22%) and 100–249 (31%) are less likely to agree.
“While the Word certainly calls us to lean on the Lord in times of trouble, Scripture also reminds us we are not an island,” said Ben Mandrell, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. “When the weight of feeling overwhelmed seems too much to bear, I encourage pastors to seek the help of trained professionals to help navigate mental challenges.”
The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted March 30–April 22, 2021. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to reflect the population more accurately. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1%. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Marissa Postell and originally published by Lifeway Research.