Pulpit panic: 1-in-2 mainline Protestant clerics looking for exits, survey reports

Many of America’s Protestant clergy, whether suffering from the pandemic, burnout or feelings of isolation, are thinking about quitting, according to a survey released Tuesday.

About 38% of Protestant pastors overall say their jobs are so stressful that they are “seriously considering” leaving full-time ministry, according to evangelical Christian research firm Barna Group. That figure represents a significant increase from January 2020, when 29% said they were giving serious thought to leaving the pulpit.

The percentage of pastors contemplating quitting jumps to 51% in the mainline Protestant denominations, which includes the American Baptist Churches USA, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.

“The pandemic along with intense congregational divisions and financial strain has caused significant burnout on pastors, driving them to the point to seriously consider leaving ministry,” Barna Group President David Kinnaman said in a statement.

The Rev. Peter Marty, editor of The Christian Century magazine, said the pandemic made a challenging situation even more stressful.

“The institutional church was going through a pretty remarkable set of changes prior to the pandemic,” said Mr. Marty, the senior pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. “But the pandemic introduced a whole new set of stresses. A lot of clergy members, who were drawn to in-person ministry initially and who suddenly found themselves unavoidably becoming online content creators and video producers, didn’t take well to the forced isolation of that new role.”

The Rev. Bryan P. Stone, a Church of the Nazarene pastor who is the associate dean of academic affairs at Boston University’s School of Theology, said a “consumer” attitude among parishioners has soured the relationship for many in ministry.

“I think that the church has become so much part of consumer culture that it’s just not exempt from the expectations,” Mr. Stone said in a telephone interview. “People come to church expecting to be treated like consumers. And if you cater to them, you will win, you will grow.”

One problem, he said, is that it’s difficult to match the “consumer experience” in congregations with thousands of members when a local or rural church has perhaps 50 in attendance on a Sunday morning.

“In certain communities where there is a big megachurch within driving distance, people will drive by all kinds of churches that are smaller in order to get there,” Mr. Stone said. “And yet, at the same time, we know that there are small churches that are really in a perfect spot in a small community, where people want the close relationship, they want to know a pastor, [and] the pastor knows them by their first name.”

The contemplated departures are part of the “great resignation,” in which millions of Americans have forsaken their jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey reported Friday that 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September. It was a record that surpassed 4.3 million exits in August.

The Barna Group survey did not include clerics of other faiths and denominations.

Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti, the research associate professor of practice at the Catholic University of America, reported that 3% of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. said they were thinking of leaving the priesthood, according to his 2021 survey.

He said 94% of priests “strongly agreed or agreed” with the statement that “overall, I am happy as a priest” and 88% either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “If I had to do it all over again, I would still become a priest.”

Ihsan A. Bagby, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky who researches trends in Islamic mosques, told The Washington Times he did not ask a specific question about clergy considering leaving their positions in his 2020 poll.

But “it is widely known that there is dissatisfaction among imams,” Mr. Bagby said. “I noticed that some of those American-born, traditionally trained imams have left their positions.”

Barna’s Mr. Kinnaman noted that COVID-19-era pressures have taken their toll on people in many service fields, including the ministry. He said the pandemic has caused “people across the board to take a deeper look at what counts for a life of meaning.”

“People that are called to ministry are sort of saying the sort of life of ministry may not be the kind of life of meaning that they thought it was going to be,” he told The Times. “Just simply doing sort of good work for the good of others isn’t enough if the circumstances are so challenging for these leaders that they’re in a sort of rat race, [they] hang up the cleats.”

Mr. Kinnaman said his firm’s statistical research “doesn’t really tell us why” a given set of people are contemplating leaving their ministry, but factors such as “the shift to digital ministry, a lot of the political and social challenges in the last year and a half, pressures around mask mandates and vaccines” apparently have contributed to the rise in the number of clerics evaluating an exodus from their calling.

Some 24% of Americans are believed to be members of evangelical Protestant congregations, the Pew Research Center has reported. In 2020, the Cooperative Election Study at Harvard University reported that 14% of Americans were members of mainline denominations.

Researcher Ryan Burge of Religion in Public reported in July that the seven largest mainline groups lost about 6 million members in the past decade.

Mr. Marty of The Christian Century said he had reasons for optimism. The demand for clergy “has outpaced supply for at least two decades,” and congregations “seem to be constantly scrambling to fill ministerial spots” with optimal candidates, he said.

“I meet so many resourceful pastors who, during the pandemic, shed their fusty understandings of ministry for a more refreshing sense of vocation,” Mr. Marty said. “I’m also heartened by a big uptick in seminary and divinity school enrollment in any number of places, a nice byproduct of individuals reconsidering their vocational and life goals during the pandemic. What we really need is for this pandemic to end or become peripheral for a long period of time.”