The vocational stress of ministry

Pastors who leave the ministry often do so because of the stresses brought by conflicting expectations and ambiguities as to the role they are to fill. First in a three-part series.

Michael G. McBride, Ph. D., who himself has served in the ministry, is a family mental health counselor in Sequim, Washington.

In recent years in North America an increasing number of individuals have been leaving the ministry. Why? The issue is extremely complex. Such decisions are never the result of just one influence. There are, however, priorities among the causes. A study of the United Church of Christ that G. ]ud, E. Mills, and G. Burch conducted1 indicated that clergy left the pastoral minis try for the following reasons (in the order of their priority):

1. Sense of personal and professional inadequacy: 17.1 percent.

2. Unable to relocate when necessary: 14-7 percent.

3. Problems of wife and children: 13.2 percent.

4. Opportunity to put training and skills to fuller use: 9.3 percent.

5. Personal illness or breakdown: 8.5 percent.

6. Dissatisfaction with parish work: 7-8 percent.

7. Lack of church's spiritual growth and relevance: 7.8 percent.

8. Divorce or separation: 7.0 percent.

9. Money problems: 6.2 percent.

10. More attractive job opportunity: 5.4 percent.

11. Other reasons: 3.0 percent.

I conducted a similar survey of pastors in the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, asking their perceptions as to why individuals leave this profession. Their prioritized responses:

1. Job-related stress: 15 percent.

2. Dissatisfaction with pastoral ministry: 13 percent.

3. Divorce or separation: 10 percent.

4. Problems related to spouse and children: 10 percent.

5. A sense of professional and personal inadequacy: 9 percent.

6. Financial difficulties: 9 percent.

7. Difficulties with conference ad ministration: 8 percent.

8. Feelings of being caught between the local church and the conference with respect to goals and priorities: 6 percent.

9. Lack of church's spiritual growth and relevance: 6 percent.

10. Unable to put skills, interests, and training to fullest use: 5 percent.

11. More attractive job opportunity: 4 percent.

12. Feelings of loneliness: 3 percent.

13. Feeling forced to move from district: 2 percent.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of these two lists is the multiplicity of reasons cited. There is no single overarching reason why individuals leave the ministry. Nevertheless, the dominant reasons indicate some underlying hazards inherent to the work of ministry.

The United Church of Christ study asked ex-pastors what difference being employed elsewhere than in the pastoral ministry had made in their lives. The results are alarming. The former ministers said:

1. The working conditions are better. They have more money, more security, more time for their families, better housing, etc.: 21 percent.

2. Personal factors are better. They are less tense and happier: 23 percent.

3. The new job is more satisfying, more fulfilling. They use more skills: 23 percent.

4. There is a change in the role expected of them. Perfection is not expected. They feel more human. People relate to them on a more realistic basis: 11 percent.

5. No difference in life: 4 percent.

6. They feel a lack in their lives now: 6 percent.

7. Not enough data: 12 percent.

As Jud et al. said: "When person after person feels happier, freer, more rewarded, more human, more secure, and more satisfied after leaving an occupation, regardless of why he/she left, we begin to suspect some inherent strains within that occupational system." 2

The uniqueness of clergy stress

It is virtually impossible to design a work position that has no element of stress. The labor market and the domes tic scene have become very technical and sophisticated. For example, Kahn et al. report that only one out of six men in the labor force is free from job tension. 3 These tensions range from mild to severe, imposing heavy costs on the organization and the person.

Pastors also experience much stress in connection with their work. Of 4,928 pastors in 21 denominations, 75 percent reported one or more periods of "major stress" that they characterized as "severe." Two out of three times they identified their work in the local church as the source of the stress. 4 In fact, several factors suggest that pastors may be more vulnerable to work-related stress than are other members of the work force and that the stress they experience may be more severe.

1. Ministers fill a multiplicity of roles that in turn require many diverse skills. The wide variety of the roles often gives rein to many conflicting expectations. A tongue-in-cheek description of the "model" pastor addresses the impossibility of possessing all the skills necessary to fulfill these expectations: The model pas tor preaches exactly 20 minutes and then sits down. He condemns sin but never hurts anyone's feelings. He labors from eight in the morning until ten in the evening in every type of work. He is 26 years old and has been preaching for 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all his time with older folks. He smiles all the time because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls a day on church members, spends all his time evangelizing the unchurched, and is never out of his office!

This description also addresses the issue of role overload, i.e., the number of roles performed and the amount of time invested in performing them. A pastor's roles, for example, might include those of preacher, educator, evangelist, scholar and theologian, administrator, counselor, promoter, financier, etc. Pas tors are so many things to so many people that they often get lost in the maze of their own roles.

The variety of skills required to perform the roles involved in ministry adds complexity to this problem. Pastors may be called upon to exercise homiletical skills, administrative skills, exegetical skills, teaching skills, counseling skills, public relations skills, relationship building skills, etc. As Dr. Arch Hart has stated: "A pastor must possess all the skills of a corporate executive at one tenth the salary and with no chain of command."

Role strain appears to be at the very heart of clergy stress. Three aspects of role strain are worthy of attention: role conflict, which occurs when two or more expectations clash or contradict one an other altogether; role ambiguity, which results when the worker is uncertain as to what position he is expected to fill; and role overload, which results when the level of stimulation or demand exceeds the worker's capacity to process or comply with those demands--for example, when one does not have sufficient time to complete one's work, when too many things are happening at once, when one's work infringes upon one's leisure hours, etc. These three role strains ac count for a significant amount of clergy stress.

2. Clergy are more vulnerable to stress than other workers because of their unique position in their organizations. Much of the role conflict that pastors face stems from the fact that they are caught at the interface between the larger organization and the local congregation.

Programs and directives filter down the formal lines of denominational ad ministration through the pastor to the congregation. The church's world leaders say that the local church exists for the sake of being world- and mission-oriented. The local and union conferences emphasize institutional success and growth; they attempt to keep the pastor's priorities directed to increasing membership and finances. Specialized departmental directors continually re mind the pastor of the importance of their particular emphases. (The goals each of these entities emphasize are, of course, worthy.)

Meanwhile, the local congregation of ten holds values and initiates programs that conflict with the denomination's program. And the members of the pas tor's church hold many individual expectations as to his or her role. Within the congregation are children, young people, young marrieds, middle-aged, and senior citizens. There are zealots and Laodiceans, far-outs and far-ins, rich and poor, active people who want to change everything and we've-never-done-it-this- way-before people. All expect some thing different from the pastor, and in times of crisis they often feel they have been betrayed. 5

The dynamics between the organization, the church, and the pastor has been termed the "hourglass effect," with the pastor at the interface where the pressures of the grinding sand are experienced from both directions. As D. P. Smith noted, "The pastoral work, more than any other, is carried on in the midst of conflicting expectations and mixed signals." 6

3. In addition to the wide range of roles and skills required of pastors, the fact that they must perform their work in positions of high visibility predisposes them to severe stress. Unlike most professionals, the minister is continually under the observation of his role senders. Not only must pastors carry out many of their roles in public; they .often live in situations in which their personal lives are subject to observation. Their home life may not be regarded with any degree of privacy, their days off are not respected unless they leave town, and often they must even do their socializing with church members and role senders. Role enactment that is observed by a variety of persons is more vulnerable to sanctions than that which is restricted from observation.

4. There is another dimension to the way high visibility adds to the stress ministers endure. Under the conditions of high visibility the pastor's self-image and the role he or she fills merge. By definition, a role relates to the position the person occupies and not to the person who occupies the position. But for the pastor, separating person and position is a difficult task. It is no surprise that clergy often have difficulty adjusting to retirement. Those who view their work and their persons as synonymous have con fused their ego patterns. 8

The consequences of role strain and job stress

An examination of the literature reveals that those who are caught in the crossfire of role conflict and role ambiguity may suffer serious personal consequences. Furthermore, the literature suggests that the employing organization also experiences significant costs.

Pastoral stress hurts the pastor

On the individual level role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload have serious emotional and psychological con sequences. For example, R. Kahn et al. argue that tension and anxiety predict ably accompany the role conflict and ambiguity that a person experiences. 9 Others have cited various forms of emotional turmoil connected with role issues, and have related anxiety, tension, frustration, and feelings of futility with psycho logical conflict.

Sometimes more intense and debilitating emotional reactions occur. The tensions engendered by role strains seem to be connected with hysteria, confusion, a loss of self-esteem, and a level of indecision that leaves a person immobilized for a while. 10

A second consequence of the tension and anxiety experienced as the result of role strain is psychosomatic disease. Excessive emotional stress can cause physical illness. It can also function as a catalyst for some already present organic disease. 11

Another consequence of these stresses is "learned helplessness." Martin Seligman developed the theory of depression known as learned helplessness in the 1960s. Seligman and his associates ob served that after dogs had been given electric shocks over which they had no control, they seemed to transfer their expectations of helplessness to new situations in which the shock was, in fact, avoidable. These "helpless" dogs easily became passive, giving up with relatively little effort in new situations when they were again given shocks. In sharp contrast, dogs that had not faced uncontrollable electric shocks ran around until they found the response that allowed them to escape the controllable shocks. 12

It has been observed that people at times exhibit a similar learned helplessness. Many pastors repeatedly experience psychologically painful role conflict. If the conflict continues over an extended period of time without help or hope of resolution, some pastors perceive the situation as out of their control, and they accept virtually everything the situation dictates. This can lead to depression and despair.

Other consequences of role conflict and role ambiguity relate to interpersonal relations, alienation, and communication. These stresses tend to erode social relations with work associates and attitudes toward those role senders who create the conflict. Not only does the person experiencing the conflict trust his role senders less; he likes them less personally and holds them in lower esteem. Furthermore, people experiencing strong conflicts tend to communicate less with others than they do when they are relatively free of conflict. These circumstances reduce pastoral effectiveness.

A final personal consequence of role strain is sexual attraction and involvement. Such a connection may not seem readily apparent; nevertheless, cognitive-labeling theory and studies on human emotion verify its existence. 13

A study by Dutton and Aaron clearly demonstrates that mis-attribution of an internal state may lead to interpersonal attraction. 14 Two bridges span the Capilano River in British Columbia, Canada. One is a narrow, wobbly sus pension bridge that swings 230 feet above the rocky canyon; the other is a solid bridge only 10 feet above a calm brook. Dutton and Aaron had an attractive female approach male subjects as they walked across the bridges. She asked the subjects to complete a short questionnaire pertaining to some pictures of people. In addition, she gave each male subject her phone number in case he wanted to know the final results of the study.

Dutton and Aaron predicted that the subjects who were on the high bridge would be more physiologically aroused, than those on the low bridge and that they would interpret this arousal as inter personal and sexual attraction to the female experimenter. The responses con firmed these predictions in two ways. First, the subjects on the high bridge tended to see sexual themes in the pictures. More important, however, 50 per cent of the subjects on the high bridge called the woman, whereas only 12 per cent of those on the low bridge did so.

Pastors work frequently with female church members. The role strains the pastors experience lead to tension and anxiety, which, in turn, create a state of physiological arousal. Some pastors may fail to appropriately label the source of that arousal and, when working with certain women, may interpret it as sexual attraction. For those at risk, the results can be disastrous.

Pastoral stress hurts the organization

Not only do individuals suffer from the consequences of job stress and role strain; organizations also suffer. The struggles of their employees may disrupt the smooth operation of the organizations. To facilitate the successful accomplishment of its goals and mission, the church would do well to take more seriously the role problems its pastors face.

One major consequence to the organization is withdrawal behavior on the part of the working force. When the work environment is noxious, the individual tries to avoid it by being late, being ab sent, quitting, or withdrawing in some other way. 15 The higher the stress, the more the individual trys to escape.

Most organizations keep records pertaining to employee tardiness, absentee ism, and turnover, but the self-regulating nature of pastoral ministry militates against such a recording process. Consequently, ministerial withdrawal behaviors are less obvious. However, I have observed many situations in which pastors, unnoticed by either administration or congregation, have engaged in' side lines,, time-consuming hobbies, and other withdrawal behaviors. Furthermore, some pastors may use the relatively high degree of mobility the ministry makes possible to escape stress. Moving provides a temporary, acute sense of resolution of chronic problems. But like the other forms of withdrawal, it detracts from the overall effectiveness of the pastor, costing the church organization much.

A second consequence to the organization of its employees' role strains is related to job involvement. C. Edward found, for example, that role conflict and role ambiguity correlated negatively with job participation and job satisfaction. 16 In other words, as role strain increased, the employee's participation in and satisfaction with his or her job decreased. Edward also found that role conflict and role ambiguity correlated positively with a sense of job threat, anxiety, and the propensity to leave the organization. It has also been determined that when levels of role conflict and ambiguity are high, employees' confidence in the organization drops and their suspiciousness toward administration in creases.

Studies of psychological stress indicate that, in terms of its effect on performance, there is an optimal amount of stress. The optimal level is defined as the maximal point at which stress increases are matched by increases in health and performance. Overload begins when health and performance begin to decrease as stress increases.

Job-related stress in the form of role strain brings undesirable consequences upon organizations and employees alike. It tends to create a climate of suspicion toward administration and organization, leads to job dissatisfaction, and causes workers to want out. Church administrators should take note of the disastrous effects such a problem can have on the church and its ministry.

Not every pastor will experience job-related stress to the degree that has been described in this article. Nevertheless, for those who are suffering its consequences, help must come surely and quickly. It is my belief that men and women have left pastoral ministry be cause they have found role confusion too great a burden to bear.

In the next article in this series I will examine the specific types of role stress that affect the ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the primary sources that engender it. The concluding article will provide some practical suggestions for managing and minimizing job-related stress.

1 G. Jud, E. Mills, and G. Burch, Ex-Pastors:
Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry (Philadelphia:
Pilgrim Press, 1970).

2. /bid.

3 R. Kahn, D. Wolfe, R. Quinn, J. Snoek, and
R. Rosenthal, Organizational Stress: Studies in Role
Conflict and Ambiquity (New York: John Wiley and
Sons, 1964).

4 E. W. Mills and J. P. Koval, Stress in the
Ministry (New York: Ministry Studies Board and
IDOC, 1971).

5 Ibid.

6 D. P. Smith, Clergy in the Crossfire: Coping
With Role Conflicts in the Ministry (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1973).

7 Ibid.

8 R. May, The Art of Counseling (Nashville:
Abingdon, 1967).


9 Kahn et al.

10 P. Seritra, "Auditor's Perceptions of Role
Conflict and Role Ambiguity in a Public Account
ing Firm: An Empirical Study," Dissertation
Abstracts International 37 (8A): 5206; see also Kahn et
al.

11 D. Girdano and G. Everly, Controlling Stress
and Tension: A Holistic Approach (Old Tappan,
N.I.: Prentice-Hall, 1979).


12 M. Seligman, Helplessness: On Depression,
Development, and Death (San Francisco: W. H.
Freeman, 1975).

13 See, e.g., S. Schacter and J. E. Singer,
"Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of
Emotional State," Psychological Review 69 (1962):
379-399.

14 Cited by S. Schwartz in the 1982 class Introduction
to Social Psychology, at the University of
Wisconsin.


15 N. Gupta and T. Beehr, "Relationship of Role
Conflict and Role Ambiguity to Job Involvement
Measures, "Journal of Applied Psychology 59 (1974):
497-499.


16 C. Edward, Dissertation Abstracts International,
Vol. 38, 6-A (Dec. 1977): 3173.

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Michael G. McBride, Ph. D., who himself has served in the ministry, is a family mental health counselor in Sequim, Washington.

January 1989

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