Clergy morale in today's time

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The Rev. René Lawson. Photo courtesy of the author. 
The Rev. René Lawson.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Commentaries

UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

Key points:

  • Reports indicate that clergy burnout is at an all-time high. Showing them appreciation would go a long way.
  • Potential causes include ongoing isolation due to COVID-19, division within the church and the nation, and serious decline in church attendance.
  • Clergy need to support one another, and be supported by the wider church as well. 

While each New Year raises hope for a better future, there are some practical considerations that need addressing, particularly regarding clergy morale.

A retired clergy colleague recently stated that he felt sorry for today’s United Methodist pastors because of all the enormous challenges facing the ministry. Scratching his head, he didn’t know how pastors could manage all the stressful events that have affected daily living. Indeed, it’s not the same church that it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when attendance and interest were much higher.

The unfortunate result, according to sources such as the Barna Group, Washington Post and Christianity Today, indicate that clergy burnout is at an all-time high. Up to 38% of Protestant pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry. The percentage grows even higher with mainline Protestant pastors.

There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to clergy burnout.  

  1. The pandemic and the impact of COVID-19 have forced the church to explore alternative methods of simply being the church. While the virus has given birth to new and creative ways of being in ministry, the church still struggles to maintain a connected presence with its parishioners. In essence, our United Methodist Church is striving to maintain its “connectional” status.

  2. Our nation is terribly divided, particularly on matters regarding the welfare of its citizens. Barbara Walter, an expert on civil war affairs from the University of California at San Diego, recently reported that the United States is drawing very close to starting a civil war. Civil disobedience, mistrust and violence are an alarming trend, with political or tribal allegiances threatening to tear America apart. 

  3. A recent Pew Research poll demonstrated a disturbing trend in church attendance: Only 25% of the U.S. population attends church on a regular basis. Religious life has been declining for years and it continues to decline. Who can blame today’s younger generations for avoiding the church when the church fights within itself?

  4. Matters regarding social justice, such as racial relations or the LGBTQ+ community, are contentious subjects. What makes matters worse are leaders who refute formal education in favor of self-proclaimed revelation … which might be totally outrageous!

Indeed, storm clouds line the horizons of our United Methodist Church. The delay of meeting as a General Conference has placed on hold important matters that desperately need discussions and decisions. It feels as if the church has been placed on pause. Who knows what tomorrow will bring to our beloved church? Indeed, these are anxious times.

What are clergy to do during these turbulent periods? How can they survive what seems to be a freefall? 

First, they can be inspired by reading how the prophets and disciples of old overcame their difficult times. The Bible is filled with stories of God’s people overcoming all kinds of adversities. It was challenging during biblical times and it continues to be challenging today. No one said that being a clergyperson in the church would be easy. There will be moments when God expects leaders to stand up against all hard times. The Good News is that the church of Jesus Christ will always prevail!

Second, clergy need to support and care for one another. They should take care of each other by offering prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. They should focus on lifting morale. Being a clergyperson is one of the loneliest occupations in the world. Consider the following observation as noted in the Harvard Business Review: “The solitude of the ivory tower seems to be a real phenomenon. Graduate degree holders … reported higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than those who had only completed undergraduate or high school degrees.”

Clergy often feel isolated, as if no one cares. Many wander around aimlessly, trying to keep their churches together. And truth be told, many clergy persons compete against each other, which further isolates their capacity to support one another. 

Here’s one thing I learned while serving in the military: If your people feel wanted and appreciated, they will work extra hard to complete whatever mission may be before them. If they do not feel wanted or appreciated, and simply left on their own, morale will suffer and efforts to fulfil the mission will be diminished.

Perhaps some may remember a term known as a “steel beach picnic.” Navy ships and submarines out at sea for long periods of time sometimes have a steel beach picnic on the topside of a ship. These moments often featured grilling food and playing games. Sometimes sailors even engage in a dip into the ocean. These moments are designed to boost the sailors’ morale. Why does the commander allow such behavior? He/she knows that a high level of morale is needed to effectively fulfill a mission. 

Looking toward the future, clergy members need to feel appreciated in order to stay true to the task before them. They need a morale booster. They need words of encouragement and understanding. They need something to keep them moving forward, even if it is just one foot in front of the other. Clergy need and appreciate your support if they are to continue to fulfill the mission of ushering in God’s Kingdom in a conflicted world. 

Lawson is senior pastor of St. Philip’s United Methodist Church in Garland, Texas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton or Joey Butler at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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