The Unexpected Familial Casualties of Being a Pastor in the Modern Church

Yesterday I posted an article where I began to raise some questions about the immense amount of focus that gets placed on the role of the pastor. If you haven’t read it, check it out HERE.

I talked with my wife a little bit about this article and the questions I’m wrestling with, and she raised an excellent point about how the families of pastors have suffered over the years due to the undue and unnecessary amount of focus placed on pastors, and the unrealistic expectations placed upon them because of it.

And she’s right. I can testify to that on a couple levels.

Level 1: my father was a pastor and our family absolutely suffered both then and now. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that a lot of the pressures that he faced ultimately led to the breaking apart of our family and my parents divorce when I was an adult.

Level 2: I was a pastor (albeit staff pastor, associate pastor, whatever you want to call it) for many many years (and still serve on staff at a church) and my family absolutely suffered then and is still working through the impact of those things now. So much so that we had to get counseling to get it addressed.

Because pastors have been elevated to a very unrealistic status and the level of expectations placed upon them, they often find themselves overworked, exhausted, burned out, stressed, suicidal, and a lot more. In fact, here are some startling statistics about pastors specifically that should be quite the eye opener for just how bad it has gotten.

The following statistics come from Soul Shepherding, but were pulled from various surveys and research done over the years which are cited at the bottom of the article linked to above:

Ministry stress:

  • 75% of pastors report being “extremely stressed” or “highly stressed” (1)
  • 90% work between 55 to 75 hours per week (2)
  • 90% feel fatigued and worn out every week (1)
  • 70% say they’re grossly underpaid (2)
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month (1)
  • 78% were forced to resign from their church (63% at least twice), most commonly because of church conflict (1)
  • 80% will not be in ministry ten years later and only a fraction make it a lifelong career (1). On average, seminary trained pastors last only five years in church ministry (2)
  • 100% of 1,050 Reformed and Evangelical pastors had a colleague who had left the ministry because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure (2)
  • 91% have experienced some form of burnout in ministry and 18% say they are “fried to a crisp right now” (7)

Emotional Health, Family, and Morality:

  • 70% of pastors say they have a lower self-esteem now than when they entered ministry (1)
  • 70% constantly fight depression (2)
  • 50% feel so discouraged that they would leave their ministry if they could, but can’t find another job (2)
  • 80% believe their pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families and 33% said it was an outright hazard (1)
  • 80% of ministry spouses feel left out and unappreciated in their church (2)
  • 77% feel they do not have a good marriage (2)
  • 41% display anger problems in marriage (reported by the spouse) (3)
  • 38% are divorced or divorcing (1)
  • 50% admit to using pornography and 37% report inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church (1)
  • 65% feel their family is in a glass house (2)

Lack of Care and Training:

  • 53% of pastors do not feel that seminary or Bible college prepared them adequately (2)
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend (1)
  • 50% do not meet regularly with an accountability person or group (6)
  • 72% only study the Bible when preparing for sermons or lessons (1)
  • 21% spend less than 15 minutes a day in prayer — the average is 39 minutes per day (4)
  • 16% are “very satisfied” with their prayer life, 47% are “somewhat satisfied”, and 37% are either “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” (spending more time in quiet prayer or listening to God versus making requests was correlated with higher satisfaction) (4)
  • 44% of pastors do not take a regular day off (5)
  • 31% do not exercise at all, while 37% exercise at least three or four days a week as recommended (6)
  • 90% say they have not received adequate training to meet the demands of ministry (2)
  • 85% have never taken a Sabbatical (6)

I read through the lists above and frankly it rips my heart out. The family and the marriage has become a serious casualty of “ministry” and being a pastor in the modern western church. What bothers me most, though, is that these aren’t numbers because of the “suffering for the Lord”. These are numbers because pastors are suffering at the hands of unrealistic and unmet expectations as well as a church functioning in a way it was never intended to function. Yet, many (even pastors themselves) would simply write this off as the cost of ministry.

I cry foul!

The statistics above are no small numbers and this should cause a great deal of alarm in each of us that reads them. Bells should be sounding off in our heads as we consider the ramifications of what we have done to pastors, their spouses, and their families.

All in the name of “ministry”.

The effect on families, according to the research done for the statistics above, is horrendous! 80% of pastors feel their ministry has negatively impacted their families, with 33% saying it was an absolute hazard. 38% of pastors are divorced or divorcing (my father is among this number), 77% feel they have a bad marriage, and 41% display anger in their marriages. 70% of pastors are fighting depression, 75% are extremely stressed, 90% are exhausted every single week, and 91% are burned out.

Folks, this isn’t good. Pastors and their families are suffering. And if the vast majority of pastors feel their ministry has a negative impact on their family and that they have a bad marriage…what in the world is going on?? Why is this even remotely acceptable? Why are we continuing down this road? Why do we keep glossing over this? Why aren’t we looking at the underlying causes of this?

I’ll tell you why…tradition.

We ignore these things because this is how it’s always been done. We’ve made these things into sacred cows that no one dare touch. But the reality is, this isn’t how it’s always been done. The early church didn’t do it this way. And while they were not perfect, and experienced much of the same issues we experience today in the church, there was a healthier aspect to their existence than there is to ours. We need to look at that and ask, why???

These statistics are symptoms of a massive underlying issue. If all we ever do is treat the symptoms, the true problem will never be rooted out and addressed.

We don’t go in for a doctor checkup and give a list of symptoms, then have the doctor scan us and find that we have brain cancer, and then have the doctor turn around and only prescribe us stuff for the symptoms. No! They want to go after the cancer.

My personal experience has been quite reflective of these statistics.

  1. My father divorced my mother a few years ago while in ministry.
  2. My wife and I have been massively hurt by church members, pastors, and ministry in general.
  3. I neglected my wife for years as I pursued being a “minister” and gave the vast majority of my attention to the church rather than her in our first 3 years of marriage.
  4. My wife has always felt the church came first over her.
  5. My wife always felt she needed to support my ministry and neglect her own calling.
  6. We have always felt our family lived in a glass house and were constantly under scrutiny if we didn’t live exactly right.
  7. We have had to get 9 months of counseling to work through much of our church and ministry hurts.
  8. I came out of the church as a teenager hating the church because of how I saw them treat my father as a pastor.

I could go on and on…but the point is like it or not, believe it or not, we have a cancer in the Western Church, but all we ever want to do is treat the symptoms instead of the cancer.

We think that if we just change the music style it will get better.

We think that if we just offer different programs it will get better.

We think that if we just have better preaching it will get better.

We think that if we just had the right facility it will get better.

All the while, the church is suffering under the surface from a dark mass of cancer that is sucking the life from the American Church, those who serve on staff at these churches, and the families of these pastors and staff.

If we don’t want our families to be casualties in this thing we call “The Church” or “ministry”, then we better start looking closely at the underlying issues and stop spending so much time and resource on the symptoms.

I’m trying to begin to lay out my prognosis of what I believe the cancer is in the American Church based on the various symptoms that are all around us, and based on the opinions of many others who have peer-reviewed this problem and are looking at this mass of cancer and coming to the same conclusions.

But this much I am absolutely sure of, it’s amazing what happens to the symptoms in a person when you remove the cancer.

The symptoms just…go away.

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