My wife was on a search committee for our church. The search committee carefully and thoughtfully gathered a list of all the qualities they wished for in their new priest: A persuasive and engaging orator, a nurturing minister on the individual level, a sharp administrator, and someone who would lead us in a new direction without upsetting our traditions. The list was quite extensive. One of the fellow search committee members summed up the list this way, “Well, I guess we are looking for Jesus because we’ve described a perfect human being.” Regular attendees at churches know of our tendency to expect our spiritual leaders to be perfect. They are God’s emissary to us, after all. Shouldn’t they be a little better than the rest of us?

Our unreasonable expectations mean the job of the church’s spiritual leader is often a lonely job. Who is there to love and support our pastors?

Our priests, pastors and ministers are under stress like many have never seen in their careers. Many of them feel lonely and isolated, especially from their flock. God’s helping hands are burning out. In a March 2022 study by Barna, 42 percent of senior pastors have strongly considered quitting in the last twelve months. In January 2021, it was only 29 percent.

What’s happening to cause our spiritual ministers to need their own ministering to? According to the Barna survey, COVID is near the top of the list. How do you keep people connected to the church and God when they can’t come to church? Do you want to stream your service? COVID is just another layer of administrative challenges. When people come back to the church while COVID is still raging, do we worship as before? How does the senior pastor support and love each congregation member, many of whom have different comfort zones about getting back to normal? What would Jesus do? Members of your congregation have other answers to that question than the pastor. About 56 percent of those pastors thinking of quitting say the current stress is too much. They want to do God’s work but increasingly, handling divisions amongst church members consumes their time. About 43 percent of those thinking of quitting cite the fact that they feel isolated and alone while attempting to serve God and their church.

The COVID hangover affecting churches is affecting the spirit of our spiritual leaders. It is not just lingering COVID-related stress that causes isolation and loneliness. Thirty-eight percent cite deep political divisions in their church amongst congregants and the two sides expecting the senior pastor to support their side in the dialogue. One side says: Doesn’t Jesus teach us to love our neighbors as ourselves? Why can’t we drape the church in Gay Pride flags?

While the other side says: Don’t preach from the pulpit about Black Lives Matter and Gay Pride. I don’t want politics from my pulpit. This sense of burnout and loneliness is particularly acute in our younger pastors aged 45 and under, where 46 percent think of giving up their ministry. Just 34 percent of those older than 45 are thinking of quitting. They are hanging on until they get their pension. If you are a church-going person, consider hugging your pastor and telling them you love them and support them. They need your love now more than ever. If you are not a church-going person, this same dynamic of stress, burnout, and loneliness can be found in many top leaders of organizations that we belong to. Consider hugging them too.

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