Dec 16, 2020

3 Insights to Help Pastors Care for Their Church This Season

Barna data show that pastors across the U.S. feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to caring for their church members during crisis. In a year that has been marked by uncertainty, distance and trauma, pastors are likely facing even greater pressure to support and guide their people—perhaps while their own mental and emotional well-being are also suffering.

As a difficult year comes to a close and a challenging holiday season continues, let’s examine findings from three recent Barna studies that could help pastors as they think through caring for their congregants—and themselves—during crisis.

Trauma in America

Understanding how people face hardships and how the Church offers hope

Few Pastors Feel “Very” Well-Equipped to Help with Trauma
Most pastors agree that trauma is an issue the Church should address, but many church leaders have had little to no training in the way of trauma care. Data from Barna’s recent report created in partnership with American Bible Society—Trauma in America—show that the majority of Protestant pastors (73%) indicates they feel “somewhat” equipped to help someone in their congregation who may be dealing with significant trauma. Only one in seven (15%) feels “very” well-equipped, while 12 percent do not feel equipped at all.

Most Protestant pastors (55%) received their training more than 10 years ago. Recency of training, however, does not necessarily produce a positive effect in the way personal experience as a minister does when it comes to a sense of preparation.

Protestant pastors without training make up a much larger proportion of those who feel unprepared (29%) than of those who feel somewhat (8%) or well-prepared (4%). Yet, despite the boost many pastors seem to get from their training in counseling, when specifically asked how well their education or training prepared them to minister to people who have experienced a traumatic event, most choose “somewhat well” (55%). Just 10 percent choose “very well.” A full one-third thinks their training did not leave them better equipped for trauma care (34% “not too well” or “not well at all”).

Take stock of any training, teaching or experience you’ve acquired relating to trauma or crisis care. Do you feel well-equipped to help your congregants in the current moment? Where could you use additional support or a refresher?

If yes, in what ways are you prepared to come alongside your people as they cope with and heal from trauma or crisis? How does your church support and / or strengthen the mental and emotional well-being of your congregants?

If no, who can you partner with to help support your congregation? Are there lay people who work in the mental health field? Does your church have a connection with local psychiatrists, counselors and therapists? How can you share these connections with your congregation so that your people can tap into these valuable resources.

Three in 10 Practicing Christians Distance Themselves from Church During Crisis
Data from Restoring Relationships show that while pastors might feel somewhat equipped to help their congregants work through a challenging time, it’s not a guarantee that practicing Christians will turn to the Church in the midst of their struggle.

Though seven in 10 practicing Christians say they have grown closer to a church because of a personal crisis (69% vs. 31% who have not), this positive indication of effective support is tempered by the fact that one-third recalls having distanced themselves from a church during a personal crisis (33% vs. 67% who have not).

Almost all pastors know of someone who has gotten closer to the church they shepherd because of a personal crisis (95% vs. 5% who say they do not know of someone for whom this is true). On the other hand, more than eight in 10 can recall someone who has distanced themselves from the church they lead as the result of a personal crisis (83% vs. 17% who say they do not know of someone for whom this is true).

Sadly, the top reason given by practicing Christians who have distanced themselves from a church is “I felt I couldn’t be honest about myself and my life” (35%). Other reasons center on relational discord, including disagreement with church teaching (17%), disliking treatment by church leaders (15%) and disliking treatment by other congregants (16%).

In many cases, pastors can have enormous influence on churchgoers’ relationship to the church during relational crises. Consider this: If a church leader is honest and forthcoming about his or her own struggles, “I felt I couldn’t be honest about myself and my life” is less likely to be an inhibiting issue for congregants! So often, good leadership means leading by example—and that includes healthy, godly ways of dealing with problems. The more pastors honestly talk about the real stuff of relationships, the more people will know that honest talk is the way forward.

Per a Barna pastor survey taken early in the pandemic (April 7-13, 2020), a vast majority of U.S. church leaders (89%) says they at least somewhat (65%) or definitely (24%) understand the immediate needs of their congregations regarding mental and emotional health. Even so, during that same survey pastors shared that they were largely not talking about mental or emotional health during their Sunday sermons—while two in five (39%) had broached this topic within the past month, a greater portion either had not (58%) or cannot recall (3%). These percentages did not statistically shift even four months later, when Barna asked the same question of church leaders.

When was the last time you or another church leader spoke about mental, emotional or relational well-being, either from the pulpit or in another church-led event (seminar, small group, Bible study, etc.)?

When addressing topics of well-being with your people, do you also share your personal struggles or challenges with them?

If yes, how have your people responded? Has this led to your church being able to support more congregants’ well-being, especially in the midst of crisis?

If no, would you be open to giving this a try? Perhaps being honest about struggles you may be facing, especially in this turbulent year, will help your people see that they are not walking through this alone.

Trauma in America

Understanding how people face hardships and how the Church offers hope

One in Five Church Leaders Ranks Their Mental & Emotional Health as Below Average
Congregants are not the only ones feeling relational strain during the crisis: As of mid-May 2020, one in four pastors (26%) says that their relational well-being is a part of life that they’re struggling with the most right now, second only (and, we can assume, intimately tied) to emotional well-being (31%). Pastors are also struggling with mental health and burnout during the crisis.

As of August 13-17, 2020, while half of U.S. pastors rated their mental and emotional well-being as excellent (12%) or good (38%), a significant amount noted this area of health as average (31%) or below (20%). Contrasted to earlier in the pandemic (April 7-13, 2020) and research from The State of Pastors (2016), these numbers are both sobering and concerning. How can pastors be expected to tend to their churchgoers’ relational, emotional and mental health struggles when they are wrestling challenges of their own?

When you’re feeling a strain on your mental or emotional well-being, what steps do you take to address that tension? Do you adequately balance the care of your soul with your care for your congregants?

In a time of social distancing, technology has become the solution for many churches to stay connected to their people. Has relying on digital, rather than physical, interactions had a negative impact your well-being? If so, what steps can you take to limit tech use during the week to allow for moments of  media-free rest? 

If pastoral burnout is something you’re facing (either now or in the future), what steps does your church have in place to allow you time to seek rest and rejuvenation? If these steps aren’t already lined up, what can you and your staff do to ensure this is possible?

Your congregants and team likely turn to you for support, guidance, prayer and more. Who do you turn to (perhaps a spouse, close friend, confidante, spiritual mentor or counselor) when you are facing crisis?

About the Research

Trauma in America data: The data reported in this article are based on 509 interviews that were conducted online with Protestant senior pastors and 60 Catholic priests. Pastors in this database were recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys, and are representative of U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error for Protestant pastors is plus or minus 4.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Interviews with adults and senior pastors were conducted from June 6 to June 28, 2019. In the pastors’ study, each pastor represents one church, as they are the senior pastor of the church in question. However, the churchgoing respondents are not spread evenly across churches and pastors, so their responses should not be taken as representative of churches but of churchgoers.

Online interviews were conducted using an online research panel. Upon completion of each survey, minimal statistical weights were applied to the data to allow the results to more closely correspond to known national demographic averages for several variables.

Restoring Relationships data: The research from this study includes a total of 2,307 online interviews with U.S. adults ages 18 and older, including 1,003 interviews with all adults in the general population and an additional 1,304 interviews with practicing Christians. Combined with the number of adults who qualified among the general population (n=219), the total number of interviews among practicing Christians is 1,523. Interviews were conducted between March 27 to May 3, 2019. The margin of error among the general population sample (n=1,003) is ±2.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The margin of error among the practicing Christian sample (n=1,523) is ±2.3 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

The research also includes 656 interviews among U.S. clergy, including 604 interviews with Protestant senior pastors and 52 with Catholic priests. Interviews were conducted between March 19 and April 26, 2019. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error among pastors is ±3.7 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

COVID-19 Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–August 31, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020

Caring for Souls in a New Reality data: The statistics and data-based analyses in this study are derived from a national public opinion survey conducted by Barna among 1,000 U.S. adults. Responses were collected online between April 28-May 5, 2020, using a nationally representative panel. The rate of error for this data is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level.

The State of Pastors data: This research was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probably of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month.

Featured image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2020.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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