Mar 24, 2022

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Michael Phillips on Burnout Among Black Church Pastors

On a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, Michael Phillips (education advocate and former pastor) shares with Carey Nieuwhof his reflections on the challenges Black church pastors are facing, the importance of local churches in meeting community needs and why he believes empathy is the greatest tool for social justice.

On Pastoral Burnout in the Black Church
Recent Barna data shows that over three in four Black church senior pastors (79%) say they feel burned out sometimes or even more frequently. 

Talking about whether he found this data surprising, Phillips states, “No, [the data is] not a surprise at all to me. It unfortunately happens all too often. Not to minimize what the problem is, but too much stress, not enough support and not enough rest will equal burnout… [And] that’s in any capacity, genre or strata. If you don’t get those things, and you bear the burden of a community or business and you don’t have the necessary tools to regroup, be reinvigorated and be fed spiritually, mentally and emotionally, then there’s going to be burnout.”

Phillips discusses whether systemic issues contribute to the high rate of burnout among Black pastors, saying, “I do feel as though there are some systemic issues as it relates to pastoral burnout, particularly in the Black Church. One of them is particularly around the lack of the ability to really scale your vision.”

Sharing his own experience, Phillips explains, “I pastored [for] 18 years in Baltimore city in an urban environment with very little resources. I had to either go on the road to raise money or do all of the necessary leg work to raise money. Before you can even get philanthropic arms or foundations to begin to help you with your programs that are actually solving problems, you have to have a lengthy proof of concept.”

Phillips continues, “If I can even go a little bit deeper, [even] when you do get help, it is not significant enough to do the things that are necessary.” Phillips shares, “If you don’t get that support or help, it could cause your heart to be heavy. As any pastor knows, you carry the burden for your people and your community, and all you really want to do is serve. You might have the ideas, and you might have the vision. But sometimes, all of the provisions are not provided.”

On the Church’s Role in the Broader Community
Forty-five percent of churched adults say they strongly agree that their church is involved in addressing injustices in society (rating it at a 9 or 10 on scale of 0-10).

Phillips discusses the role of the local church, explaining, “I think any church ought to be serving their community with relevance… I think at the heart of what we do as churches should be to address some of these social ills that are right in our community, right where we are, and then to look for ways to partner with other churches or organizations that might be serving some capacity in our general area.”

Phillip explains, “The first thing I think we need to do, as the Church, is figure out how to see. And what I mean by that is that it’s going to be very hard and very difficult for us, as leaders, to serve in any capacity where we’re not learning how to see.” 

He continues, “There is a bias, if you will, towards how we do things. And that bias is not slanted toward the bottom… but if we’re going to have a bias, that bias should be geared towards the most vulnerable, towards the least of these. What good is a sermon if I’m hungry? What good is a great worship song if I need clothes?”

On Justice & Restoration
Discussing his concerns about the discussion on racial justice, Phillips states, “When we use the term [justice] in our culture, we’re usually using it to relate to some sort of retribution…but the idea of justice is not complete without restoration. Instead of retribution, we should be really talking about restoration.”

Phillips talks about his hopes for future conversations on racial justice, saying, “I do have hope, because the conversation became so broad, loud and discussed that it caused all of us to become vulnerable enough to even have the conversation… And that’s what’s important. We have to start talking to one another, rather than hearing about one another through curated images and stories that are fed to us. If we can talk to one another, then we can understand our cultural differences and the unique things that bring us together.”

Phillips continues, “What we will find is that we have more in common than we have differences. But if we don’t talk to one another, and only hear about one another, then there will always be cultural misunderstandings in what some of the solutions are, and / or what is the real issue and problem… Empathy, then, becomes the greatest tool of social justice. It’s the greatest tool of social justice. And empathy doesn’t need a lot of details… It just needs a mirror. If you can see yourself in somebody else’s plight in pain and suffering, then all of your biases and assumptions will come down to the point, to see the individual.”

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About the Research
Trends in the Black Church data: The pastor data includes 293 online surveys conducted among Black pastors who consider their church to be a Black church or a predominately Black church. A follow-up question was asked to ensure that at least half of the congregation was Black, although 93% of these pastors lead churches in which more than three-quarters of their congregants are Black. Pastors included in the survey who have another pastor over him / her must report to a pastor who is also Black. The research was conducted August 26-October 1, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 5.6 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

The State of Your Church data: The research for this study consisted of an online study conducted September 16-October 4, 2021 with 1003 churched U.S. adults. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 2.9 percent at a 95-percent confidence level.

Featured image by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2022

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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