Feb 15, 2017

From the Archives

How Healthy Are Pastors’ Relationships?

The larger-than-life perception of pastors often belies their deeply human need for community, transparency and intimacy. Vital to the health of any pastor, minister, elder or priest are the abundance and vitality of their relational resources. But how hard is ministry on pastor’s families? Do they have close friends? Who leads their church alongside them—and is it working? In partnership with Pepperdine University, Barna conducted a major study into how today’s faith leaders are navigating life and leadership in an age of complexity. As Barna revealed at a Pepperdine event earlier this year, the State of Pastors examined the relational health of pastors, looking closely at their relationships with family, friends and peers. Here are some of those findings:

Is Ministry Hard on Pastors’ Families?
How do the spiritual, social and financial pressures of leading a church weigh on a minister and, inevitably, their family? And how do pastors feel about their most intimate relationships? Starting with marriage, overall there’s very good news. Most pastors—96 percent of whom are married—are satisfied with their spousal relationship. Seven out of 10 say it is excellent (70%), and one-quarter considers it good (26%). By way of comparison, less than half of all married American adults rate their marriage as excellent (46%), and one-third says it’s good (35%). So, by and large, pastors report greater marital satisfaction than the general population. (They also divorce at lower rates: About 10 percent of Protestant pastors have ever been divorced, compared to one-quarter of all U.S. adults; 27%.)

Financial constraints can be a relational burden—however, pastors with leaner resources tend to report a stronger connection with their spouse. Those who receive a lower salary are more likely than those who are financially better off to be satisfied in their marriage. Eighty-three percent of those earning less than $40,000 a year rate their marital satisfaction as excellent.

Pastors with children under 18 (about one-third of all pastors, 35%) are also enthusiastic about their relationship with their kids. Three out of five view it as excellent (60%), and one-third report it as good (36%). Pastors once again rate their relational satisfaction higher than the national average: Among all parents in the U.S., less than half say their relationship with their children is excellent (46%) and three in 10 say it’s good (32%).

In a previous study among pastors, Barna asked what, if anything, they would change about how they parented their children. A significant plurality says they wish they had spent more time with their kids (42%), whether that means finding a better balance between ministry and home life, traveling less, being more involved in their day-to-day lives or taking more trips as a family. In some cases, pastors connect these regrets with specific unwanted outcomes: One-third of senior leaders with children ages 15 and older says at least one of their kids is no longer actively involved in church (34%), and one in 14 has a child who no longer considers themselves a Christian (7%).

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Not surprisingly, when it comes to both marriage and parenting, pastors who rate higher on Barna’s risk metrics report lower satisfaction with their relationships. For example, pastors who are high on burnout risk are more likely to rate their marriage as average or below average, and to say their relationship with their children is merely average. Likewise, pastors at high spiritual risk are more prone to say their marriage is average or below average, and eight times more likely than the norm to say their relationship with their children is average.

Even among pastors low on the risk metrics, strains of ministry life surface in the findings. Most pastors seem to be doing well overall, but they are not immune from challenges. Roughly one-quarter of today’s pastors has faced significant marital problems (26%) or parenting problems (27%) during their ministry tenure. Pastors 50 and older are more inclined to report either or both types of problems, likely by virtue of their comparatively longer marriages and the fact that many are weathering or have lately survived their kids’ teen and young adult years.

When asked whether it’s true that their current church tenure has been difficult on their family, two out of five pastors acknowledge it’s “somewhat true” (40%). About half say it is either “not very” (33%) or “not at all true” (19%), and just one in 12 says it’s “completely true” (8%).

A negative impact on family seems to go hand-in-hand with lower ministry satisfaction: Those who report low overall vocational satisfaction or low satisfaction with their current church ministry are much more likely than the norm to say it’s true that ministry has been hard on their family. Pastors high on the burnout risk metric also assess higher-than-average negative family impact.

Since the Barna metric of relationship risk is based in part on questions about family life, leaders who rate as high risk obviously tend to report lower family satisfaction. The leading factor that pushes pastors into the relational high-risk category is that ministry at their current church has been difficult for their family. Three-quarters of those at high relational risk say this is completely (41%) or somewhat true (34%), compared to less than half of all pastors. Not coincidentally, relationally high-risk pastors are less likely than those at low risk to express overall satisfaction with their current church ministry: Just three in 10 say they are very satisfied (30%) compared to two-thirds of low-risk leaders (65%).

The data are clear: The effect of ministry on a pastor’s family, whether positive or negative, is tied to the pastor’s ministry satisfaction.

Do Pastors Have Close Friends?
When it comes to making and maintaining close friendships, there were mostly positive reports from pastors: Two-thirds are happy with their friendships, rating their satisfaction in the friend department as either excellent (34%) or good (33%).

However, there are some areas of concern when it comes to pastors and the friends they keep. First, note that only one-third of pastors expresses the strongest level of satisfaction with their friendships. Second, around one in three indicates comparatively low satisfaction in this area. And third, pastors’ satisfaction with friends is on par with or only slightly better than American adults overall (28% excellent, 33% good).

Further analysis also shows that robust and healthy friendships are not evenly distributed throughout the pastor population. Overall, older and more seasoned ministers report higher levels of satisfaction than younger and greener pastors. Those 50 and older are more likely to rate their satisfaction with “having true friends” as excellent and less likely to rate it below average or poor. Similarly, those who have been in ministry 30 years or longer or at their current church 10 or more years characterize the state of their friendships as excellent more often than the norm.

Leaders making less than $40,000 per year are also more likely to report high satisfaction when it comes to friends—interestingly, this group also tends to be more satisfied with their family relationships than their higher-paid peers.

When it comes to having true friends, there are dramatic differences between pastors who say they are satisfied with their church and vocation and those who are not, and between leaders who fall at various points along the spiritual and burnout risk metrics. The correlations between higher friendship satisfaction and lower overall risk make a compelling case for the necessity of genuine friendships among pastors.

Barna also asked pastors how often they receive personal spiritual support, either from peers or from a mentor. Again, there was better news than expected. Most pastors are not left alone to fend for themselves: Nearly seven in 10 say they receive direct support at least monthly (68%), and more than half of those do so “several times a month or more often” (37%).

As with pastors’ reports of satisfying friendships, there are some differences when it comes to ministry tenure—only on this question, younger and greener pastors tend to say they receive more frequent support. Once again, however, the greatest disparities can be found between those who are high and low on the Barna risk metrics. Low-risk pastors receive personal spiritual support far more often than those who qualify as high-risk.

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With Whom Do Pastors Lead Their Church—and Is It Working?
Barna also delved into the leadership ties that can make or break a congregation: governance. Most pastors say they are primarily responsible for setting the vision and direction of the church (60%) or are part of a team that develops the vision and direction together (35%). Regardless, most senior leaders do not lead alone. A majority reports to a board of elders or similar group of laypeople (such as deacons, etc., 80%). Most pastors express positive perceptions of the elders-pastor relationship, although there is range of attitudes they hold toward this governing body. At the most positive end of the scale, a majority of pastors says their board is “hugely supportive” of them as a pastor (67%), describes the relationship as generating “healthy accountability” (60%) and indicates they have “clear and shared vision and values” (57%). However, there are signs of possible weakness between pastors and elders. Pastors less commonly categorize the relationship as “a powerful partnership” (44%) or say they engage in “frequent prayer together” (34%).

Positive pastor-elders relationships are most often found in large congregations. In fact, pastors of 250 or more adults are twice as likely as leaders in smaller churches to say their relationship with elders is a powerful partnership (64% vs. 34%). By its nature, survey research does not reveal causation but only helps us uncover correlations. Yet the correlation here may suggest smaller churches stay small in part because lay people lack a strong sense of partnership with the senior pastor. Reinforcing this possibility, those who lead growing churches are also more likely than leaders of shrinking congregations to feel their pastor-elders relationship is a powerful partnership (52% vs. 36%). Church expansion may depend at least in part on the support a pastor receives from the elders, the clarity of their shared vision and values and the power of their partnership to lead the church’s mission.

The research also uncovered significant correlations between a positive pastor-elders relationship and both longer ministry tenure and higher levels of ministry satisfaction. Pastors who are satisfied with their current church ministry tend to report a more positive relationship with their governing board than those who are less satisfied. Conversely, discontented leaders are more apt than the norm to describe the relationship in negative terms. There are “unclear areas of decision-making authority” (42% vs. 18% all pastors). They often have “power struggles” (39% vs. 12%). They “feel under-appreciated by the board” (36% vs. 11%). One in five would go so far as to say the pastor-elders dynamic is “one of the worst parts of ministry” (19% vs. 4%).

A parallel trend is at work among pastors who are at high risk of burnout, suggesting a connection not only between a healthy leadership team and a growing church, but also between a healthy leadership team and a healthy pastor.

Again, it is not possible to pinpoint the direction of causation—that is, whether the negative relationship contributes to the pastor’s risk of burnout or the pastor’s stress-related problems contribute to a strained pastor-elders dynamic. But either way, there is a strong correlation between high risk of burnout and relational challenges within the church’s leadership.

All these data indicate that a strong, mutually supportive relationship between a pastor and the governing team is integral to church health and to the pastor’s health. Relational harmony in this area lowers a leader’s risk of burning out and lengthens his or her tenure in ministry.

What the Research Means
“Our researchers observed some weaknesses in relationships among younger church leaders,” says Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at Barna Group. “It may be that younger pastors, who are establishing not only their ministry but also their marriage and family, have limited relational resources to invest in close friendships. Older and established leaders, on the other hand, may have more relational availability—more opportunities to form deep friendships—as well as the benefit of longevity, having reinforced such relationships over time. While intuitive, these findings are an important reminder of the vulnerability of younger pastors and the importance of surrounding them with resources, encouragement and opportunities for rest to ensure their overall health and the vitality of their ministry.

“Additionally,” Hempell continues, “the correlations between job satisfaction, as well as burnout risk, and each of these relational metrics: friendship satisfaction, personal spiritual support and pastor-elder dynamics, make a compelling case for the importance of healthy relationships among pastors. Allowing time for nurturing these relationships and emotional support (such as through counseling or coaching) to work through challenges is essential to a pastor’s overall well-being and that of their family.

“In many of our studies with church leaders,” Hempell says, “we tend to find that pastors are optimistic and full of hope because they are so committed to their calling to ministry. They can and will withstand great stress to their relationships, families and overall personal health, strengthened by their faith. But over time, neglecting relationships can lead to serious consequences in their personal lives as well as impact the church.

“This can come in the form of more dramatic impact,” Hempell continues, “such as burnout, or more subtle consequences. For example, a pastor struggling in his marriage is less likely to preach and teach on healthy marriages for fear of shining a spotlight on his own challenges. Lack of leadership in this area can influence an entire congregation, potentially impacting many marriages by neglecting to invest in a strong foundation. So the pastor’s health is not just about the pastor but about the health of the whole church.

“Our hope, “Hempell concludes, “is that denominational support networks as well as church lay leaders will take these findings to heart and inquire about, and invest in, their pastors’ relational support. This is the picture we are given of the body: when one part is hurting, the whole body suffers; when one part thrives, the whole body thrives.”

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman |@barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

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About the Research
This study 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.

Interviews with U.S. adults included 1,025 web-based surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted in April and May of 2015. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

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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