In studies past, Barna has analyzed research surrounding mental and emotional health, specifically taking stock of the well-being of the next generation—young adults 18–35-years-old—in The Connected Generation. Recent data show that Millennials and Gen Z are living in an age of anxiety; in fact, two in five young adults around the world report anxiety about important decisions (40%), uncertainty about the future (40%), a fear of failure (40%) and a pressure to be successful (36%).
There is no doubt that a sense of unease has become even more widespread due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not just among globally minded younger generations.
In this unprecedented time full of disruptions and uncertainty, Barna has continued to check in on pastors and church leaders across the U.S. In this article, we’ll look at the findings from this week’s national pastor panel data, featured on the latest ChurchPulse Weekly episode, to see what pastors have to say about their own mental and emotional well-being, as well as that of their congregants. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here, or you can listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.
Overall, pastors say they (sort of) understand the immediate needs of their people
Do leaders have a good grasp of the immediate needs of their people? As it relates to spiritual well-being, a majority of pastors (55%) says they “somewhat” understand their congregations’ needs, with another 43 percent saying they “definitely” know. Similar proportions feel they understand the current needs for physical well-being in their faith community (35% definitely, 57% somewhat, 8% not really), while mental and emotional health (24% definitely, 65% somewhat, 11% not really) and financial well-being (14% definitely, 59% somewhat, 27% not really, 1% not at all) are less clear to them.
A majority of churches is providing ongoing one-on-one discipleship for their people
Despite being unable to gather with their congregants in their regular church location, a majority of U.S. church leaders (66%) says their church is doing well (6% very well, 60% somewhat well) at providing one-on-one discipleship to the congregation. Unfortunately, one-third (33%) reports they are struggling to meet needs for ongoing discipleship (8% not at all well, 25% not very well).
“Christianity is a communal faith—it’s about community always,” says Holly Wagner, senior founding pastor of Oasis Church in Los Angeles and founder of She Rises, “and while I appreciate what we’re doing right now, it’s been tricky. Even helping some of our team—65% of our church is single—who are really isolated, has been our challenge.”
Wagner continues, “We want to keep them from falling back into old thought patterns or old habits, and it was the accountability of community that was helping on the journey before, so we’re about to launch more one-on-one stuff, where we have our whole team of volunteers calling [church members]. We hope that creates more intimacy for people.”
Barna president David Kinnaman adds, “This unprecedented time is forcing us to have better ways of really understanding a fuller picture of the people we lead and the congregations we serve. We’re beginning to understand that just because we saw someone at church over the weekend doesn’t mean there was a connection that gives a more holistic look at how they’re really doing. I think this time is going to force us to have some new rhythms so we can check in on people better.”
Half of church leaders are finding time for personal spiritual development
As COVID-19 has impacted the daily routines and roles of pastors in many ways, are leaders finding time for their own spiritual development? Fifty-one percent report it has been easy (23% very, 28% somewhat), while another 49 percent have found it difficult (10% very, 39% somewhat).
For context, this might not be all that different from other seasons of ministry. In a 2016 study conducted in partnership with Pepperdine University, The State of Pastors, church leaders reported similarly. Nearly a quarter found it very easy to find time for their own spiritual development, while another three in 10 (30%) said it was somewhat easy to do this. Forty percent found it somewhat difficult to find time for their spiritual growth, while 7 percent noted this was very difficult for them.
“Your brain makes maps on how to do life,” explains Dr. Henry Cloud, acclaimed leadership expert, clinical psychologist and New York Times bestselling author. “Our relationships have maps, that’s how God wired us … but in a crisis like this, your entire life is registering on your brain, and your people’s brains, as being in an error.”
“What you need to do in a time of crisis is reset your system,” continues Dr. Cloud, “and God has given us ways to do this. There are four main areas that need to be reset: your sense of connectedness, structure and routines, sense of control and, lastly, mental space. We also need to be increasing our regular spiritual practices [during this time].”
Pastors show optimism about their own well-being amid the crisis
Overall, church leaders say they are doing well despite the current disruptions. One in five pastors (21%) says their spiritual well-being is “excellent” right now, with another half (52%) noting it is “good.” Another 22 percent say it is “average,” though a remaining 4 percent note their spiritual well-being as “below average” currently. Similar percentages follow for physical well-being (17% excellent, 48% good, 23% average, 11% below average, 1% poor), mental and emotional health (17% excellent, 48% good, 24% average, 10% below average, 1% poor) and financial health (23% excellent, 54% good, 19% average, 4% below average, 1% poor).
When looking back again on the data presented in The State of Pastors, analysts see significant change in comparing pastors’ well-being then and now, especially in regard to the decrease of those who rate their spiritual well-being (21% currently vs. 37% in 2016) and mental and emotional health (17% currently vs. 39% in 2016) as “excellent.”
Only 30 percent of pastors feel well-equipped to help congregants deal with matters of mental or emotional health
How ready are church leaders to help people shoulder their present mental and emotional burdens? Only three in 10 pastors (30%) say they feel “very well-equipped.” The majority (64%) notes they feel “somewhat equipped,” with a remaining 6 percent responding they are “not well-equipped.”
Despite how prepared they feel to help congregants deal with mental or emotional health matters, many leaders seem to be trying; a plurality of pastors (39%) reports that they or another staff member of their church have preached on the topic of mental or emotional health within the last month.
“Somehow, the isolation has created this lack of confidence [for pastors] to lead people,” muses Wagner. “This is a large giant, but we still serve the same God. … When Jesus taught us to pray, he said to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ So, as opposed to being worried about six months from now, ask God, ‘What do you want to say to me today?’ Ask, ‘Today, how can I love people?’ and ‘Today, how can I help people?’”
Wagner concludes, “Sometimes as pastors, I feel like we carry the weight of tomorrow on our shoulders today, and we can’t do that. We need to focus on today.”
In an effort to help serve the Church during this time of unprecedented disruption and as a continued part of our research into the State of the Church 2020, Barna and Gloo have created the ChurchPulse Weekly Crisis Toolkit, a free resource that includes three ways to help pastors see clearly and lead effectively in this time of uncertainty. To learn more about the Crisis Toolkit, click here.
About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 214 Protestant Senior Pastors from April 7–13, 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.
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, 2020