Jul 12, 2023
7-Year Trends: Pastors Feel More Loneliness & Less Support
What makes a resilient pastor? A number of things—but one crucial aspect is a pastor’s support system, including family, close friends and trusted advisors.
Recent data on U.S. pastors show that, overall, church leaders are feeling lonelier and more isolated from others than in years past, which has bearing on pastors’ overall state of well-being.
This article offers a glimpse at pastor’s relationships and support systems to shed light on where pastors are faring well and where they could use a boost.
Pastors’ Sense of Feeling Supported by Those Around Them Is Wavering
Pastors are no strangers to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In fact, Barna’s historical data show that these feelings have increased significantly since 2015 when 42 percent of pastors shared they either frequently (14%) or sometimes (28%) felt this way. Now, 65 percent of pastors report feelings of loneliness and isolation, with 18 admitting these feelings occur frequently.
While feelings of loneliness and isolation have increased over the better part of a decade, pastors’ feelings of support from those around them have decreased. In 2015, nearly seven in 10 pastors said they frequently felt well-supported by people close to them. By 2022, that number had shifted lower—while nearly all pastors today (92%) say they feel supported to some extent, just 49 percent say they feel this frequently.
Taken together, the trajectory of pastors’ relational well-being shows an increase in pastors’ loneliness and isolation as well as a wavering sense of being well-supported by those around them. A course correction is needed.
80% of Pastors Say They Are Well-Known By Someone Outside Their Home & Church Setting
To understand where extra support is needed for pastors today, let’s first take a look at their personal relationships—connections with family and friends.
Barna data published in Glenn Packiam’s The Resilient Pastor (2022) show that, at least at home, pastors are faring relatively well and that pastors strive to spend dedicated time with their spouse and children. The percentage of pastors who prioritize family-related activities at least weekly is encouraging. On at least a weekly basis, two in five pastors (41%) say they practice sabbath with their family. With this same frequency, three-quarters (77%) spend uninterrupted time with their children, and a quarter (24%) goes on a date with their spouse (among pastors who have these relationships).
In a similar vein, four in five pastors (80%) also say they are well-known by someone outside their home and church setting. Still, one in five pastors lack this sort of objective friendship.
65% of Pastors Are Not Utilizing Professional Mental Health Support Right Now
If pastors feel pretty good about their connections with family and friends (at least in their self-reported assessments), are there other clues as to why they are contending with increased isolation and a lack of support?
One possible area for improvement: Since 2015, the number of pastors who seek personal spiritual support—either from a network of peers or from a mentor— has dropped overall, and the frequency with which they receive these services has also declined. In 2015, 37 percent received personal support from a network of peers or a mentor at least several times a month; in 2022, just 22 percent report getting this type of spiritual support so regularly.
Additionally, pastors are rarely if ever utilizing professional help services. When asked how often pastors seek help or guidance from professionals like a spiritual advisor, personal mentor, professional counselor or therapist and other support personnel, 65 percent of all pastors say they are utilizing “none of the above.” And if pastors’ self-reports are true, that would make them half as likely as U.S. adults overall to be receiving professional mental health services, according to CDC data.
Barna reporting from earlier this year outlines some of the reasons pastors are burning out personally and collectively, serving as a reminder that pastors need not bear this load alone—the churches that employ and support them should also play an active role in checking in on leaders and prompting them to seek professional support when necessary.
What the Research Means
These numbers are cause for concern. With pastor data collected over the past eight years showing the significant erosion of a number of well-being markers—including pastoral satisfaction, motivation, support and emotional and mental health—it’s discouraging to see few pastors utilizing broader networks of personal and professional help. While the trajectory of pastors’ current relational well-being will not be course corrected overnight, small steps and intentional measures can be taken now to begin shifting the trend towards a more positive outcome.
On the subject of relationships and support systems, Dr. Glenn Packiam (pastor, author and Barna senior fellow) shares this in his book The Resilient Pastor:
These relationships do not flourish by accident. They require attention and intentionality. … Life is too full of the demands of ministry, the chaos of kids’ activities and the many unpredictable events for us to just hope that meaningful connection will just happen. … Anything worth having is worth pursuing. The chase for deep friendships and intimate relationships is a lifelong quest. But it can begin today. If we really want to last in ministry, if we want to emerge from this as truly and fully human beings, then we must take seriously the human vocation of loving well.
On the subject of mental health services, past Barna reporting on pastors’ well-being and risk of burnout notes this:
Pastors who are bucking the trend toward burnout tend to portray a strong connection with others around them, a flourishing connection with God and a sense of optimism about the future of the Church. They are energized by their jobs, feel well supported by the people in their lives and generally satisfied with their mental, emotional and spiritual health. … Taking steps to build more spiritual and mental health support can be a transformative part of holding off burnout and working toward quality solutions for other stressors in the job.
Further reading and resources from Barna Group and our Resilient Pastor partners:
- To learn about the importance of rest and sabbatical for pastoral resilience, check out this article.
- Read this article to review data on pastors’ increased risk of burnout in 2021.
- Pastors offer the reasons why they’ve considered leaving full-time ministry in this article from 2022.
- Barna data in this article shows that, for pastors who want to quit ministry, self-care and soul-care are slipping.
- The Resilient Pastor series—part of the broader Resilient Pastor initiative—is available exclusively on Barna Access Plus. Upgrade to Barna Access Plus to explore data and trends on pastors’ self-leadership, church leadership and culture leadership.
- Feeling lonely? As surprising as it may sound, many pastors leave ministry for one reason: Loneliness. Here are some helpful reminders for lonely seasons of leadership, presented by Full Strength Network.
- In Kingdom Care for Pastors, powered by World Vision, hear from seasoned pastors on how they care for their communities and families by first remembering to tend to their own souls.
- From leadership development studies to safe content for kids, RightNow Media wants to help you disciple and equip the people of your church anytime, anywhere, on any device. Learn more by visiting rightnowmedia.org.
- Brotherhood Mutual, a leading national provider of ministry-focused insurance and services, has a heart for serving the Church and keeping ministries thriving. For more information, visit BrotherhoodMutual.com.
About the Research
2015 data: Barna conducted 901 interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. between April and December 2015. The interviews were conducted through a mix of online and phone. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the margin of error is +/- 3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
2020 data: Barna conducted 408 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors from September 16 to October 8, 2020. Sample error plus or minus 4.8 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
2022 data: Barna conducted 585 online interviews with Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. from September 6–16, 2022. Quotas were set to ensure representation by denomination, church size and region and oversampling was conducted to reach female senior pastors. Minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation and the sample error is +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.
© Barna Group, 2023.
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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