Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Clergy Persevere Through Pandemic Fatigue, Explore Innovative Ways to Connect with Congregations

By Colleen Hill | Hartford Institute for Religion Research

Although masks have stopped being enforced, and six feet of distance is now looking like a closer three, the effects of the 2020 pandemic are still underway, and congregational leaders are seeing the real effects of it. As the country emerges from the pandemic era, church leaders now face the pressing tasks of integrating technology into ministry in innovative ways, facilitating meaningful engagement for both remote and in-person participants, and adjusting long-held assumptions to connect with their congregations’ evolving needs.  

The Rev. Shawn Fisher stands in front of seesaw used for service demonstration, Oct. 29/Colleen Hill – Hartford Institute for Religion Research

This comes at a time when the loss of members is still being felt and the level of volunteering, while growing, is still less than in the past. The inertia of fatigue and three years of survival are taking their toll on clergy. In an August survey by the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, results point to evidence that many faith leaders are exhausted and disillusioned and have thought about leaving the ministry. 

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” The Rev. Kathy Youzwak says during her Nov. 5 service at Hampstead Congregational Church.  

The decision to leave her congregation after a short four years was never something she had planned she said, recounting how unpredictable life can be at times.  

The age of attendees at Hampstead Congregational Church averages around 75 years old, and many older participants have passed away or have “aged out” since the pandemic. With older church goers getting older, and younger members decreasing their regular attendance, there seemed to be no end in sight.  

“Our building keeps getting older. People keep getting older, volunteers keep getting more tired. We are bringing some new people in, but as much as that happens, old people leave. So, I just reached to a point where, at one point I said, it’s too hard. It just depletes my energy more than it gives. And I cannot see that shifting,” she said.

Youzwak is not the only pastor to feel a depleted energy. The most recent Hartford Institute survey asked clergy whether they had seriously considered leaving their current church or pastoral ministry entirely. In 2021, some 21% of clergy reported having thought about leaving their church and 37% considered leaving the ministry, but very few contemplated these often. By 2023, the percentage who had considered leaving their church had grown to nearly 40%, with over half (51%) saying they had thought about fully departing pastoral ministry. Though relatively few still frequently entertain these notions, substantially more clergy seem to be questioning whether to leave their current pastoral roles compared to just two years ago. 

While the majority do not regularly contemplate leaving ministry, a sizable portion—over 25% according to this report—have considered quitting more than once or twice during times of high stress or burnout. Additionally, this survey does not reflect pastors who may have already moved on from parish ministry or religious leadership positions. Though concrete data on pastoral attrition rates remains unclear, anecdotal evidence suggests some amount of turnover in clergy roles does exist.  

Therefore, the widespread exhaustion and doubts regarding future ministry revealed by this study should arouse concern and examination. The fact that so many pastoral leaders feel disconnected or ill-equipped to manage the demands they currently face suggests areas for growth and improvement within religious institutions and support networks to promote greater workplace sustainability. Viewed constructively, these insights shed valuable light on resolving dissatisfaction facing ministers today and strengthening pastoral ministry for the future. 

One of the individuals working towards strengthening pastoral ministry for the future is Anne Deneen, a retired Lutheran clergy member who now works as a spiritual director.  

“So I work with people who are looking for a spiritual medium in their life, in their faith journeys, and that’s how I know Kathy. Her story is not unique in my experience,” she said. 

Much of Deneen’s work involves helping religious leaders cope with the emotional toll brought on by the extensive changes congregations have faced since the onset of the pandemic. Guiding congregations through difficult transitions and shifts in their operations over the past few years has proven intensely challenging and wearying for many clergy members. Deneen assists in providing pastoral leaders support and tools to process the fatigue and stress of adapting to a new landscape of ministry. 

For clergy, she recommends staying grounded, and reminding themselves of the bigger picture.  

“One thing is that if you’re tired, people know it. They might not be able to recognize what it is, but if you’re fatigued or tired in that way people can sense it,” she said. 

Although this may may seem like a negative, Deneen says that not all clergy see it in this way.  

“Some people feel like this is a great time of exploration and openness, and they are able to hold both the loss of the previous form of church that they knew with this – something new is happening and how to be open about it,” she said.