Mere Mortals: Looking at Church Worker Wellness
In 1980, Rev. Chris Cahill, fresh out of seminary, became the pastor of his first church, Trinity Lutheran in Chicago. Two weeks later, the church’s previous pastor had retired after 38 long years.
It was like walking into a minefield.
“At a time before interim pastors were a thing, I faced a lot of difficulty and issues there and didn’t know how to deal with them, really,” Cahill recalled. “Many of the people were kind, but there were other times when I came home from a meeting in tears.”
Fast forward to Cahill’s third parish several years later. Again, he was met with a similar challenge initially.
“Although most people accepted me, some families couldn’t accept that I wasn’t the previous pastor,” he said. “Others gave me a shot, but honestly, it was sometimes hard to deal with them because I felt they were constantly evaluating me. It finally came to a head when I had a private meeting with one couple. I said in that meeting, with tears, ‘I can’t be the kind of pastor you expect me to be.’ I had finally said it out loud, and that cleared the way for me to be the kind of pastor that I am.”
Cahill wasn’t, isn’t—and has never been—alone in this struggle.
The heart is the heart of the issue
Professional church workers struggle with many issues, some common to all people and others unique to or exacerbated by their callings.
According to the research group, Barna, 75% of pastors in one study report having considered leaving the ministry in the last year. When asked how they’re doing, only 39% of pastors said “excellent.” By the end of 2020, that number dropped to just 12%. Likewise, 2% of pastors had said they are doing “below average.” That number has now risen to 18% during the pandemic.
“Multiple studies have shown that at any given time, 20% of pastors are going through a difficult time and are experiencing burnout, anxiety or depression,” said Rev. Dr. Darrell Zimmerman, vice president of LCEF Ministry Solutions. “And another 20% are exhibiting the warning signs that they’re moving in that direction.”
These numbers reflect the state of pastors in the ministry. Other professional church workers are not immune to similar statistics and struggles. Most workers don’t even know how to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” because they are so infrequently asked and are more used to caring for others at their own expense.
“Professional church workers are human beings,” he noted, “and the stresses of life will prey upon their mental and physical health—and perhaps their faith.”
Stresses and struggles, unveiled
Church workers aren’t excused from the stresses of life. They, too, experience difficulties like personal and family crises, chronically ill children, troubled marriages, barrenness issues and many other very human struggles.
“It isn’t just the challenges in the church—it’s personal challenges too,” acknowledged Cahill. “Years ago, our family went through a difficult time that I’ve since called ‘the great sadness.’ We needed counselors because there was a lot of sadness, anger, grief, and we needed help working through all of that. We needed prayer, and the few people we told in our congregation came through for us on that. Now, years later, the situation is better than we could ever imagine because of prayer, hard work, the grace of God and the support of family and the congregation.”
“Relational health is vital for all humans,” said Rebekah Freed, director of Christian education (DCE) and director of student development at Concordia University Nebraska. “Early on, when I was doing young adult ministry but was a young adult myself, it was challenging to know when I was talking to someone as a friend versus when they needed me to be their DCE. Even with very supportive coworkers and ministries, the lack of deep connections is still a challenge.”
Freed, who has been serving the church for 10 years as a DCE, feels that the “work never ends, that there’s always more work we can do in ministry, and so it’s easy just to keep working.”
However, she acknowledged that there will always be more ministry opportunities than we can handle due to life in a sinful world. Still, often church workers neglect to care for themselves as they bring Christ to others.
“On one hand, it is important for workers to care for themselves, take time to connect with Jesus individually and be refreshed to be able to care for and effectively disciple other people,” she added. “Yet, that remains in tension with another biblical concept of living sacrificially and depending on God for strength and energy, even when you are exhausted and worn out.
Add in the expectations of others or even yourself, and it feels like an impossible place at times.”
Perhaps the most pervasive struggle of all for church workers—across the board—are those unrealistic expectations and the need to be “on” at all times.
“[There are many] parishioners who don’t understand the demands and think professional church workers have a lot of leisure time,” Pauls explained. “I still have people who will hand me a 300-page book and ask me to read it to see if it would be good for them to read and plenty who contact me on my day off or vacation.”
Buying into the lie
Michael Winckler has served the church as a DCE for several years and is now a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
“I bought into the lie very early on in my short career that to be a successful leader of a spiritual community, and for the church to get their worth out of me, that I needed to have all the right answers and personally lead every aspect of ministry I took part in, so that nothing would fail.”
Winckler said that what resulted was an “unintentional wall” between him and the congregation members. That led to moments of intense isolation.
“In isolation, Satan can wreak mental, emotional and spiritual havoc. Mostly I felt overwhelmed and insecure in my work. This led to being irritable at home as I often took work home with me. Additionally, it kept me from building as deep of connections with members as I could have.”
Circumstances beyond the worker
Of course, the church worker isn’t serving in a bubble. They operate in a context—a time and a place. Those times and locations can present particular challenges.
“Changes in society over the past few decades have caused the church work vocations to not be as respected in society as they formerly were,” said Deaconess Tiffany Manor, director of Life Ministry for the LCMS. “This can cause difficulties and stressors for church workers.”
“The continued cultural decline of the U.S. increases demands upon the church and her workers because society isn’t supportive of church or family,” said Pauls.
Then there’s culture shock.
“A pastor who moves from a rural upbringing to an urban parish, from the Midwest to the coast, or vice versa, will need to learn a new way of life,” shared Pauls.
Swinging high and swinging low
All is not woe for church workers. One benefit to working in the church is the experience of being present with individuals and families at all the high points of life, sharing in their joys and celebrating God’s blessings with them. For some, even the privilege of being present during a parishioner’s hardest trials in life can be rewarding, even while it is taxing.
Darrell Zimmerman said that it is precisely this dichotomy—going from the extreme highs to the extreme lows in the lives of parishioners—that can cause unwellness for a church worker.
“Pastors, in particular, are often switching back and forth quickly without an opportunity to process either grief or joy,” he said. “It’s hard to step into a situation and have to be a solid rock during times of sadness, but then serve as the orchestrator of joy during times of gladness. You’re with a mourner on Saturday morning, then officiating a wedding on Saturday night, then emotionally drained on Sunday morning.”
“If the church workers can model what wellness looks like, they will trickle down into the lives of others.”
DCE and director of student development
Concordia University Nebraska
In other words, church workers experience a bit of whiplash from carrying out the work that they love, as does their family.
For the Cahill family, a tug-of-war of expectations occurred when people at Trinity—which happened to have a Christian day school —assumed that the family would enroll their children in the school.
“My wife wanted to have choices, and she was upset with that situation,” he said. “And I had to learn how to navigate and support my wife and the church at the same time.”
“A professional church worker’s spouse is effectively married to a bigamist,” said Pauls, jokingly. “They have to share a spouse with a second, larger family that doesn’t have a lot of respect for boundaries. A lot of the tug-of-war between congregation and spouse can be pacified by the worker setting boundaries and a wise, supportive board of elders.”
A wellness focus
With so much stacked against them, church workers desperately need their church to recognize wellness as a priority.
“It’s important for the church to care for those who serve,” said Cahill. “Everyone benefits because then the pastor or worker can serve the congregation with joy and not bitterness.” Freed concurred, adding that the Gospel is rich with the theme of how God’s desire is for His people to “experience wholeness and abundant life.”
“If the church workers can model what wellness looks like, they will trickle down into the lives of others,” she said.
Humans make the best pastors
“Church workers are at their best when they realize that they’re just like everyone else,” said Zimmerman.
“Yes, God has given them this tremendous responsibility even with all its burdens. But humans make the best pastors. He and his family are not perfectly holy and righteous or less in need of grace than the rest of us. Church workers are sinners in need of Christ’s love as much as anyone else.”
Cahill now serves at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Lodi, Ohio, and he has taken the time to process what he went through in those early years of ministry. So when he sat down with that couple (from the beginning of the article) and ultimately told them the truth–that he’s human–it was a relief because it was the truth.
“It cleared the way for me to be the kind of pastor that I am,” he said, “and for the past 25 years, it’s been great.”
Please pray with us: Dear Lord, thank you for the LCMS church workers who proclaim the forgiveness and new life we have in Christ and minister in countless ways to Your flock. You have called them to serve You in Your kingdom, and You alone empower them with all the gifts they need in their blessed vocation. May our church workers find true joy, comfort and peace in Your enduring Gospel as you sustain them in their work. Hear our prayer for Your sake. In the name of our Lord Jesus. Amen.