Why clergy are quitting

A group of social scientists at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research have been investigating the impact of the COVID pandemic on organized religion. They have just issued a new report titled “‘I’m Exhausted All the Time’: Exploring the Factors Leading to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” A PDF of the full report is available here.

One key finding in this report is that in the aftermath of the panedmic, the number of congregational clergy who are both considering leaving their current position and who are thinking about changing careers keeps increasing. We’ve been seeing some of this in Unitarian Universalism — I personally know of several UU ministers who have not only left their congregations, but who are now transitioning to a new career.

I participated in this study — I have no idea how they found my email address, but they sent me the survey forms and I filled it out. Now that I see the results of the report, it turns out that I’m in the minority of clergy who still love their jobs and who have no intention of leaving ministry.

But the fact remains that many other clergy are leaving the profession. It remains to be seen what effect this has on organized religion. Will it have a positive effect, in that new clergy come along whose expectations for the profession are more aligned with the new realities of congregational life? Will it have a negative effect, by reducing the pool of qualified ministers such that too many congregations can’t find qualified leadership? Or something else entirely?

Booster

Carol and I got the latest COVID booster on Monday evening.

By mid morning on Tuesday, I had a headache. Carol texted me saying, “So tired.” After my last meeting ended at 2:30, I went home. We spent the day on the couch, went to bed at 8:30, and slept twelve hours. This morning we’re both back to normal.

COVID is here permanently. Which means we now have to plan for a booster sick day at least once a year.

Poll

I received a long email today from a research group called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.” The email began:

“Dear Pastor, Greetings! This past spring, you or your church completed a survey for the national study entitled Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.  At that time you were willing to be contacted for follow-up questions. In that survey, we found that 51% of clergy had thought about leaving the pastoral ministry. This was a considerable increase from our earlier survey. Because of this finding, we wanted to better understand the challenges clergy were facing. Religious leaders have suffered especially hard due to the pandemic and the many other challenges in our changing society. This short survey specifically addresses clergy health and well-being….”

So I took their survey. First they asked a lot of questions about the congregation (e.g., our average annual attendance went from 68 in 2018 to 48 in 2022). Then they asked questions about me: Am I employed full-time or part-time? How’s my financial well-being? Do I doubt that I am called by God to ministry? (Left that one blank, that’s not my theology.) Am I part of a clergy support group, do I see a shrink or spiritual director, do I still pray as much as I did before the pandemic? (Yes, and yes, and I pray as much now as before the pandemic which is not at all.)

The survey ended with two open-ended questions: What’s the biggest challenge in my ministry right now? and: What do I find most satisfying in my ministry? I was able to say that my biggest challenge, and also the most fun part of my job, is coming up with creative ways to respond to the rapidly changing world around us while maintaining the integrity and traditions of a 275 year old congregation. Then I was able to say that pretty much everything is satisfying, because I love my job.

Yep, I love my job. I was surprised at how positive I felt. I know that quite a few Unitarian Universalist ministers have left pastoral ministry, and that many others are unhappy with the way pastoral ministry has changed. Not me. I feel excited and energized.

Huh. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

Screenshot of one of the questions from the online survey
Questions from the survey. Have I ever doubted that I was called by God to ministry? I left that one blank. Have I ever seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry? Not since 2020. Have I seriously considered leaving this congregation for another one? This was kind of difficult to answer, since I just started serving this congregation in 2022, and I left my previous congregation for reasons unrelated to COVID — so I answered “never.”

The ongoing effects

Last night I was trying to explain to Carol about the lingering effects of COVID burnout on the helping professions. She pointed out that many trends that were supposedly caused by COVID were simply existing trends that accelerated during lockdown. But I’m pretty sure that it actually was COVID that contributed to increased burnout in the helping professions.

The healthcare professions are an obvious example. During the first year of the COVID pandemic, doctors, nurses, and others who worked directly with COVID patients saw an increased workload, and an increased risk of infection. There were also healthcare professionals who had a very different experience of COVID — I knew a dermatologist who saw a substantial decrease in their workload during lockdown, although that decrease brought separate concerns of declining income, etc. On the whole, though, a significant number of health professionals left their profession, and reports are that there’s still a labor shortage in much of the healthcare system.

Mental health professionals saw their workload peak a bit later in the pandemic, as many people began to have mental health problems isolation caused by lockdown. We’re still seeing a high rate of depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental health problems, and mental health professionals may still be feeling overwhelmed by the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic. The end result is that someone seeking mental health care can wait weeks for an appointment.

I know less about other helping professions, but I suspect that other professions also saw increased burnout. For example, it seems likely that many social workers — depending on their specialty — also experienced burnout during COVID due to increased workload and increased job pressures.

This brings us to clergy. From what I’m seeing and hearing, clergy are also subject to COVID burnout, just like the other helping professions. In 2021, 42% of clergy reported considering leaving ministry. I suspect there were several reasons for this. Sociologist Scott Thuma has outlined some of the stresses on clergy during the pandemic: increased conflict in the congregation, increased demand for food and other assistance, increased mental health problems, and learning new ways to do ministry. I’ve watched as more Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers than usual have left the profession over the past couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn other UU ministers are just quiet quitting.

Beyond all this, all people in the helping professions can experience the trauma or secondary trauma that everyone in society is experiencing. The epidemic of mental illness that began during lockdown continues today — we’re all feeling the effects.

I know I’m still feeling the effects. I had to put in some extra hours this week. This is normal for ministers; some weeks we have to work long hours, other weeks there’s less for us to do. Pre-COVID, I had no problem working a few extra hours. But this week, those extra hours really tired me out; I don’t have the reserves of energy I used to have pre-COVID.

I don’t have a call to action for you. Nor do I have an easy solution for clergy burnout. Nor do I mean to imply that clergy somehow have it worse than anyone else in society. I think my only point is that we all need to be understanding of each other’s ongoing stress, as the effects of the pandemic continue.

Is that what’s going on?

I was talking with someone about how we were both feeling a bit out of sorts — little things like getting appointments slightly wrong, nothing really serious but constantly annoying. We both had good reasons for feeling a bit out of sorts (for my part, I moved, started a new job, my partner’s father died). But I’ve heard quite a few other people say they feel the same way. So I said to this other person, The pandemic emergency officially ended a couple of months ago, but I feel like it’s still lingering on; I mean, this time last year, we were still in partial lockdown. This other person said, It’s like we all have PTSD. I said, I’m not a clinician, I’m not qualified to diagnose PTSD, but I think you might be right.

I’ve been researching the race riot that happened at the high school in my hometown in 1978 (I hope to have a blog post about it on the 45th anniversary of the actual event). Part of my research led me to a 2002 oral history interview with Phil Benicasa, for many years an elementary school principal in Concord. I never knew him, but my younger sister worked as a reading tutor in his school for a few years, and always had good things to say about him as an educator.

So here’s what Phil Benicasa said about parents and education back in 2002, not long before he retired:

“[S]omething is going on with the youngster who comes to our door in kindergarten [in 2002] as opposed to the youngster that came to our door 20 or 25 years ago. They are nowhere near as well prepared for the conventions of learning as kids were some time ago. I think parents are confused about parenting. I think kids therefore are confused about their role as children. In 1975 if you took the chunk of time out of my week that I spent doing discipline, 80% or 90% of that would have been at the fourth and fifth grade level, and more often than not it was mischievous sort of stuff. It was the kind of stuff that you could chew out a kid for and send him out of the office and chuckle about what it was that the kid had done. Today 80 to 90% of my time in discipline is spent in kindergarten, first, and second grade. That’s astonishing. And it’s not mischief. There are really a tragic number of kids with social and emotional baggage that they are having great difficulty casting off….

“I think parents have bought into the business about, the sooner my kid learns to read, the better they’re going to be. If my kid learns to read by age 3, that’s a direct line to Harvard. That’s absolutely nonsense. There are so many more important things that need to be learned before they get to us [in elementary school]. You know that business, ‘everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten’? — to clean up after myself, to share, to listen to others, to wait my turn, not cut ahead — all that’s true. Generally speaking kids had much of that in place before they arrived in the door.… [K]ids are not coming to school in kindergarten as well prepared to take advantage of what it is we are offering than they have been in the past. That means we have to modify what we are offering.”

Three obvious caveats — (1) This statement represents the observations and opinion of just one educator. (2) Phil Benicasa’s observations were limited to Concord, a predominantly White town in New England. (3) The demographics of Concord’s schools changed from 1975 to 2002, from an economically diverse cohort of children, to a nearly homogenous upper-upper middle class cohort.

Yet even with these caveats, what Phil Benicasa said back in 2002 resonates with what I saw in a different educational setting, religious education in Unitarian Universalists, back in the late 1990s. But I was working with the same upper middle class predominantly White children that Benicasa worked with. To use a current catchphrase, I felt children in the late 1990s were often deficient in social-emotional learning. I don’t know why that was true, but it was.

Things have changed since 2002. I’m no longer in religious education, but I still see the same upper middle class predominantly White children that I’ve been working with since 1994. Up until the COVID pandemic, I felt that children became more able to fit in to structured social situations. Some of that change came from a bit more social-emotional learning, and some of it came from children simply becoming more compliant with authority.

I also felt that some of that change came at the cost of children’s mental and spiritual well-being. In the years leading up to 2020, I felt that I saw increasing amounts of depression and anxiety in children; at least, in the populations I worked with. Children had internalized the message that they need to do everything they can to gain (as Phil Benicasa put it) “a direct line to Harvard.” And, to quote him again: “That’s absolutely nonsense.” What you do in elementary school or middle school is not going to get you into Harvard.

Then the pandemic hit. The pandemic accelerated some of these trends. To succeed at online school, kids had to become even more compliant. And the rates of depression and anxiety went up even faster, as near as I could tell. But the pandemic also meant that children lost a lot of ground in social-emotional learning. We’re barely out of the pandemic, so it’s too early to know if children will regain that lost ground or not. The pandemic also meant that children stopped participating in extra-curricular activities that promoted social-emotional learning, programs like Sunday school. Participation in sports keeps rising, but while sports does tend to make children more compliant, in my observation it doesn’t do much to improve social-emotional learning.

The pandemic also accelerated a trend I’ve been watching when it comes to the spiritual development of upper middle class children. The upper middle class consists of the “cultured despisers of religion,” so spiritual development tends to be low on their list of priorities (spiritual development won’t get you into Harvard). The upper classes limit spiritual development to meditation, mindfulness, and yoga — which are considered worth doing because they allegedly help children tolerate stress better. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga mostly seem to work to make children more compliant. Nor do they address the root causes of children’s anxiety and depression; instead, they simply cover them over.

I’d like to say that Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education would help advance children’s social-emotional learning, improve their mental health, and (instead of making them more compliant) help them discover who they are and what their purpose is. But I’m less than impressed with the way most UU congregations implement their religious education programs. Most of these programs today seem to be run for the convenience of the staff and the child-free lay leaders. As an example, think of the many UU congregations that set monthly themes for worship services, then force children’s religious education curriculum to follow those themes regardless of the developmental and educational needs of the children. The adults come first; the children are supposed to be quiet and comply with the needs of the adults. No wonder UU religious education enrollment has been plummeting in recent years.

I don’t have a happy little conclusion for this blog post, except to say I’m worried. I’m worried that the selfishness of Unitarian Universalist adults is driving children away. I’m worried about children’s mental health, and limited social-emotional learning. I’m especially worried about the way children are being make more and more compliant — this in a time when fascism is on the rise.

(See also this post on why Sunday schools are declining.}

Worshipping online

At First Parish in Cohasset, where I serve as minister, 10-15% of our Sunday congregation each week attends online. This percentage is probably typical of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.

A recent study shows that in Black churches, the percentage is much higher. As reported by Religion News Service (RNS): “According to the Pew Research Center, Black Protestants outrank all other U.S. religious groups in choosing to worship outside of brick-and-mortar locations, with 54% saying they took part in services online or on TV in the previous month.”

African Americans were hit hard by the COVID pandemic, and many remain wary of in-person worship services. Although J. Drew Sheard, a bishop with the Church of God in Christ who was interviewed by RNS, points out, “That fear does not seem to prevail when they go to sports activities or the mall…. But they have been invoked with fear that you can catch COVID at church.” I can relate. I still have many COVID-related fears, and I’m still wearing my mask in church; the fear is still there. I completely understand why some Black churchgoers don’t want to show up for in-person services

Besides, I really do like online services. I like being able to attend Sunday services while sitting on a couch in my jammies drinking tea. That’s about as good as it gets. On the other hand, my favorite part of Sunday morning is social hour, and I don’t care for online social hours. So personally, I like having both options available: both online and in-person services.

I’m betting that online access to worship services is here to stay. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in New York, puts it this way: “The impact [of the pandemic] is not over yet but we see signs of church being normal…. [But] normal is a fluid word. Normal is change. Change is normal.”

Stressed out

When a minister is removed from fellowship, or resigns from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee sends out email announcing the minister’s name, and the reason for removal from fellowship, or the reason for resignation. These emails go out to all other ministers, and also, I believe, to key congregational lay leaders such as Board presidents.

Starting last year, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee finally began maintaining a list of these ministers online at this web page: “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations.” This list goes back to the 1960s, although there is a specific warning that the list “is in no way a complete historic record.” I would assume it is fairly complete for about the last twenty years.

So I just received another email notice of a minister removed from fellowship. That makes four ministers out of fellowship since September. This seemed like a high number to me. But is it?

According to the online list, in the period from 2000 to 2020, twenty ministers either resigned from fellowship rather than face misconduct charges, or were removed from fellowship on misconduct charges, averaging one per year. (The list has not been updated for 2022.) Thus four ministers out of fellowship in six months is a high number compared to the historical average. However, four ministers went out of fellowship in 2019, the highest number in any one year. So having a high number of ministers out of fellowship cannot be blamed solely on the COVID pandemic.

Nevertheless, four ministers out of fellowship within six month is still a high number. I believe the pandemic has contributed to this historically high number. Which makes sense. We know that people in other helping professions are feeling burned out by the pandemic, so we should expect ministers and key volunteers to be feeling burned-out and tender. We also know that emotions are high in all workplaces, and “rage quitting” is a thing, another symptom of workplaces stress. I’m thinking the common thread running through all this is pretty obvious: both lay people and ministers are feeling stressed out after almost three years of pandemic.

What can we do to address all this stress?

Well, many ministers would probably benefit from talking with a mental health professional, to get an outside opinion about their emotional well-being (that is, if you can find a mental health professional to talk with, since there is a shortage of such people). I’ll be talking with a therapist myself in a week or so.

Congregational leaders, for their part, would probably benefit from talking with denominational officials or congregational consultants. Again, the point would be to get an outside perspective: How stressed out is the congregation? And where there is a lot of stress, then start thinking about how to reduce that stress.

To help reduce stress, I would also heed the advice of Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, from a recent Religion New Service article. “Everything has to be hyper-intentional now,” Thumma said. “The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?” In other words, let’s shift expectations away from what we used to do, and instead set expectations about what we can realistically do now. That should lower stress on lay people and ministers alike.

Words of wisdom to media representatives

We’re having an interfaith prayer vigil this afternoon, for Cohasset resident Ana Walshe. (I just tested positive for COVID, so I can’t go.) Since this is a story that’s been in the news, as soon as word got out about the prayer vigil, our church started getting calls from media representatives.

One of the media representatives who called First Parish was just plain rude. An email we got sounded pushy and not at all sympathetic. Another church got a call offering to help publicize the event for us, something we really don’t want. The attitude of media representatives seems to be, “We need news, and you’re going to provide it for us!”

So here are some words of wisdom to media representatives:

  • It would be wise for you to remember to follow the norms of ordinary politeness. If you are rude, we won’t forget.
  • It would be wise for you to remember that you may be talking to someone who has strong feelings about this issue. If you sound callous or uncaring, we won’t forget.
  • It would be wise for you to remember that we don’t need you any more to publicize local events. Social media and word of mouth work better.

All of which can be boiled down to: Treat people nicely.

Update: This afternoon, I received email from a reporter asking for an interview. I replied that I had COVID and was not able to give an interview. The reporter said they hoped I’d feel better. How nice! You can be sure that I remembered that person’s name, and if they contact me again I will be predisposed to talk with them.

An expert look back at the pandemic

STAT News takes a look at what most surprised experts about the COVID pandemic. STAT senior writer Helen Branswell’s article is well worth reading.

The point that I found most interesting: “How long the damn thing has lasted.” Branswell reports:

“[In the past,] the pandemics that have been recorded have mainly been caused by flu. And in the recorded flu pandemics, there was generally a wave or two — sometimes, in some places three — and then humans and the new virus reached a detente. The new flu virus settled into causing seasonal flu activity, not pandemic flu.

“A lot of people STAT spoke to thought that was the way this pandemic would play out. They didn’t anticipate that we’d be where we are now, with waves of transmission still occurring at various points in the year, rather than during the winter, as is the way of most respiratory pathogens.

“‘I never would have imagined that three years later we would still be dealing with this in the way that it’s ever-present in our conversations and in our society,’ said Messonnier, the former CDC official….”

As a layperson, I never dreamed that after three years, we’d still be dealing with high levels of virus transmission, and serious health consequences. I’m glad to know that the experts are equally flummoxed.

And the second most interesting point, from my point of view: “The ripple effect.” Branswell summarizes what one expert said:

“…Hatchett, for all his studying of previous pandemics, wasn’t anticipating the geopolitical impacts of this one. He likens it to a meteor strike. [emphasis added]

“In addition to the crushing waves of illness, the lives lost, the swamping of hospitals, and the disruption to routine health care, he points to the economic disruption of the past couple of years, the onset of inflation, the spike in energy prices, and the upheaval in supply chains as all being of a piece….”

Another ripple effect not mentioned in the article, but which I see every day: the COVID pandemic has changed the shape of religion in the U.S. permanently. The pandemic accelerated the ongoing trend of disaffiliation from religious organizations. The pandemic is finishing off a fair number of congregations already weakened by the Great Recession in 2008. The pandemic deepened the divide between the conservative Christians who were vaccine deniers, and everyone else who was religious (and who had to explain that yes they were religious, but they were vaccinated). The pandemic advanced livestreaming acceptance incredibly rapidly. The pandemic is causing quite a few religious professionals to seek other lines of work….

The list goes on. Yes, it was like a meteor strike. Organized religion in the U.S. will never be the same.