In fall of 2021 — after more than a year of the pandemic and in the wake of a contentious presidential election — former pastor Eric Atcheson was standing in line on a Saturday morning when he realized he had to change his life. 

“I was out picking up biscuits for my wife and daughter for breakfast. While I was waiting for our order to be ready, even though it was my day off, I started having a panic attack,” said Atcheson who, at the time, was leading a church in Birmingham, Alabama. “That was my body trying to communicate to my soul: This is not sustainable.” 

That moment marked the “point of no return,” he added.  

Although Atcheson was already in therapy, he sought out additional help from a spiritual director and began an intense process of discernment. “It took me several months to acknowledge that, for me to be in any way or shape whole, I’d have to give up congregational ministry,” he said. “When your position is giving you panic attacks, it’s time to give up the job.” 

So, last month he stepped down, publicizing his move in a Twitter thread that garnered hundreds of likes and responses, including some from other pastors who had also resigned from their positions. 

Across the nation, stories like Atcheson’s are becoming more common as clergy suffer from the burnout and mental health issues they attribute to the double whammy of the pandemic and increased political polarization.

In March 2022, 42% of pastors considered resigning — up from the 29% who did the same in January 2021, according to data collected by Barna. The three biggest reasons clergy cited were “immense stress,” feelings of isolation and loneliness, and “political division,” according to Barna.

While some faith leaders are just thinking about leaving, others have quit or retired early. The wave of clergy departures could have a unique impact on American society: As pastors leave congregations, there are questions about who will replace them. 

“I haven’t lost confidence in the work Jesus does but I’ve lost confidence in the work that the church does,” said Scott Sharman, a former pastor in Burleson, Texas, who entered early retirement in February.

“I think there will be a new model of the church in the next generation or two,” he added, pointing to the rise of house churches, or small worship groups in which members share both prayer and their lives. 

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On the job stress

The stress that is an inherent part of ministering to a congregation isn’t new and the impact it makes on both the physical and mental health of clergy is well-documented.

Duke Divinity School’s Clergy Health Initiative — a program that tracks the health and well-being of United Methodist Church clergy in North Carolina — has found that these pastors suffer from higher rates of depressive symptoms than nonclergy counterparts. They are also more likely to be obese or have chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension than other North Carolinians. Similar trends are seen among United Methodist clergy nationally, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, a global health professor and research director of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. 

While anxiety symptoms rose for clergy between 2019 and 2021, “the percentage of clergy with elevated anxiety symptoms doubled between 2016 and 2021, reaching 16%,” said Proeschold-Bell, who attributed some of this to increased political polarization.

Pastors who match their congregations politically had average anxiety rates, she added. But those who reported being much more liberal than church members had startlingly high rates of elevated anxiety. 

There’s a certain level of frustration built into the job, noted the Rev. Adam Wyatt, who has been researching pastoral burnout in recent months. “You’re preaching and you want to see the gospel changing people’s lives and as you get to know people, you realize (they) are struggling with a lot of different things. It’s not just sin. It’s just life,” he said.

In normal times, there’s also some natural stress that comes from wrangling with a variety of congregational issues — from what type of music should be played during services to the sort of outreach the church should engage in. 

But the pandemic years — which have also included the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death and an election cycle — have put additional stress on religious leaders across the board, said the Rev. Wyatt. Clergy have felt like no matter what they chose to do, someone was upset with them. Close the church and go online? Complaints. Reopen and ask congregants to mask? Complaints. Don’t ask people to mask? Complaints. Fail to articulate support for one political party or another? People walk. 

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Amid the pandemic, prior to the 2020 election, “We had a lot of families who left our church because I wouldn’t endorse, embrace or affirm Donald Trump,” said Sharman, who added that people are leaving for congregations that pander to their political leanings rather than making lifelong commitments to a church where their views might be challenged. 

On top of all this, the pandemic has meant that religious leaders are now expected to function as de facto experts in public health, technology and social media. 

Running away

While the responsibilities of the job have increased, the rewards have decreased. The small, spontaneous and positive interactions with church members that previously kept clergy going — stopping in a hallway to chat with a congregant, a warm smile — disappeared from the work over the past two years. 

The pressure has added up. Pastors under 40 seem particularly likely to give up on congregational ministry, said the Rev. Wyatt. He cited anecdotal evidence that more students are entering seminaries but less are training for pastoral ministries. He and others also pointed to congregations that have had job openings for extended periods and have been unable to replace pastors who have left. 

Experts and religious leaders alike say that, along with posing new challenges, the pandemic also exposed or exacerbated preexisting tensions in congregations. “People became more feral,” said Atcheson. 

When the Rev. Trey Jones of Crossgates United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was at the breaking point, he found someone to cover him for two Sundays and told his wife he had to get into his car and drive. “I told her I have no idea where I’m going but you can come with me if you want to,” said the Rev. Jones.  

She got into the car with him and they “pointed it south,” he said. They kept driving with no clear destination in mind until they literally arrived at the end of the road: Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States. 

“I ran away because I was gonna run away,” said the Rev. Jones. For now, the short break has proved enough to keep him going. 

But for another pastor in the Midwest — who asked to remain anonymous out of respect for the congregation he is still leading — the sabbatical he took amid a mental health crisis led to the realization that he needs to leave congregational life entirely. He returned to his position only to tender his resignation; his last day as a pastor comes next month.

While he hopes to continue spiritual work, he is going to focus his efforts on the nonprofit sector where he feels he will be able to more effectively implement the ideals he holds dear, including racial justice. In the wake of George Floyd’s death he began to feel that too many American churches are complicit in perpetuating racial inequalities, he explained, adding that he took heat after running some programs at the church related to race.

“Some people in the parish were angry — very angry — and when I looked at my emails, I would have a small anxiety attack,” he said.

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Though American Judaism isn’t seeing a mass exodus of rabbis, Jewish leaders are also feeling the weight of the pandemic and political tensions, too, said Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“The great resignation is not what we’re seeing but we are seeing a tremendous level of burnout and stress,” she said. “Just as we’re seeing a lot of mental health challenges in the general population, rabbis are not exempt from that.” 

The shifting conversation about Israel and the Palestinians is an additional layer of stress that rabbis are coping with. “A lot of rabbis are afraid to talk about (the conflict) or bring their personal perspectives (to the issue) because no matter what they do they make people angry,” said Rabbi Person. The same is true for voicing their opinions on other hot-button topics like gun control, reproductive care or trans rights, she noted. 

“We have some rabbis who get death threats if they say this or that. It’s a hard time to be a moral leader,” she said, adding that social media exacerbates the phenomenon. 

Making clergy feel loved

Proeschold-Bell explains that there are steps both religious leaders and congregants can take to prevent burnout and mental health symptoms. 

“We’ve found in longitudinal studies that clergy who have higher spiritual well being are less likely to become depressed a year later. We’ve also found that elevated depressive symptoms are associated with burnout a year later,” said Proeschold-Bell, who explained that many people assume the opposite — that people burn out and then get depressed.  

“If clergy feel themselves starting to become depressed, they should go do the things that are helpful for anyone with depression — therapy, medication, physical activity and time outdoors,” Proeschold-Bell said.  

She also emphasized that, as mental health symptoms loom, people are prone to cut back on things, including spiritual practices. But that’s exactly the opposite of what clergy should do when they feel their mood and energy waning.

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“That’s the wrong time to loosen up” on spiritual practices, said Proeschold-Bell. “They should hunker down on any kind of spiritual practices that improve their spiritual well-being, which may then help prevent depression and anxiety.”

Congregants can make a difference, too, by doing little things.

Those attending services and houses of worship should take care to acknowledge their religious leaders as people and pour into these men and women who give them so much, said Proeschold-Bell, who recommended “asking pastors about themselves — ‘Where are you going on vacation? What are you reading now? How is your family? What do you like to do in the spring?’ — something that recognizes the clergy member as a whole person and not just a person of the cloth.”

Research has found that “when clergy feel loved and cared for by their congregations, they do better,” she said.

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