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Hope for the Weary Souls of Pastors

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In the Exodus story, the Lord instructs Moses to lift his arms as his people enter battle. As long as Moses raises his arms, the Israelites win. But when his arms get tired and fall, they start to lose. So two of Moses’ closest advisors, Aaron and Hur, sit him down so he can rest while they hold up his arms.

I was a pastor for 20 years, so I know the exhaustion and isolation that ironically comes from a job working with people. But I also know what it was like to have an Aaron and Hur, someone to come alongside me during those more challenging times and metaphorically hold up the arms of my soul.

At Barna, we’ve just released the latest report in our Resilient Pastor series, and sadly, most pastors are struggling mentally, emotionally and relationally. Pastors have responded to a sacred calling to help shepherd others, and the best thing a pastor can do for their congregation, their families, and themselves is to tend to their souls; but they can’t do it by themselves.

So what is happening? The Resilient Pastor highlights that pastoral burnout is still a major crisis in the church. As of March 2022, 42% of pastors have considered leaving the ministry. Our latest data also shows that mental health is one of the most significant drivers of burnout. Here are some sobering statistics:

  • 43% of pastors report average, below-average or poor mental and emotional health.
  • 32% of pastors frequently feel emotionally or mentally exhausted.
  • 51% have suffered from depression sometime during their ministry.

But the church needs to address a number behind these numbers: Nearly two-thirds of pastors (63%) say they aren’t seeing a counselor, therapist, life coach, mentor or spiritual advisor. Why are so few getting the help they need when the weight of the job becomes too heavy?

It’s hard for a pastor to open up to those they lead. People look to them for prayer, guidance and spiritual direction. Many pastors I’ve worked with confess they’re afraid to be vulnerable and honest about their insecurities, brokenness or sin because they worry it could cost them their job.

There’s also still a strong stigma attached to counseling or therapy. Some still see professional help as a sign of weakness, and many pastors are experiencing the pressure-cooker of looking like they “have it all together”—saying they need professional help can feel like confessing they don’t have what it takes to do their job.

Then there’s the reality of what the past three years of division and distance have wrought between pastors and the people they care about. Many have been burned by the rejection of church members walking into their office to announce they’re leaving, or worse, ghosting them and going to another church. So then, many pastors have become guarded and reluctant to get close to others in their congregations.

So what can you do if you’re a pastor who feels isolated and emotionally or mentally exhausted? From my own experience working in ministry and the research we’re doing at Barna, I want to share four practices with you:

1. Find Your Aaron and Hur.

Sometimes you need to talk to someone who gets it. That’s why this is the easiest step to take, because almost all pastors share the core challenges of the job. Regularly connecting with one or two other pastors can be an informal, but safe place to speak plainly, share wisdom, pray for each other and find encouragement.

When I worked in pastoral ministry, I met with two pastors from different churches monthly for coffee. We read scripture together, shared our struggles and successes, offered support and ended with praying for each other. In a very spiritual way, we were each other’s Aaron and Hur.

You may not each share the same traditions or theology, and it may take time to build enough trust to be vulnerable, but another pastor can understand the realities of what you’re going through.