A survey of Australian church employees has revealed disturbing levels of loneliness, burnout and mental health issues according to the Oxygen Christian Workers Survey run by the Katoomba Christian Convention which this week holds its first conference in five years for those involved in Christian ministry. The retreat aims to refresh workers in their zeal for God and the work that He has called them to do.
More than 300 church workers responded to the survey including pastors, chaplains, children’s and youth ministers, and missionaries across 14 denominations. Their replies revealed that compared to people working in nonprofit Christian organisations, church workers struggled more with job dissatisfaction, loneliness and being part of a healthy team. Assistant pastors and ministers were the least likely to have a close friend and the most likely to feel lonely.
One pastor’s wife working in a Christian nonprofit observed: “Being in parachurch organisations has been a healing balm for me as I have watched my husband struggle as a pastor. The difference is that I work with paid qualified staff who all have a common vision and passion for the mission. My husband works with often unqualified volunteers who have an emotional investment in what they want for their family and local place of worship, so sometimes the Gospel vision is lost.”
Nearly one in three of all respondents reported that they were experiencing mental health issues, or suspected they might be. Two thirds of children’s ministers claimed they were struggling with their mental health while more than 40% of youth ministers and those in school ministries admitted to mental health concerns.
When it came to denominations, workers in the Anglican Church were most likely to feel lonely and experiencing pressures on their mental health. One minister serving in a rural area reported: “Having now worked in three different states, the ability to support each other or get support from others does sadly depend on your location. I have found I need to constantly push myself to make sure I am seeking encouragement and support from friends and those in ministry otherwise you can easily slip into that feeling of being alone in ministry.” Another Anglican Minister said simply: “I have no close friends in my local area and have to drive over 50 kilometres just to see a colleague.”
An Anglican women’s minister serving in a capital city confessed: “I think about burnout and wonder if I am already there and what to do about it. It is hard to find the energy to invest in people, but my love for the Lord and his people continues. I often wonder if I am the right person for my job, which is not a question I had five years ago.”
The survey underscored the impact that the covid pandemic had on churches and the mental health of church workers, bringing to the surface many issues that were already pre-existing. One senior pastor serving in a regional area said: “Covid intensified a pre-existing tiredness coming from 20 years in paid ministry. In 2021 I felt the lowest I have ever been and have not fully recovered.”
Another senior pastor serving in a capital city said: “Covid made things harder, but I feel they have brought to light that ministry workers’ expectations of themselves (as well as their congregations’ expectations) are unreasonable, way too broad, way too executive and way less missional than what they should be.”
One Anglican youth minister serving in a regional area shared the “alarming trajectory” that he now sees among the youth he serves: “I have found since the pandemic an overwhelming sense of apathy from the youth and young adults whom I serve and seek to disciple well. It’s as if the years spent in isolation sapped their zeal for the Gospel and have replaced it with complacency in life, service and relationships.”
Around 13% of respondents admitted that they would like a role outside ministry if one became available. The percentage was highest among church administrators (38%) and those aged 25-34 (18%).
The team at this week’s Oxygen Conference retreat for church workers suggests ways in which church members can be supporting their pastors in the work God has called them to do. These include praying for them; ensuring that they get plenty of rest; making sure they’re taken care of; constantly encouraging them; and hanging out and spending time with them as a friend.
The Katoomba Christian Convention aims to provide conference delegates with a quiet, focused space to hear God speak and to rest and reflect in nature. They say: “God’s word will be opened each morning and evening, and delegates will be equipped through practical sessions aimed at nurturing and cultivating a ‘God-shaped heart.’”