How Deep the Well?

With apologies, this is a “rerun” of the post I put up in March.  A number of people have asked for it to be “made available” because they had trouble finding it.  I’m just reposting it to make it easier to find.  The topic is clergy self-care, but it applies every bit as much to laity leadership as well.

A young clergy woman, beloved by her congregation, finishing her seventh year as a full-time pastor, successful by almost any and every measure, surrendered her orders and left the church.  Her excuse?  In a word, burn-out, but in more detail — too many demands from too many people taking too much time while constantly failing to live up to too many unrealistic expectations.  (In other words, a normal pastoral ministry.)  I asked what changed over the seven years, and she confessed that nothing in the job changed, but she had.  She wanted a life, and ministry had become for her a slow, painful death.

woman-praying-bwI share this story because this young pastor was part of a study I did on the spiritual life of pastors.  One of the main questions we explored was, “how deep is the well from which you draw?”  We explored over 200 pastor’s prayer lives, engagement with scripture, worship lives, self-care, and personal relationships to better understand how pastors renew their spirit and stay grounded in Christ.  The thesis we tested was this: you can’t give what you don’t have.  If the pastor isn’t spiritually nourished and constantly renewed, he or she will not long last in the pastoral vocation.  Not surprisingly, the young woman pastor was “too busy” to pray regularly, read the Bible, worship, exercise, rest, or spend time with friends and family.  Somehow her ministry displaced her spiritual life.

What follows is a narrative summary of the study, and I will go ahead and spoil the ending: the results aren’t pretty.  It is an uphill climb for 4-out-of-5 (80%) of our pastors to maintain any kind of integral spiritual practice in the midst of daily ministry.  Pastors do pray, read the Bible, and worship, but generally in service to their leadership, not their personal formation.  When pastors eliminate the time allotted to  the prayer, scripture study, and worship they perform as part of their job, these three practices all but disappear.  Regarding self-care (physical, emotional, and intellectual) and relationships, the picture grows bleaker still.

Prayer — most pastors are professional rather than prolific pray-ers.  They pray at worship, at meetings, at dinners, at fund-raisers, at Bible studies, in hospitals and in homes, with the ill and the bereaved, in prayer groups and before meals.  But once they hang up the minister-mantle many keep mum.  One hundred percent of our respondents say they pray regularly, but when we ask people to estimate the amount of time they pray apart from church responsibilities, only 54 (27%) say they pray every day, and only 26 (13%) set aside a specific time for prayer and devotions.  101 (50.5%) claim that when work pressures increase, prayer is one of the first things they set aside.  118 (59%) see no reason to add more prayer to a life already full of it — they feel that the praying they do professionally is sufficient.  76 (38%) confess they feel they should pray more often than they do, and 42 (21%) wish they would be more disciplined to do it every day.  Two people (1%) pray for more than one hour each day, fourteen (7%) pray thirty minutes each day, and eighteen (9%) pray between 15-30 minutes each day.  The most common response was a habit of slipping in a quick 2 minute prayer from time to time on an irregular basis.

Study of scripture/devotional reading — once again, the vast majority of pastoral leaders read and study the Bible for professional reasons — to prepare sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, devotions for meetings, and newsletter/website articles.  Over 90% (181) of the respondents lament that they simply do not have time to do the kind of Bible reading/study they would like.  As with prayer, most (155, or 77.5%) feel that the time they spend with the Bible in preparation for preaching and teaching is adequate.  Two-thirds (147, or 73.5%) do most of their reading — including the Bible — each week on-line.  Only 38 (19%) of pastors say they read a “religious” book in the past twelve months (with the most frequent being “The Purpose Driven Life.”).  49 (24.5%) regularly use commentaries, Bible dictionaries, concordances, etc., when studying the Bible.  Only 32 (16%) claim to do daily devotional reading of scripture.  Once again, as congregational demands increase, time with the Bible decreases.

Worship — this, I believe, is an area for concern.  182 (91%) of pastors said the only worship they attend other than what they lead is at conference, district, regional, or national events.  170 (85%) say that they attend fewer than 3 worship experiences a year in which they have no responsibility to provide leadership.  154 (77%) admit that leading worship changes the experience, and makes it difficult to be fully present and to be fully engaged as a participant.  Many pastors lament that it is almost impossible to simply relax and worship — too often they find themselves critiquing other services or picking up ideas they can use in their own congregations.  Virtually none of the respondents have an intentional, weekly worship experience apart from that which they lead for others.

Self-care: Physical — Yikes.  Clergy do not get enough exercise.  Thirty (15%) of the participants in the survey exercise every day for at least twenty minutes; seventy-three (36.5%) exercise at least three times a week; but, eighty-seven (43.5%) do not exercise at all!  One hundred thirty-eight (69%) of the sample weigh more than is deemed normal/acceptable for their height and age.  94 (47%) report battling chronic health issues, 88 (44%) are on some form of anti-depressant, mood-enhancing prescription drug.

Self-care: Emotional — One hundred forty-two (71%) say they have trouble dealing with stress and display symptoms of depression.  Only 59 (28.5%) are engaged in ongoing counseling.  A mere 52 (26%) of respondents take one day off per week, without exception.  67 (33.5%) report that they “lose” one-to-three days off per month due to work related demands.  43 (21.5%) have not taken a vacation in at least three years.  13 (6.5%) set aside “mental health/spiritual retreat” days at least once a quarter.

Self-care: Intellectual — Pastors are not big readers.  20 (10%) read 6 books or more each year.  143 (71.5%) read between 3-6 books each year.  30 (15%) read 1-3 books each year.  7 (3.5%) don’t read any books at all.  These figures include leisure as well as work related reading.  Pastors average thirteen hours per week of television viewing, which is about the same amount of time they spend on-line (14 hours per week/ 2 hours a day).  Seven (3.5%) were taking a class of some kind (5 at local seminaries, 1 a dance class, 1 a cooking class).  Two-thirds (136, or 68%) faithfully fulfill their annual continuing education commitments, but that is the full extent of their structured learning.  Four respondents (2%) were doing on-line/distance learning courses.

Relationships — this is the only category that shows a substantive gender bias:  women are three times as likely as men to engage in and protect healthy relationships.  One hundred forty-four respondents  (72%) confess some feelings of guilt about the sacrifices loved ones have to make due to their ministry.  Twenty-eight (14%) claim to have multiple strong relationships where they get together at least once a week with more than one friend or colleague.  79 (39.5%) say they get together with one good friend or colleague on a weekly basis.  60 (30%) say they get together with friends/colleagues at least once each month.  The problem comes with the remaining 33 people (16.5%) who say they rarely, if ever, get together with friends or colleagues.  There is a very high correlation between this last group and those requiring mood enhancing/anti-depressant  medication.

The results are problematic — some glimmers of hope, some signs that things aren’t as bad as feared, some signs that things might be worse than we thought.  It certainly challenges our annual conference, board of pensions, and board of ordained ministry leadership to reevaluate continuing education and pastoral support structures.

But another important implication should be identified: seventeen of the 200 respondents decided to leave the ministry in the three-and-a-half years since the study was initially conducted — and all of them share a similar profile:

  • no regular prayer life apart from professional responsibilities
  • no regular engagement with scripture or devotional reading apart from professional responsibilities
  • no worship life apart from professional responsibilities
  • poor self-care: physical, emotional and intellectual
  • lack of strong, close relationships with friends and colleagues

How deep is the well from which we draw?  If we are not being fed on a regular basis, what makes us think we have anything of value with which to nourish others?  If we are not drawing from a renewing, sustaining source, why are we so surprised when we “burn-out?”  The correlation is strong and, unless we as Christian leaders reorient our priorities, the message is clear.  If we do not cultivate a vital prayer life, dedicate ourselves to an intensive  study of scripture and spiritual teaching, participate in worship as a fully engaged member of a congregation, commit to regular and intentional self-care — physically, emotionally, and intellectually — and nurture and protect key relationships we will not be the people God needs to lead God’s people.

21 replies

  1. Thank you for this “rerun.” The results of your study do not surprise me in the least, and the statistics are similar in my denomination (ELCA). As both a pastor and the spouse of a pastor, I am quite familiar with the unique stresses clergy face, and my goal is to provide support and encouragement as pastors rediscover the person behind the collar and more fully become the people God created them to be in all aspects of their lives. Interested readers can find out more and sign up for my free monthly newsletter for clergy by visiting

    As you point out, the whole system needs an overhaul. Denominational officials too often talk about the importance of self-care without practicing it in their own lives, and the pastors who work too many hours and neglect their own families continue to be praised for their selfless dedication.

    At the same time, though, it is too easy to use the prevalence of unhealthy, codependent behaviors in the wider church as an excuse for our own reluctance to challenge unrealistic expectations and set boundaries that ensure adequate time to take care of our own needs and nurture our relationships with family and friends outside the church. Ultimately, we each have to take responsibility for our own lives and refuse to perpetuate a system that clearly isn’t working. Jesus told us to love our neighbors AS ourselves, not INSTEAD OF ourselves.

  2. Hi,

    I would like to share with you a good ebook that’s free to help pastors and their wives with discouragement and burnout. You can find it at: . It’s quite helpful.

    If you have pastor friends or even their wives, we are currently inviting pastors and pastor wives to join charter membership club for free for 2 months,you might want to share this with them. You may visit for more information.

    We would also like to invite you to view our video on this topic at

    Feel free to share this with your friends or people you care for.


    Susan David

    • Thanks for the resource, Susan! I can tell that this is an issue that is important to you (as it is to many of us who are going into pastoral ministry!). I would like to point out that this is not just an issue that affects “pastors’ wives” & male pastors but also “pastors’ husbands” & female pastors. Clergy spouses come in multiple genders!

  3. Hi Dan,
    It’s been a while since our days of youth ministry with the Conference Council on Youth Ministry in Norther New Jersey in the early 1990’s. I see your good work in Nashville and for the greater church…well done.

    One of the seminarians at Drew sent me a link to your blog. I am forwarding it on to the United Methodist seminarians at Drew. Good wisdom here for those who want to serve the Lord, for the long distance run of ministry.

    Jeff Markay

    • Wow, another voice from the past. I hope all is well with you, Jeff, and I am glad there is something here worth sharing with the seminarians. I always hear such great things about the work you do. Keep it up!

  4. Your opening story illustrated a young woman leaving the ministry with an “excuse” for doing so. The assumption in that is that there is no “excuse” for leaving ministry which is, at best, presumptious. Because of her “success by almost any and every measure,” she is held to a standard which implies that God is using her to accomplish Godly purpose, and that her leaving the ministry is, again implied, at least abandoning God and God’s call. While she may have struggled with spiritual depth and discipline to spiritual fundamentals, is it so far off that we expect, as ministers, that there are no other callings from God except for pastoral ministry? Especially for those who are perceived as “rising stars?” Is there no provision for those who believe their call to ministry changes? Is there no grace for those whose pastoral lives are expended and have become “a slow, painful death?” Is the Church at large not partially responsible and indeed culpable to some extent for pastors who leave because of spiritual burn out? Perhaps there ought to be built into the UM system, a better sense of connection with mentors for all pastors, prayer partners, retreats and respite more than the annual required attendance at some modest midweek annual get together. Sadly, I recognize the frustrations of others who spend time trying to figure out what success means in a system where great time is spent on “performance” and “association” rather than on trying to win the hearts and souls of those whose service to Jesus Christ into a more productive relationship. There is sadly little training for developing pastoral disciplines of scripture study, prayer, worship outside of preaching, physical and emotional self care. Furthermore, there are few examples of established church leaders who practice all of these disciplines themselves. Too often, physical and emotional health is overlooked because of some great need to accomplish one more task that furthers the perception of “success.” And then when a pastor leaves the “ministry” there is the harsh judgment of abandonment, and no follow up to genuinely care for the individuals who have given their best, even if it wasn’t “good enough.”

    • Robert, I don’t think I made my point clearly. This is a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” issue. My real point in the blog and especially in the opening illustration is that we have created a system than chews up and spits out gifted, talented and dedicated people, and that one of the best guards against such a system is a healthy connection to a spiritual core and intentional self-care. I would never imply (or assume) that there is no good reason to leave ministry or that God might lead us to new, equally legitimate paths. I am deeply saddened that so many people feel driven from their ministry and end up frustrated, burned-out, and feeling like they have somehow failed. The research shows that almost all pastors face similar demands, but that those with a vibrant, healthy spiritual life — who engage in physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self-care — weather the storms better than those that do not. My lament is that we have an unhealthy system that creates a toxic environment that poisons and sometimes kills the best and brightest as they come into ministry (or struggle to survive it for some time). I feel nothing but compassion for Christian leaders who are feeling so defeated. I am right there with you, and I thank you for the opportunity to clarify what I meant to say in the original article.

      • I would certainly concur that there is a “both and” issue here.  I think that there are some fundamental issues which need to be addressed and are avoided due to the “in the box” thinking that we as UM’s are proned to.  I would ask you your thoughts regarding these points as well as how they might be addressed toward constructive personal and systemic change.  1.  We have forgotten our foundation.  We are not the Church that John Wesley began based on the premise that we are about making disciples for Jesus Christ.  Instead we have become a social service agency seeking social change as our primary premise.  We are far too concerned about making someone feel bad rather than how we present the gospel as a living, viable, real and concrete foundation upon which to build lives.  Certainly, I do not wish to disregard the need for social change, however, I do think that every issue must be fundamentally premised on how we are making disciples instead of just being helpful.2.  We are fixated on how we have done  things rather than trying to figure out how we are going to meet the needs of the 21st century.  I am reminded of a film clip I saw a couple of years ago that discussed a church built on one corner of the block and a grocery store built on another corner of the same block.  The church did not change in its relationship to a changing neighborhood, but the grocery store did.  As result the church died, but the grocery store thrived.  That meant a great deal to me since the grocery store never deviated from its fundamental purpose of selling groceries, but did change its product lines in order to meet the transitioning needs and desires of the community it served.  We, as the church, would rather die in our self service than to go through the difficult and painful processes which meet the needs of todays churches and how they serve the communities where they are located.  For example, I did some research not too long ago, and although its conclusions were not wide spread nor was there adequate sampling, the reason to pursue additional research across denominational lines is that the longer a pastor is in a church, the greater the attendance in worship.  While that does not impact membership, it does address the awareness of pastors as leaders being established in a long term presence to meet the needs of the community.3.  There is a question regarding denominational sustainability.  We are losing members, mostly through attrition, without addressing significantly, as a denomination, where our future lies.  Maybe this is true across the board of long established Christian denominations.  Those issues could very well be considered at a general church level, however, what I am witnessing is the absence of grass roots involvement.4.  On the other side of the equation, where are pastors being encouraged to have time to go to worship outside of their own appointments?  How would that work?  I can think of one denomination which is not a mainline denomination that mandates that their pastors are out of the church for personal worship (not simply out of the pulpit but in fact in another church with another congregation) one Sunday per month.  Is there an opportunity for pastors to have a mentor or a support group within each geographical area who will support and maintain the boundaries of confidentiality so that there is opportunity for spiritual and emotional health and support?  What incentives are there for pastors to physically exercise that are relatively beneficial for everyone?  What processes are there for “healing” pastors who are broken in their ministries, even to the inclusion of sabbaticals (without punitive response upon completion) for those pastors who are so overwhelmed and defeated? 5.  Is this discussion board an opportunity for Church leaders, notably Bishops and District Superintendents, to begin the redesigning of our denomination to meet the needs of pastors as well as the long term considerations and concerns for our denomination to “come up to speed” in transforming the church to meet the needs of pastors and the issues of the 21st UMC>?

      • The kinds of issues you raise are the things I have been addressing in various posts on this blog. Here is a summary of some of my thoughts:

        1. Discipleship is our modern approach — Wesley didn’t actually focus on discipleship, but on a radical commitment that placed every person in deep personal relationship with other Christians, with God, and with self resulting in daily acts of mercy and compassion in the community and world. His vision was the spread of “scriptural holiness” across the land for the transformation of the world “into the very kingdom of God.” This is not a bad vision for our current denominational mission of disciple-making. The immediate challenges we face are a lack of clear goals and objectives at all levels of the church, an entitlement culture where people come to church asking, “what’s in it for me?”, and no viable accountability structures whereby we hold members, pastors, and leaders accountable to the vows they make to God and the church. We don’t need to focus on all kinds of innovations and new programs — a return to the basics and serious time clarifying and redfining our identity and purpose would be a very good first step.
        2. I say it in many different ways at many different times, but our future does not lie in our past. Recovering a “Wesleyan” theology, returning to a mythical “golden era,” or simply revamping an 18th, 19th, or 20th century model of church cannot take us where we need to go in the future. Similarly, no one else has our solution. We need to stop looking to business and industry to decide what we should do. The church is, or should be, different. Our mission and values should be the foundation upon which we build, and we should (at all levels) be prayerfully discerning God’s will — all possible opportunities and challenges in each unique context — to best understand what kinds of structures and processes will make us effective. Form must follow function — what we do needs to emerge from a careful chemistry of who we are, what we have been given, and what needs can be met. Once again, we make it harder than it needs to be.
        3. Numeric decline has many contirbuting factors, and many of them are of limited help in planning for the future. My background in stewardship taught me that the definition of faithful stewardship is, “managing wisely and well what we have been given.” It is not about lamenting what we lack or compensating for weakness. The five million members we have lost, and the next million we want to attract are less important than the 8 million we have. Were we to effectively transform and equip the 8 million members still connected to our denomination in the U.S., the next few million would take care of themselves, I feel sure. Also, the numeric boom is happening, just not in the U.S. Were we truly a connectional church we would all be celebrating the incredible global success of Methodism instead of whining about the U.S. drought.
        4. The whole system needs an overhaul as far as clergy care. Our bishops, cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, and staff-parish relations committees need to LEAD, and work to create healthy environments and support structures for clergy. And again, there needs to be accountability, and pastors need to take responsibility for their own wellness. The denomination is looking at clergy wellness, but participation is optional and sporadic. This is an important area where we definitely need leadership from the top.

  5. I resonate with this as a pastor who discovered it the hard way. I have been a pastor for about 20 years, and about 10 years ago I found I was drawing from an empty well. Some significant challenges knocked over my tree and I discovered how rootless I had been while living in the world of functioning and performing. Through a journey of the dark night of the soul, I began to claim regular time and space for personal spiritual formation and attending to my relationship with Christ.

    We pastor in a culture that so devalues anything but productivity. On top of that, our denominaton’s instituational anxiety about loss has led to increased pressure to perform with less spiritual support for those serving. It is so easy to fall into “doing mode” and spend ourselves completely at the expense of being rooted in Christ. By grace, I experienced enough brokenness to shatter my assumptions and draw me back to the true vine.

    I have written about this journey on my blog at:

    I hope others will find it helpful and be inspired to attend to one’s own spiritual life as a primary calling.

  6. Dan,
    The article and the discussions that follow are about issues that need to be at the top of every pastor’s list. I am recommending this on the preaching helps for April 26th as I hope pastors and leaders will also look at the issues of doubt and burnout in connection with the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
    If we in the Church (pick a denomination, any will fit the description) do not begin to turn from the minor things, that have dominated our time and efforts, to more spiritual things we will so disfigure the face of the Church that no outsider will want to look at her!

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