The Surprising Resilience of American Pastors


It’s been a rough four-year stretch for pastors and ministry leaders…

  • The pandemic emptied the pews and profoundly disrupted community life.
  • Almost overnight, the new norm demanded entirely new technological savvy and ministry improvisation.
  • Division set into our congregations, with more and more people gravitating toward churches that function like echo chambers for pre-existing biases.
  • Meanwhile, budgets were under pressure from a rapidly-tightening economic vice as the economy descended into a funk.
  • Post-pandemic, many of those who stopped going to church found that the pain of missing out was overshadowed by the joy of many, many new “something else’s.”
  • Many pastors, especially those on the retirement horizon, just decided to exit while the exiting was good. Researchers found a widespread “eroding desire to continue in the ministry.”
  • Those pastors who were determined to stay in the saddle reported struggling with anxiety and depression at higher levels than before.

So… maybe “rough stretch” is a bit of an understatement. The challenges of ministry life have rarely been greater than they are now. As a result, we’d expect pastoral wellness to be mired in a trough, more struggling than thriving. But the latest research report from the Hartford Institute’s five-year project “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” reveals a clergy that is far more resilient than many expected.

The report, released a week ago, finds that American ministry leaders “tend to be healthier than the general public in terms of mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing… Maintaining spiritual practices such as prayer and a strong sense of pastoral calling were tied to positive wellness. Clergy health also correlated with positive congregational dynamics like willingness to change and vitality post-pandemic.” One pastor-respondent in the Hartford study said:

“I think people are coming out of the pandemic spiritually hungry. There seems to be a growing desire to really learn, study, and dig deep roots in their faith, especially pertaining to the Word. More people seem to be looking to strengthen their spiritual lives, after so much of what they knew and valued (wealth, health, careers, school, etc.) was shaken and threatened during the pandemic.”

If we think of the wellbeing of pastors like a pie chart, half (50%) rate a “good” on the wellness scale, a sixth (16%) rate “great,” a quarter (27%) rate “fair,” and just a sliver (7%) rate “poor.” More than half of clergy (54%) who have seriously considered leaving their post fall into the “fair” or “poor” wellness categories, compared to only a fifth (22%) of those who have decided to stick it out. The study seems to indicate that wellness is more closely correlated to a pastor’s ministry environment and satisfaction than it is to “help-seeking behaviors” such as taking a sabbatical, seeking spiritual direction or counseling, or taking a regular day off. Anecdotally, pastors report being refreshed by these choices, but it doesn’t correlate to greater wellness. But those who have doubled down on their personal spiritual practices have seen an uptick in their overall wellness.

On the downside of this surprising resiliency, a third of clergy (34%) still rate in the “fair” or “poor” wellness range. Younger clergy, particularly Millennials, report lower levels of wellbeing compared to their older peers. And nearly half of clergy claimed frequent or occasional loneliness, highlighting the dark underbelly of their relational challenges.

Perhaps the hidden-below-the-surface engine of wellness that defies measurement is the branch-in-Vine attachment many pastors and ministry leaders experience as they lean into intimacy in their relationship with Jesus. As we ingest the truth about thriving, highlighted by Jesus in John 15:4, we find a source of life that researchers would be hard-pressed to uncover: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.”

A thriving ministry is the best medicine—if you’d like help exploring how to nurture a healthier ministry ecosystem, reach out to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.



A Deeper Way to Lead Others Into Faith Maturity… Guide your people into depth relationally and experientially… A new curriculum by Rick Lawrence for both youth & adult ministries. Learn More Here




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