Stress and Longevity in Pastoral Ministry: A Phenomenological Study
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There is a sad and consistent narrative that permeates the story of so many pastors. After dedicating their lives to advance the gospel and to serve the Bride of Christ, His church, so often the story ends in the tragedy of burnout and its debilitating effects and far reaching impacts on family, congregation, and community. Yet, there is a small group of resilient and enduring pastors who have somehow learned to grow from the difficulties and stress of ministry. How are they able to avert the negative and often detrimental effects of ministerial stress to experience such success and longevity in ministry? What are their stories? How do they perceive their roles and the stress of those roles? How have they learned to not only survive, but somehow, thrive? This study seeks to give a voice to their stories and to understand their self-perceptions. Several researchers have concluded that the occupation of pastor is especially prone to burnout. These same researchers cite varying contributors to this condition, such as time demands, unrealistic expectations, isolation, and loneliness. Even though debate exists surrounding the specific contributing factors and the level of their contribution, the results are clear in the research. Pastors’ lives become imbalanced and their spiritual growth stagnates. However, some pastors have demonstrated growth and longevity in a constant ministry context. Hence, they have seemingly developed and matured through the difficult experiences and occupational stressors that have left many of their colleagues defeated. This study sought to discover why some pastors are able not only to overcome these adverse and detrimental factors of stress and burnout, but also achieve both personal and professional growth in spite of them. This phenomenological qualitative study describes the experiences of twenty pastors who have experienced the phenomenon of growth and longevity in ministry despite occupational and personal stressors, and identifies commonalities of their perceptions of how they have dealt with stress and achieve success over an extended period of time in a constant ministry context. The pastors have ministered at one church for at least fifteen years. Each church has exhibited measurable growth under the leadership of each respective pastor during their tenure. The results of this study identified four common themes: Source of stressors, how these pastors identify and deal with their occupational stress, the impacts of stress on their personal lives, and their advice for young pastors from what they have learned over their long tenures in ministry. A common pattern among these veteran pastors is that over time they gained a new perspective and became more effective at coping with stress. They modified and adapted their behaviors, adopting several practices that are recommended in the broader literature on stress and burnout and the specific literature on religious clergy. These include: delegating and prioritizing responsibilities, seeking social support, taking time off, engaging in regular physical exercise, guarding family time and family vacations as well as recreational activities, and discipline in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and worship.