Open Bible on Church Altar With Preacher's Hands

Understanding the Work of Local Church Pastors

Over the past years we have conducted additional research into the workload and work demand of local church pastors. We find that six characteristics of pastoral work may create potential challenges for the wellbeing of clergy.

  • Ministry is high-stakes work. Ministry work comprises some of the most important and sacred dimensions of human life. For example, pastors are responsible for helping people engage in spiritual transformation and spiritual growth. Pastors care for people during some of the most difficult and tragic experiences in their lives. They lead spiritual communities toward transforming the world. There is a great deal at stake in ministry work. Little to nothing in ministry is trivial work. Pastors must also be effective managers. Most are, in effect, running a business in addition to being the spiritual leader of a faith community. Almost all ministry activities carry the potential for making significant impact, and so the potential benefits of excellent performance are high and mistakes or failures can carry significant spiritual and financial costs.
  • Ministry work is complex, continuous and diverse: Switching costs are high. As Dr. Deshon concluded, pastoral work comprises a continuous and diverse flow of complex tasks and activities. Complex activities and tasks require the application of higher-order knowledge, skills and abilities. Performing complex activities and tasks effectively requires intense focus and significant effort. Hard work is often the bare minimum required. There are very few mindless or easy tasks in ministry. Most work pastoral work demands high levels of cognitive effort (concentration, reasoning, problem-solving, working memory, inference control, etc), physical stamina and emotional control.
  • Ministry work is punctuated by unexpected events. Pastors know and expect that the flow of ministry work can, and likely will be suddenly and sometimes dramatically changed by problems or issues which upset the tenuous “balance” in work tasks that a pastor has established. We used the term “punctuated” to capture the fact that emergencies are also surprises. These punctuations must be attended to followed by a rapid return to the queue of normal ministry activities. Pastors must respond to these abrupt interruptions, but figuring out how to prepare is difficult.
  • There is little structure or guidance for prioritizing ministry work. Pastors are responsible for prioritizing their work, yet as we have already described they may have limited control over a significant portion of their work. In addition, deadlines are tight, as soon as one Sunday is over pastors must begin planning for the next one. Parishioners want their email or call answered quickly. Mistakes in prioritizing can lead to the misallocation of personal and other ministry resources and may leave important things undone or done poorly. Sometimes they feel punished for failing to meet another person’s deadlines and priorities. As a consequence, most or all activities and tasks are treated as high-priority and, therefore, pastors may feel compelled to make time for everything. Consequently, work may never end.
  • The downside of the turn toward more digital and less in-person communication. Longer-tenured pastors described a past in which relational connections with parishioners predominated. For pastoral work, technology-based modes of communication can jeopardize a sense of personal connection and community that is so central to ministry work. The predominance of what we will call “impersonal communication” undermines the flourishing and the rich interpersonal connections that are fundamental to wellbeing. Furthermore, over time the predominance of impersonal communication may erode the nourishing community in which ministry work must be done.
  • External change is rapid. External changes comprise the fast-paced and seemingly constant evolutions and revolutions of the social, legal, and financial contexts in which ministry work is embedded. These external changes can create ministry opportunities, but they can have a direct and negative impact on ministry work and pastoral wellbeing.


To be sure, while ministry work is demanding, it can also be deeply engaging, absorbing, and meaningful. But the very things that make pastoral work so meaningful can also make it extremely taxing. The potential for over-investments in ministry work is high since it can be difficult for pastors to find the tipping point between positive engagement and over-sacrificing, between fatigue due to a ministry job well-done and exhaustion due to over-investing. Lay leaders can be important allies in helping pastors, they can work with clergy to prioritize and manage ministry work, they can assume areas of responsibility in which pastors feel they are less skilled, and they can provide much-needed support and care for pastors.