Strategies for the Alleviation of Stressors in Pastors’ Families

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In 2015 the results of the qualitative and quantitative findings of a study in the North American Division on Pastoral Education and Family Stress were shared.  The research looked at seminary training, continuing education, role demands, and family stressors. The results of this study, while complex, are clear: the front-line leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist church, pastors and their families, experience levels of stress that are not sustainable for the future health of the Church.

This study offers clear guidance about specific factors that stress pastors, pastor spouses, and children of pastors.  For pastors and pastor spouses, it appears that many of the primary stressors such as spiritual challenges, financial difficulties, and meeting role expectation related to a more core issue of lacking abilities to recognize, establish, and maintain appropriate and healthy personal and family boundaries.

Here are some “Integrated Recommendations” from this study—

Spiritual Life Challenges:

Starting with the pastor, pastor families need to be explicitly encouraged to prioritize their family and spiritual lives as a part of their ministerial duties. Knowledge and skill development in setting personal and professional boundaries may be a helpful step in heading off the challenges of establishing and maintaining healthy spiritual lives for this group of people.

When participants (pastors and pastor spouses) became intentional about building their spiritual lives, they experienced and reported enhanced spiritual wellbeing.  A simple intervention to encourage greater intentionality is for church leaders to regularly remind pastors and their spouses that their spiritual development is paramount. Pastors should specifically be encouraged to make personal time with God more important than sermon preparation or any other pastoral responsibility.

Since the primary spiritual challenge for children of pastors centers on role expectations and church members, the recommendations for this group will come in the Role Expectations of this report.

Financial Stress:

One common theme for both pastor and pastor spouse groups centered on the stressor of mandatory moving and the attending costs associated with those moves. As a result, we recommend that church leadership carefully review policies and processes involved in moving pastors with an eye to reduce these moves over the course of the family’s ministry.  In addition, providing either financial education or a financial advising for pastoral families may decrease financial stress. For example, church administrators might consider instituting a pilot program from Financial Peace University that has been shown to be effective in teaching money management from a Christian perspective.

Role Expectations Stressors:

Pastors would benefit by having clear role expectations outlined by church leadership. When the role expectations are diffused, workload and stress increase. Similarly, church leaders spelling out any expectations that conferences hold for pastor spouses would be very helpful in stress reduction. Pastor spouses also expressed a desire to receive formal training and mentoring provided as the couple is entering pastoral ministry.

Church members should be informed/educated about the role of pastor and pastor spouse so as to reduce the number and types of expectations congregants currently hold.

Children of pastors are clearly the most vulnerable group in terms of role expectations and the stress that results from these expectations. As a result, we recommend that a more in-depth study be undertaken focusing on pastor children and role expectations.

The investigation should aim to uncover the extent of the problem, the negative effects of role expectations and gather data on strategies to intervene with the pressures that accompany role expectations. Following that investigation, a pilot intervention should be initiated to address the negative effects of role expectations.

Social Support Needs, Barriers and Facilitators:

Access to social support has been shown to be connected to general human wellbeing. Therefore, it is crucially important that people in church leadership positions begin to examine why pastors and their spouses and children sense such a lack of social support and experience the overwhelming barriers to receiving the support they need.

While preliminary, our sense of the data points to a pervasive set of beliefs about the pastor family role and the boundaries surrounding the pastor family and the congregation. When pastor families cannot be authentic with their parishioners, when they need to uphold a persona of “role model” rather than “fellow traveler” it leads to human disconnection. Examining the question of what healthy boundaries are for pastor families and their church members is a worthy goal for church leaders.

In preparing pastors and their families for the ministry, we recommend that they be made aware of the pressures they will experience and how it uniquely affects the children. Parents can protect their children from the high expectations of the congregation by defending them when necessary and educating the congregation on how that pressure unfairly harms their children. In addition, parents can provide emotional support of their children through encouraging open communication and allowing mistakes and growing pains as their children navigate growing up in a fishbowl.  Some conferences have begun to host regular pastoral family retreats or social events.  Others have regular group mentorship calls that provide some social support.  We would recommend that such efforts be further explored and recommended to all local conferences.

Because pastor’s children feel like they have to present such a perfect front for their pastoral parent’s sake, they often don’t feel comfortable reaching out to others when they do have a problem.  There should be encouragement for pastor’s children to get confidential support through either peers or professional counselors.

Once source of social support for children of pastors proved to be other pastoral children. Participants related that they felt comfortable confiding in other pastors’ children because this group understood them best. Therefore, we recommended church leadership provide regular opportunities, at least once per year, for pastoral families to interact with one another so they can provide understanding and support in ways that no one else can. 

Conflict Resolution:

Because of the connection between conflict stress and pastor burnout, it is important for church leadership to examine ways in which conflict is currently addressed.  Pastors may be lacking in confidence or abilities in dealing with conflict. In this case, church leadership can provide targeted training for pastors in conflict management and resolution. It is crucially important for church leaders to be especially skilled in conflict resolution themselves and to model these skills to the pastors they serve.

Stress Management:

Researchers recommend that educational opportunities for children of pastors be made available by church leadership. The educational opportunities could focus on developing positive coping mechanisms such as cultivating peer support, encouraging healthy leisure activities, and communication skills. Open dialog and education about issues of addiction should be initiated with a primary prevention approach. It is crucially important that these educational messages and any accompanying resources come to pastor’s children without judgment or condemnation and that they are offered with complete confidentiality. Since pastoral families expressed such a high degree of anxiety, depression, addictive behaviors, and overall stress, we would suggest that the NAD investigate how to improve counseling services for pastoral families.  One option would be developing a pastoral family retreat center specifically dedicated for pastoral families.

David Sedlacek is professor for family ministry and Discipleship at Seventh-day Adventist Seminary located on the campus of Andrews University. Duane McBride is director for the Institute of Prevention Addictions and research professor of sociology at Andrews University