Survey says – pastors “very satisfied” with their jobs

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago recently published results of their recent study, exploring “satisfaction and happiness among American workers.” They found that clergy scored highest on both counts: 87% said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs, and 67% said they were “very happy” with life in general. What?

If you look at the statistics from an earlier post, and from the page on my site about leadership, you find a very different picture. What’s going on here? This is important, because UC’s study is getting quite a bit of attention, and makes for good copy. The article on UC’s web site publishing the results, for example, opens with: “Looking for satisfaction and happiness in a career? Start by choosing a job that helps others.” That’s nice.

But this leaves me with some questions. If pastors are so happy with their lives and their jobs, then … (1) why is it that 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates leave the ministry within five years? (2) Why is it that 1500 pastors are getting fired or resign each month? (3) why is it that in other surveys 80% of pastors report being discouraged or depressed?

There are two answers. The first has to do with the unreliability of surveys, the second has to do with the nature of ministers, and the ministry itself.

1. Survey information is interesting and helpful, but notoriously unreliable and hard to interpret

Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in a chapter in his book Blink. He tells the story of the research that went into one of the most notorious product failures of our time: New Coke. After losing out to Pepsi in taste tests (remember the “Pepsi Challenge?”) Coca-Cola executives decided to tweak their product and give it less bite. After extensive research, they came up with a product that consistently beat Pepsi in taste tests. They were sure they had a winner. In the press conference announcing the new product launch, then CEO Roberto Goizueta called New Coke “the surest move the company has made.”

Of course we know what happened. Customers hated New Coke, and revolted. Eventually – after spending untold amounts of money on research and marketing New Coke – the company switched back to the original. Here is the lesson – as Gladwell points out in his book: predicting real-world results through research in a lab is really tricky, when the research involves people. It sometimes happens that the products customers prefer while taking sips in a lab taste test aren’t always what they prefer when drinking a whole can in their home or a restaraunt. Lab tests rely on sips and compare flavor without factoring in other food being eaten while drinking soda. In that environment, the sweeter product always wins. But it turns out that when it comes to drinking a whole can of soda, people prefer a cola that has more bite (ala “old Coke”). The information you get in a lab doesn’t always translate into usable, transferable insight in “real life.”

This is significant because the research on job satisfaction relied on face to face interviews. I believe that likely tainted the results of this research because of a unique quirk of ministers: they have an innate ability to put on a happy face.

Ministers are conditioned to make themselves appear to be happy and content. It is not just a job requirement, it is a spiritual discipline. They feel a sense of moral obligation to have it all together. If they as the leader and representative to the world of the Christian movement are struggling and unhappy, what does that say about Christianity? So it doesn’t surprise me that they would relate to the researches high levels of job satisfaction and happiness. They do that all the time to everyone they meet, whether they feel it or not.

Maybe you think I’m making too much of this, or that I’m exaggerating about this tendency of ministers to be less than honest about any unhappiness or frustration they feel. I’m not. Remember that I used to be a pastor too! Up until the time I decided to leave the ministry, if I had been asked how I was doing, and how satisfied I was with my job, I would have been right there with the rest of the pastors talking about how happy I was, and how satisfying my job was.

Which brings me to the second — and probably more important — insight that comes from this survey.

2. Most ministers feel great satisfaction with their work because they sense it’s great significance. The problem is that it’s also stressful and overwhelming

Ministry is rewarding, especially when you see peoples’ lives change. Ministry is also stressful, because change often brings stress and conflict. Ministry makes you happy, because you feel what you are doing is significant. Ministry also makes you frustrated and discouraged, because it often seems like you’re not making progress. You feel great when you see that you’re helping people, but you feel depressed when you see how much need there is, and how meager the results of your work are compared with what you were hoping to achieve. You feel honored and important when people thank you and offer respect, and you feel belittled and misunderstood when people criticize and attack you.

In other words … ministry is a roller coaster. Ministry is like being in love with a crazy-making person: they make you feel high and happy one day, and low and miserable the next. Ministers have a baffling, conflicted feeling about what they do. It’s not just a job … it’s a calling from God. So they’re supposed to have a deep commitment to it. And in many senses they love it. But they’re also often deeply discouraged.

Most pastors are leading small churches that are struggling in the shadow of the mega-churches. They get pumped up at pastor conferences to build prevailing churches, only to come home and feel like failures in comparison to the Latest-Cool-Church-Where-God-is-Really-At-Work. But the irony is that pastors of “successful” churches struggle as well, because growth often brings pain and conflict and criticism, which bring discouragement as well. And even if you’re doing well today, that could all change tomorrow.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just my own residual burnout talking. I know there are (many?) pastors who really do feel happy and fulfilled in what they are doing. But a lot of those happy and fulfilled pastors are also really stressed out and over-worked. And – this is my real concern – there are also a few (many?) pastors who will say they’re doing well, and are feeling fulfilled. But if they get in a place where they feel safe, where they can really be honest … you see how wounded and discouraged they really are. That’s what bothers me.

So I will take the results of this study with a grain of salt. And I would suggest you don’t take it for granted that your pastor is doing “Really Great!” or that he’s “Really Excited about (insert latest church initiative) because we’re seeing some unbelievable things.” Yeah sure you are. But, how are you doing … really?

5 thoughts on “Survey says – pastors “very satisfied” with their jobs”

  1. It’s a philosophy embedded in the Western mind-set, a theory essential to the American dream. Popular culture and history books have long stressed the importance of individual initiative and inherent skill in achieving success. Indeed,

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  3. Being both a PK, a pastor’s wife, and a former missionary I could not agree more with your article here. I have lived my entire life on the inside of the fishbowl. So much pressure on pastors comes from within. It’s sticky identity stuff. “Calling” and “gifting” gets enmeshed with “vocation” and “position.” Sometimes it is difficult to sort out what is what. It took me years to realize that I could be faithful to my calling from God no matter what I was doing vocationally – and it took my husband even longer, because he didn’t grow up living it like I did. We remain in vocational ministry now by choice, not compulsion. That is incredibly liberating, but the tension you describe is still there. Living with this constant dichotomy it’s easy to see how someone could say they were “very satisfied” to one group, “overwhelmed and discouraged” to another, and still be completely truthful. Statistics are helpful, but we have to be careful in articulating what they are really measuring. mjb

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments MaryJo. It sounds like you and your husband have been able to sort out something that many people never get to … that separation of personhood and value from the ministry role. To be in vocational ministry by choice is a great place to be. So many pastors I know feel stuck in the role, and unclear about how to understand their “calling.” Thanks again for writing.

    – Mark

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