Toxic Factors in a Pastor’s Role

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Five saboteurs hurting most pastors’ emotional wellbeing

Why is it that so many church leaders seem to burnout, break down, brown out, give up, or fall out in ministry? And more importantly, what can be done to strengthen a church leader’s resilience and sustainability in ministry? 

These were two questions gnawing at me as I began my research for my Masters programme. 

It is nothing new to notice that church leaders face some unique pressures in their role but what I did find surprising was that there are key aspects in the role itself that are toxic to the emotional health and intelligence of the person in the role. 

One research paper showed that the emotional intelligence of church leaders decreased the longer they were in ministry [1].  This is staggering when you consider the implications of it. Another comparative study [2] that examined the emotional intelligence of different professions showed that church leaders had an equivalent emotional intelligence to those in addiction recovery. Why is this?

As I continued to look further I found 5 key contributing factors. I have outlined these below.

1) Over-identification with the role

Of all the different factors undermining the emotional health and intelligence of a church leader the lynchpin is something called “role identification” [3].  This term simply means that their personal identity is overly connected to their role.

In one sense they are the role.  What happens in the role, whether it is deemed a success or a failure, is felt to unerringly reflect their worthiness as a person. As a result, their success in the role must be protected (unconsciously or not) for their own emotional and psychological survival.

One example of this came from research that found church leaders exposed in an affair not to be primarily concerned for the wellbeing of the other party, their family, or even their own spiritual health, but rather whether they would be able to keep their job [4].  It is this dynamic of over-identifying with the role that would appear to make the leader susceptible to the other unhealthy factors. 

2) The shift in seeing ‘success’ through the lens of spiritual leadership to organisational growth [5]

The research showed that most leaders expressed their desire to be a spiritual leader when starting in ministry but found the pressure for concrete measurements, such as ‘Sunday attendance’ and ‘income,’ profoundly influenced what was perceived as success. 

The desire to be a spiritual leader may have stayed with them, and they may verbally dismiss that numbers are central to their success, but their sense of wellbeing was shown to be profoundly connected to whether the church was growing numerically or was considered to be of a sufficient size.   The issue here is not about whether we need to focus on numeric growth but rather the unhealthy connection it has to a leader’s emotional wellbeing. 

3) The pull to perfectionism

This was not about doing everything perfectly but about appearing the ‘perfect’ way they felt they needed to in the role[6].  Many felt they were on display (like in a fish bowl) with their marriage, parenting, emotions, etc. all on display for others to assess.  As such they felt they needed to appear a certain way in order to be perceived as fulfilling what was expected of a person in their role, and anything less would be failure and shame.

What was not often recognised by the leader was that ‘appearing a certain way’ was in fact a form of pretending.  Keeping up appearances comes at a cost known as “emotional labour”.  This is the additional emotional energy a person uses to maintain ‘appearance’ over ‘reality’ of their inner world.  The amount of additional emotional energy a person has to expend each day to maintain the ‘perfect’ appearance unnecessarily wearies many leaders to the point where they end up in ‘brownout’ or even ‘burnout’.

4) Isolation

It is often said that church leadership is a lonely job but what makes it worse is the above three factors cause leaders to ‘willingly’ isolate themselves emotionally. The research showed that many leaders do not believe they have others with whom they can be honest and vulnerable; whether congregants, denominational leaders or other church leaders. All three groups of people were seen as a threat to the perceived ‘success’ of the leader in their role.

In fact, other church leaders were not considered to be a source of support but were rather seen as competitors, with 80% of church leaders surveyed indicating that they were jealous of the success of other leaders [7]. Leaders had few, sometimes no one, they turned to and as a result carried unresolved tension, dilemmas and burdens. This internal pressure meant that many leaders felt trapped to the point where they considered ‘sinning’ as a way to justify breaking free of the role [8].

5) Spiritual misdirection

One of the most fascinating aspects I discovered was the way mental and emotional health was strengthened or undermined based on the orientation of a leader’s spirituality [9]. If the leader’s spirituality was ‘intrinsic’ then it provided mental and emotional protection and resilience (you could call it a spiritual immune system).  By ‘intrinsic’ it means that the leader’s spirituality is focused primarily on relating to God for the relationship’s sake.

An ‘extrinsic’ spirituality removes the ‘immune system’ and makes the leader vulnerable, mentally and emotionally.  ‘Extrinsic’ spirituality occurs when a person’s relationship with God is primarily centred on external purposes.  They read the bible for sermon preparation rather than devotion; they pray in groups or for others, rather than for personal communion; they pray for the church to grow or difficult people to be removed; or they engage in spiritual activities or disciplines in order to offset guilt or because they feel they should. 

The way the role is constructed seems to cause many leaders’ focus to shift from spiritual leadership to the more concrete aspects of the job, such as attendance, staffing issues and income levels. This in turn put pressure on the leaders’ spirituality, with many subtly and unperceptively moving from being intrinsic to extrinsic. 

Any one of these 5 saboteurs can be detrimental to a leader’s emotional health and wellbeing, stunting them and the church.  Together, they can have a truly damaging effect. From what I saw, these 5 saboteurs are often invisibly and unintentionally present but are factors we need to become more aware of and better able to address so we don’t lose any more leader or churches.

For my part I have put together the two day intensive The Strengthened Leader to help leaders build resilience, strength and sustainability for the long haul. 

It’s time to change the state of play.

Richard Black (MCouns, MNZAC)

Counsellor and Director

Strength to Strength


[1] Gambill, C. R.  (2008).  Emotional intelligence and conflict management style amongst Christina clergy.  (Unpublished dissertation).  Minneapolis: Capella University.

[2] Hendron, J. A., Irving, P., & Taylor, B. J. (2013). The emotionally intelligent ministry: why it matters. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, (ahead-of-print), 1-9.

[3] Pooler, D. K. (2011).  Pastors and congregations at risk: Insights from role identity theory.  Pastoral Psychology, 60(5), 705-12.

[4] Ibid

[5] Irvine, A.R. (2006).  Clergy well-being: Seeking wholeness with integrity.  Retrieved from

[6] McMinn, M. R., & Dominguez, A. W. (2005). Introduction.  In M. McMinn and A. Dominguez (Eds.),  Psychology and the church. (pp. ix-xiv).  New York: Nova Publishers.

[7] Irvine, op. cit.

[8] Pooler, op. cit.

[9] Paek, E. (2006). Religiosity and perceived emotional intelligence among Christians. Personality and Individual Differences, 41(3), 479-90


P (03) 323 9858 | M 027 200 5018

38 Elizabeth Street, Riccarton, Christchurch, New Zealand

© 2019 Strength to Strength