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Ministry: an emotional labor

Ministry: an emotional labor

by Lee Ann Pomrenke


The exhaustion hits me like a wave on Sunday afternoons, after being “on” all morning: preaching, leading worship, teaching adults or youth, facilitating meetings and holding several aside conversations in between each. My body catches up with my suppressed or unprocessed feelings as the adrenaline rush of the most intense time of my work week wears off. I cannot go to lunch at the in-laws. I cannot come to an afternoon neighborhood event. I am spent.


Surely some of that exhaustion is due to my place only-barely-over-the-line on the extroversion/introversion scale. Yet that cannot account for the full tidal wave. I am trained for this leadership; I am called by the Holy Spirit working through the Church, to do these things. I certainly have different feelings about, say, budget meetings than I do about preaching, but neither of them is thoroughly draining in themselves. It is the emotional labor that does it.


“Emotional labor” has gone viral recently. The term was coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild referring to the unpaid management or manipulation of feelings (their own or others) required of those who work in service industries. “Emotional labor” is not compensated work, nor noticed by the people for whom it is done, yet absolutely essential to positive performance reviews! More recently the term has been adopted by feminists and activists, pointing out primarily the gender gap in emotional work expected of women or people of color in relationships, work places, and society in general. Confusingly, in the popularization of the phrase, the distinction has gotten lost about what is actually “emotional labor” and what are other kinds of labor we simply have feelings about.


Ministry is fraught with emotional labor. Any time one’s “job” is oriented towards building relationships and tending community instead of tasks, it is bound to involve emotional labor. This discussion could apply to youth ministers or others in paid or unpaid leadership of ministries focused primarily on relationships more than tasks. I’m going to focus primarily on the role of pastor, and some of the labors specific to being “in charge” of a congregation. Perhaps you will want to name in the comments how this resonates or not, with your own leadership experiences, or how it might shift your approach to those who lead ministries in which you participate.


Managing Grief

First, there is the partially-understood emotional labor of grieving while leading. For the pastoral care giver, our feelings must be secondary to those of everyone else. Family members of the deceased or other congregational members may know of our personal connection with the deceased, but their needs are the focus. Our role is to create the space for people to grieve privately or publicly, validating their feelings while reminding them of the promises of resurrection, biting our tongues and forgiving harshness that must arise out of unresolved grief. Our grief at the loss might also be complicated by a personal sense of guilt (I should have visited more frequently; we never talked completely honestly about her fears; etc.). The power of transference is also strong in these situations, and we have to manage the memories and powerful feelings of laying someone to rest who reminds us of our own parent, child, or loved one. Try to fathom the emotional labor of a pastor-parent who has gone through miscarriage or infant loss, presiding at the funeral of another family’s child. How does one measure the emotional labor?



Pastors get angry too. Somewhere along the line being “Christian” or “pastoral” got mixed up with being nice. This is not what being faithful is about. Yet the degree of interpersonal skill required to build up a positive group identity requires some repression of frustration, irritation and even anger. Most congregations could do with more honestly calling out sexism/racism/able-ism/all the -isms, because defaulting to silence instead isn’t nice at all. But keeping the congregation functioning requires negotiating personalities in conflict, de-escalation and mediation skills. One must work at getting others (and sometimes oneself) to want to compromise or bend for the sake of loving the other or the community as a whole. In these cases, a pastor’s emotional labor may include:

  • Recognizing and responding to unhealthy attempts to stir up conflict, without reacting out of anger
  • Working hard not to judge or project one’s choices onto others (although we know many people’s secrets) and perhaps managing anxiety over being a mandatory reporter
  • Veiling frustration with cleverness that points out the absurdity when members comment on my appearance or the behavior of my family, or invade my personal space


Carrying the Reputation

As the public leader, the pastor carries the reputation of the congregation in a way perhaps no one else does. Criticism of the pastor and congregation are deeply intertwined. When people leave, or visitors never return, or no visitors ever come in the door, pastors feel the emotional weight of blame and frustration, yet must be outwardly motivational and inspiring. We wonder: Am I doing what I should? Are my words or actions moving us towards the work God has for us, or holding us back? How do I faithfully preach or teach on Scripture and current events so people will hear me out? Who has my back when I do? Does anybody else care about feeding the hungry (etc) or should I just let us focus only on caring for the congregation? All these questions and the emotions they evoke swirl about inside of us. But one feels the pressure never to breathe such doubt or despair in a meeting, class, or in worship. If you do not project confidence and faith, how will the congregation move forward?


The dissonance between what we hear when we study Scripture and theology or what we personally value because of our faith, and the demands of congregational maintenance create inner tension for which there are few productive outlets. The current political climate has increased this burden exponentially. We might vent to colleagues, but even sharing something on social media that is deemed “too political” can create more trouble than it’s worth, and confidentiality online is never guaranteed. There is such a high cost to public leadership when the public arena is combustible. Yet we hold these things inside at the risk of exploding.


Sociologist Arlie Hochschild was concerned about the effects that emotional labor had on workers in service industries. Would they eventually become estranged from their own true feelings? Are we seeing the effects of emotional labor on the mental and physical health of pastors? Hochschild also studied how this burden of emotional labor deepened inequality between those doing the labor and other groups (especially since certain service industries include a high percentage of women and people of color). It adds to the emotional burden of the pastor when they are not viewed as in the same category as lay people, with regards to sexuality, relationships, doubts, and family drama. I worry about burnout, isolation and addiction among my colleagues. There are so many things we ought to be talking about, but feel like we cannot.


Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor and writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. She blogs at


image by Chloe Cushman for The Guardian


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You have just put words to how I respond after serving two churches and listening to story on “Sunday’s expectations.”
Thank you

Denise Fossen

Thank you for naming so well what is difficult to explain.

Gretchen Pritchard

Add to this the diminishing status of mainline clergy in the public square, the high likelihood that some of the clergy member’s own social and generational peers regard what he/she is doing as bizarre, quaint, or even perverse; the extremely low pay, which must be extracted by persuasion from among the people he/she is serving; and the increasing probability that the congregation is reduced in numbers and struggling to fend off fiscal collapse and the members are probably projecting their anxiety onto the pastor …

Jane Evans

Dear Lee Ann,
You have given new meaning to that old phrase, “Walk a mile in my shoes!” I feel the veil is lifted from my eyes as I turn my thoughts to the recognition that my Pastor and his very-much-at-his side, wife, carry the heavy burden of ministering to an aging congregation. What may I do to help, I ask myself? Prayer comes to mind first! I can pray fervently for Preacher Won and Mee Young. I can deliver a meal to them with no conversational strings attached. I can actively encourage others to be considerate and mindful of the needs of our minister so that he is emotionally available when each of us in turn requires their presence. Thanks so much!

Vicki Geer McGrath

Thank you, Lee Ann, for your spot-on and sensitive analysis.

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