Pastoral Psychology

, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 311–333 | Cite as

Respect, Challenges, and Stress among Protestant Pastors Closing a Church: Structural and Identity Theory Perspectives

  • Gail Cafferata


The number of American churches has been declining at a rate of about 1 to 2% per year, but this statistic hides the reality that in liberal, moderate denominations the number of churches that close is nearly three or four times the number that open. Despite this trend of decline, no one has studied how closing churches affects the pastor. What challenges does the pastor face when closing a church, and how do these challenges affect the pastor’s level of stress and well-being? The study draws on structural and identity theories to further our understanding of pastoral identity threats and ways that congregational and denominational support may ease a pastor’s burden. This research used a mail survey to explore the experiences of pastors who have experienced the closing of a church in any of five Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ). The research adds to our understanding of the context of ministry by highlighting not only the effects of clergy age and experience but also the congregational context and middle administrative body (judicatory) respect and support in the challenge and in the affirmation of pastoral identity through the process of closure and church death.


Clergy Congregations Identity theory Stress Church decline 



I am indebted to pastors who participated in this research and to national denominational staff who provided data, especially, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Adam DeHoek and Marty Smith; in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Deborah Coe, Ida Smith, and Cynthia Woolever; in the Episcopal Church, Kirk Hadaway and Matthew Price; in the United Methodist Church, Lauren Arieux, Laura Chambers, and Whitney Washington; and in the United Church of Christ, Kristina Lizardi-Hajbi. I extend thanks to Boston University’s School of Theology faculty: Nancy Ammerman, Susan Hassinger, Mary Elizabeth Moore, and Bryan Stone, as well as staff in ITHelp and the Department of Mathematics.

This research was financially supported in part by 2013 and 2014 Continuing Education Grants from the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California and also by a 2015 Louisville Institute Project Grant for Researchers for “The Last Pastor: Adaptive Challenges and Well-Being among Protestant Clergy Closing their Churches.”


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Practical TheologyBoston University School of TheologySanta RosaUSA

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