An advertisement for a trip to Hawaii in 2022

A sense of helplessness, arising from the belief that the potential for change or progress is minimal, heightens the anxiety fueling clergy fear.

Psychologist Martin Seligman and several colleagues were the first to begin using the phrase, “learned helplessness.”

Through a series of experiments, they discovered that animals who perceive no way to escape an unpleasant or even painful situation will eventually quit trying.

Then, when a resolution to the problem presents itself, these animals are so entrenched in their belief that nothing will change, they don’t take advantage of the obvious resolution. They literally learn to be helpless.

It turns out that humans are also capable of learned helplessness.

When we have repeated experiences in a particular situation, which we interpret to mean this situation is intransigent, then we feel helpless.

When we believe all the possible resolution options are undesirable or impossible, then we learn there is no hope for change.

We “learn” to see the situation as hopeless, resulting in giving up.

How, then, do clergy experience learned helplessness?

Before going there, we need to note that there are plenty of clergy who do not experience learned helplessness. They, instead, have very different experiences.

Simultaneously, many clergy experience periods or seasons of learned helplessness. Fortunately, the majority move through these times, moving onward to more adaptive perspectives.

Among others, these six factors are primary contributors to learned helplessness in clergy:

  1. The congregation and its leadership value traditionalism and stability over mission advancement.
  2. An excessive level of adaptive change would be required for this congregation to become relevant and viable is intimidating and overwhelming.
  3. Nothing in their training prepared clergy to lead such significant organizational transformation and adaptive change efforts, and they assess themselves as being unprepared for leading high-level congregational transformation.
  4. Church-as-we-have-known-it (20th century church paradigm) is declining, and new postmodern healthy church paradigms are not yet clear.
  5. Clergy and their congregations are conflict averse.
  6. Vocational and financial security for clergy is increasingly threatened if and when they lead toward a new future.

When these factors combine, and clergy don’t step out of their effect, the result is paralysis.

Clergy hunker down, hoping that someone somewhere will do something to reverse or interrupt the downward spiral.

So, when clergy fear, which I reflected on previously, combines with learned helplessness, there is minimal opportunity for adaptive change inspired by Holy Spirit movement.

When I coach clergy and consult with churches, I observe that learned helplessness in clergy can be one position point in the ongoing journey.

Many clergy recognize some or all six factors identified above, while many are able to make this dark place called learned helplessness just one stop in their vocational evolution.

These clergy grow very frustrated with the church as they find it as well as frustrated with their apparent lack of leadership effectiveness, resulting in crisis. This crisis creates opportunity for adaptive change in their pastoral leadership.

They recognize their “stuckness,” grow irritated with themselves and take action. They decide to take the plunge into learning whatever they need to learn to lead effectively toward the next iteration of God’s church.

These are the clergy and church staff who find new life, launching out into the current of the Spirit’s movement.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his personal blog.

Share This