Monday, 4 October 2010

Clergy Stress

Logging thousands of kilometres a year in the car, the e-mails, phone calls, on call 24/7, 365 days a year (even on your holidays), working 60-70 hours a week, dwindling membership, pressure to "grow" the church, feeling guilty about taking time off...maybe not taking time off at all. This insight into the lives of American clergy, courtesy of a very good TV report from a public television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, all sounds familiar to clergy "down under", I'm sure (perhaps what is not so familiar to us is the number of female clergy in the church, but to comment on that would take us off topic).
Watch it here:
Curiously, one thing that isn't mentioned in the report is intra-denominational conflict (very curious, given that The Episcopal Church in the US (Anglicans) is imploding as I write), which is known from surveys to be a major factor in clergy burnout (forget inter-denominational conflict; I've observed that most pastors are likely to have closer friends among the clergy of other denominations than their own, which surely says something!). I also believe, after watching the report, that US denominations are much better at looking after their clergy than is the case here in Australia; we're a long, long way from the kind of clergy retreats that are shown in the clip - synodical leaders, take note!

I have seen fellow pastors fall by the wayside - it is a tragedy for them, their families and the church. I'm reluctant to offer unbidden counsel on this topic, since what works for one pastor may not work for another, and I don't wish to portray myself as some kind of expert in this area, but here are some common sense things I do to avoid burnout: I take a day off per week...religiously (Mondays); I have a hobby (or two, if you include blogging!); I dedicate (and jealously guard) time in my diary for what I am most passionate about in the ministry, i.e. the study of the Word and preaching - I find this then becomes a source of spiritual and mental energy that sustains me through the week; and I try to follow the old pastoral rule: mornings in the study, afternoons visiting, evenings with my family or meetings...of course, there are exceptions, so it's more a guide than a rule - we Lutherans aren't big on rules ;0).

Oh, and I try to keep meetings to a minimum - generally one evening per week in both my previous and present parishes; I wonder if there are so many meetings in the church because everyone (especially clergy?) is anxious to be seen "doing something". If a minister is spending more time in meetings than he does with his Greek New Testament, it's a sure warning sign that his priorities in ministry are skewed. Trust me, parish life will continue perfectly fine with a minimum of meetings, and your sermons will improve - praise the Lord!

But perhaps the best advice that can be given to ministers in danger of burn-out is learn to prioritise. Devote the most time to what is at the core of pastoral ministry, keep the duties listed in your call document front and centre, and think twice or even three times about other commitments. It's all about Word and Sacrament ministry to the particular people of God whom we are called to serve, caring for their souls and, not least, our own. (Cartoon courtesy The Church Times,


Mark said...

Great comment about Greek NT viz. meetings!

I wrote this response on the webpage of the Religion and Ethics story:

As a clergyperson, I have a sense of the stress described in the story. And visits with retired clergy who observe people engaged in ordained ministry today do confirm a sort of stress unknown in past generations.

Yet at the same time, I cannot help but wonder how much clergy stress is the result of self-imposed expectations and patterns of behavior by clergy themselves. To cite two small examples in the story: budget planning should be a shared endeavor with church councils, vestries, and boards of elders; checking spelling in bulletins could easily be done by a trusted volunteer. (Or is it that with so much technology at hand to get things done there no longer a need to trust others to share the work and that perfection seems within reach? Surely this is a source of stress, though often the result of a clergyperson's own choices.)

But the most serious question about the sources and reasons for stress comes when the story describes the exhaustion and overwork suffered by the Rev Lynda Ferguson. She found a way to reset priorities when she "finally took time off for a mission trip to Nicaragua." While I have no doubt that such a mission trip would refocus the priorities of anyone, there is no reasonable way to define a mission trip for a clergy person as "time off."

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Mark,

Welcome to the old manse!

You make some good points - yes, the trip to Nicaragua did seem strange, definitely not time off in my book either, although it could be re-energising; to each his own, I guess.

Your point about retired pastors is also something I have come across. We could all benefit from a serious study of this issue.