The attention given the past few weeks in the national media about clergy burnout seems to be news to everyone … except clergy. National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” show did a half-hour special under the banner “
Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health
.” Drawing on the work of studies like Duke Divinity School’s
Clergy Health Initiative
, the New York Times followed shortly afterwards with “
Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work
” which began by saying:
The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
Jeffrey MacDonald wrote a hard-hitting follow-up New York Times Op-Ed Contribution on this theme entitled, “
Congregations Gone Wild
.” The burnout story has hit the
. And the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism published this summer the similar results of their
study, which extends the reach of our knowledge beyond the usual bounds of U.S. denominations.
All of these studies echo dynamics that I personally know well as a clergy-spouse. Instead of urging their ministers to adopt reasonable schedules, healthy lifestyles, and the discipline of regular vacations and sabbatical time, congregations often expect their ministers to work at least six-days a week, be on call 24/7, and to answer emails and text-messages – starting in the early morning and continuing until after bedtime – or to incur comments on Facebook, as well as annual meetings, questioning the amount they are paid “for the work they do.”
For many clergy, their own stress and burnout, combined with their congregation’s unreasonable expectations and poor understanding of their callings, leads to conflict and often the forced termination of the pastor for failing to live up to an impossible standard of employment.
Dennis Maynard’s book,
When Sheep Attack
, is full of case studies of clergy under duress from individuals or groups in their congregations seeking their ouster.
Groups like the
Ministering to Ministers Foundation
exist solely to serve as advocates for the extraordinary numbers of clergy – which they estimate in evangelical Protestant ranks to be somewhere around 1,200-1,400 per month – who are in the midst of congregational crisis severe enough to lead to their involuntary termination by their churches.
Even nationally known congregational leaders like Barbara Brown Taylor, once named as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English speaking world, left parish ministry behind after concluding that
was her only option in the face of the unrelenting, excessive, and unreasonable demands of her church on her ministry.
Here at the Alban Institute we have been, and remain, at work helping congregations and their clergy to understand the dynamics that are driving so many clergy away from parish ministry – if not ordained ministry altogether. However, we are equally concerned to help clergy and their congregations to respond to the dynamics they are facing together and to come to healthier resolutions of the stresses and strains of congregational leadership today. To give just a few examples,
Senior consultant Larry Peers will once again continue this tradition by leading a 3-day residential seminar on
in February 2011.
There are a number of other significant efforts underway to resource clergy and congregations in preventative, as well as responsive, directions. For example, Alban senior consultant
and field consultant
Cathy Lee Cunningham
are excellent resources in conflict transformation and helping younger clergy become “conflict competent” and thus better able to deal with the inevitable stresses of parish ministry.
program for participants in the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church, which offers what it describes as “a holistic approach to wellness, [in which] participants are invited to examine their minds, bodies, spirits, and hearts by examining four significant areas of their lives—spiritual, vocational, health, and financial.”
And other long-standing programs, like the
Interim Ministry Network
, continue excellent work dedicated to the “
prevention of unhealthy practices
before they take root, maintenance of congregational health during times of stress or change and restorative care when it is required.”
We invite you to share with us, and our readers, the resources you have found to help you to understand the dynamics of clergy burnout and to respond to it in healthy and transformative ways.
Wayne Whitson Floyd
Education Program Manager, The Alban Institute