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Mental health of clergy requires balancing stress and success

Pastors, church members share responsibility for well-being, report says

March 1, 2013

HARTFORD, Conn.

God does temper the wind to the shorn lamb. To how many has it not seemed, at some period of their lives, that all was over for them ... And yet they have lived to laugh again, to feel that the air was warm and the earth fair, and that God in giving them ever-springing hope has given everything.”  ─  Anthony Trollope

Stress comes with the job for most clergy. Long hours, the many demands on their time and addressing the often conflicting needs and desires of congregation members are major challenges.

And while pastors in troubled congregations may be the most vulnerable, even the road to success can be paved with additional stress and anxiety.

Congregations that are strong in welcoming new people, focusing on the community and increasing participation in church activities tend to add greater stress for pastors as some in the congregation resist moving out of their comfort zones, Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce report in their book, Leadership That Fits Your Church.

The good news is that for many pastors the blessings of their ministry outweigh the pressures of the job.

In studying data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Woolever and Bruce former researchers for the Presbyterian Church (U.S. A.) ─ found pastors reporting the highest satisfaction with their ministry rarely thought about leaving their current congregation regardless of their stress level.

"The sense that their ministry is going well makes these pastors able to tolerate higher stress levels," the researchers say.

At the other extreme, however, pastors who are relatively dissatisfied with their ministry and face more job-related stress are the most likely to think about leaving and suffer burnout.

The challenge for congregations and their spiritual leaders becomes how to increase the clergy's satisfaction with their ministry and decrease pastoral stress.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey provides some important insights. In addition to enjoying good mental health and being satisfied with their ministry, other factors found to contribute to lower job stress for clergy include:

  • Lack of conflict Serving in congregations that have experienced little or no internal tensions in recent years helps keep stress low.
  • Personal time Clergy who are able to maintain a personal life separate from ministry experience less stress.
  • Regular time off Pastors who regularly take a day off each week report less stress.
  • Smaller congregations Pastors who serve smaller churches also report less stress, as do pastors who only serve one congregation.

More personal time, high satisfaction with their spiritual lives and a lack of church conflict also were found to be associated with clergy having a higher degree of satisfaction with their ministry.

Satisfaction with salary and benefits and a sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm also were linked to greater satisfaction.

Protecting the mental health of clergy is a responsibility shared throughout the congregation, the research indicates.

“Congregational leaders should be sensitive to the responsibilities they ask their pastors to meet,” Woolever and Bruce write. “Providing the pastor with regular time away from the congregation, encouraging the pastor to take steps toward self-care, and limiting the pastor’s workload all help to combat stress.”

Signs of ever-springing hope among the daily stresses of congregational life can come from the pew as well as the pulpit.

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