The problem of clergy burnout

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Vitello surveys the landscape of clergy life and finds that it is not a pretty picture:

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.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University who directs one of the studies. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

One initiative that seems to have borne some fruit in combatting burnout is the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program sponsored by the Lilly Foundation. The program aims to improve clergy health through participation in peer-tp-peer support groups. Seabury Western and Bexley Hall Seminaries are sponsoring an examination of the program’s successes this fall.

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  1. Good grief. My rector is the laziest man in Christendom, who constantly complains about his workload. His sermons are All Sighs, All the Time.™

    He wouldn’t know a day’s work if it him in the mouth. He thinks deanery meetings are chargeable. He takes more time off than the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

    The real problem arises from M.Div.’s comparing themselves to dentists and doctors instead of Jesus Christ. NEWSFLASH: You are not a dentist.

    Don’t even enter this profession if your real goal is playing golf. Try being a cop, a laborer, a steelworker, a beautician; then maybe you’ll know what real work is like.

    I believe we need professional, well-educated clergy. But I also believe they should be forced to dig in the dirt before they’re ordained.

    They’re the most pampered people on the planet, but I am sick of buying their diapers, their study times, their sabbaticals, their vacations, All Sighs, All the Time™.

  2. Matthew Buterbaugh+

    I also get very weary of clergy who are “all sighs all the time”. I also am aware that there are lazy clergy around. However, it seems like the raw data suggests that clergy are a lot more overworked than you imagine.

    I’m actually kind of amazed that there are still people around who think clergy just sit around all day and do nothing. Follow me, or most clergypeople around for a week. I think you’d be surprised how much we do, and the variety of skills we have to use.

  3. Josh,

    Your comments are spot on…I just received a $9 million bonus for last year, just like the CEO of Goldman Sachs…

    Many of us enter the ministry primarily because of the time-off and the major monetary bonuses…

    Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein gets stock-based $9 million bonus

    Tomoeh Murakami Tse

    Washington Post Staff Writer

    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    Goldman Sachs said Friday that its chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, received a stock-based bonus of $9 million in 2009, ending weeks of speculation about how much the New York-based investment bank would dole out amid rising public anger over Wall Street pay.

    The amount, although eye-popping by Main Street standards, is smaller than the stock-based bonuses his rivals received for 2009. On Friday, J.P. Morgan Chase said it would award $17 million to chief executive Jamie Dimon


    Peter Carey+

  4. Terry Pannell

    I’m not sure who Josh’s rector is nor the validity of the opinion he has posted. The level of resentment expressed and the cavalier portrayal of all clergy as slackers is rather telling though. Josh’s criticism of his rector does not invalidate the studies that consistently show a trend of diminishing health among clergy accross faith traditions.

    As someone who spent the first 24 years doing “real work” in secular professions before being ordained, I can attest that being a parish priest is the hardest thing I have ever done.

    Terry Pannell+

  5. Lee Alison

    Well, Josh, we do dig in the dirt. We dig in people’s garbage (to be very polite here) that they dump on us because there is no one else around and we don’t charge to listen for an hour. We get called in the middle of the night to bless a dying person and then sit with their family. Then we literally dig in the dirt to bury that person. We have to deal with perceptions like yours that all we do is get up on Sunday morning and ‘do’ two or three services and the rest of the week sit around eating bonbons.

    If you are a priest in a parish with no other staff, you end up doing everything from shovelling snow to debugging furnaces to cleaning bathrooms to dealing with leaking roofs to doing all the administrative paperwork… oh yeah, and then there are hospital visits and the unknowns that get thrown your way.

    I am sorry your rector is seemingly lazy but your brush paints broadly and negatively and tellingly. I’d suggest that you travel around and see other priests in action and realise that we are not all pampered.

    Oh, and the bonus? Last year it was $50.

  6. Bill Carroll

    I feel the temptation to get defensive when Josh lashes out like that. But I do realze that there are some real “winners” out there when it comes to clergy. There are a few saints, but most of us are somewhere in between, garden variety sinners who work pretty hard most days but not as hard as others among God’s people. It’s a relatively privileged existence but not exactly a luxurious or secure one for most of us. Working hard and trying to keep one’s vows is a good thing. So too is a sense of balance and sanity. Wherever bad clergy flourish, I suspect a failure of the entire community, though clergy like all of us must be held responsible for their actions. I don’t see much use in laying the blame on any class of persons, especially not in generalizations. One thing I do know. Overwork is a sin, and it doesn’t make us any more effective. Indeed, it can harm the clergyperson, his or her family, and the entire community. There is a dangerous correlation with misconduct. Clear norms and accountability in a climate of hunor and grace is what we should seek for all ministers of the Gospel, lay and clergy alike.

  7. Lee,

    Brilliant response – very accurate…

    and Bill, I appreciate your statement that most of us are somewhere in the middle, sometimes great, sometimes not so at all…

    Peter Carey+

  8. Rod Gillis

    I spent 10 years as an archdeacon,and a couple of years as a consultant, a pro bono job in the diocese I worked for, with hours and hours of good training by an Alban Institute consultant . Generally speaking, clergy burnout is not an individual problem but a corporate and systemic problem. It can be traced back to either poor screening on the part of judicatories, and/or a systemic failure of dioceses/judicatories to support and resource its pastors. Officialdom likes to blame the people it does not resource, support, or provide with clear policy and protocol. Piety remains the weapon of choice deployed by parishes/congregations and judicatories to deal with the issues related to burnout. Blaming the victim, in other words, is the front line response.

  9. Joieweiher

    Josh- If these deanery meetings are what I think they are, then yes, they are part of the weekly hours of clergy work as is spiritual direction, prayer, study, and all the other things that remove the priest from sitting at the office desk, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for parishioners to stop by so we can solve their problems. Our work as clergy extends beyond the parish in which we serve, i.e. the place that pays our stipend. We are ordained for the whole church and our vows include taking our place in the councils of the church. I don’t know your rector or what he does with his time but I do believe that the future health of our communities and the church as a whole will be dependent on the work of ALL ORDERS OF MINISTRY and the work of clergy both within and without the parish doors. For every parishioner who is bitter about their priest “not working enough” there is a spouse and child(ren) at home wondering why they never see Mommy or Daddy.


    I’m a little late to this party, but I was a bit tied up away from my desk! As a parish priest, I appreciated my flexible schedule. Of course, it probably seemed like I was lazy on the day I showed up at 1PM after being on an emergency call until 4AM. My work is truly invisible when it happens at midnight.

    Now, as a hospital chaplain, I don’t have the flexibility in schedule, but I do have the time-clock experience of my doctors and nurses and the EMTs and cops who visit us. And I notice a common thread in our work:

    We all work our bottoms off, but we all seem to be drawn to this type of work for the love of what we do.

    Meanwhile, I’ll happily provide my pedometer steps for anyone who doubts: I average about 8,000 on a slow day. Today, I’m up to over 12,000. I have four hours left in my shift. My highest total ever: 16,800 and change (at a parish on a kids’ education kick off day!).

    How about a suggestion for the laity who read this? It sounds like there’s a communication barrier between rector and parish. I did not find it odious to track my hours **for a month** for my wardens when they said, “Please help us understand how you spend your time.” (I did find it annoying when a Vestry member said “We don’t think you are doing what we pay you to do.”) A rector under attack will shut right down. But an open, transparent rector should have no problem having a calm conversation with a member who truly seeks to better understand.

    Betsy Tesi

  11. Liz+

    There are probably lazy cops, laborers, steelworkers, and beauticians, too, Josh. But most of them are probably hard workers, just like a high percentage of clergy probably are. And dentists? What’s that about? Do they have cushy jobs? The ones I know work pretty hard. Of course, if you’ve followed your rector around 24/7 for the last few months and have come to this conclusion, maybe it’s time to sit down with him and tell him what you think. Direct and honest communication is always a good option when someone has a gripe.Matthew 18:15

    Liz Zivanov+

  12. Rob Droste

    This much resentment is bad for Josh Thomas as well as his parish. He clearly can’t see his rector as his pastor, someone whose spiritual direction he would seek or follow — much less as someone from whom to take correction if needed. It’s toxic for all concerned.

    He should change congregations immediately. He’ll most likely have a better experience with the next rector — and if he doesn’t, might find out that he has a role in this situation.

    Rob Droste+

    Posted by: Rob Droste | August 19, 2010 1:58 PM

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