Clergy Stress

Minister leading church service: Let us stand and continue our morning worship.

DEBORAH POTTER, correspondent: Serving God and ministering to people is deeply fulfilling, pastors say. Yet studies have found that Protestant clergy also suffer from depression and obesity at higher rates than the population as a whole.

REV. JOSEPH STEWART-SICKING (Loyola University Maryland): Researchers like to joke that what we know about clergy is they’re satisfied, stressed out, and fat.

POTTER: Joe Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest who teaches pastoral counseling and studies why clergy are more stressed than most of us.

post02-clergystressSTEWART-SICKING: What makes the clergy vocation and occupation really different is that you work for God ultimately. If that work environment isn’t meaningful to you, you’re doing a lot of things like, you know, doing budgets or checking spelling on a bulletin, or office management, that’s going to really hit home, because you think your job should be about God.

POTTER: Add to that a new source of stress for many pastors in mainline Protestant denominations: as church membership dwindles they feel pressured to reverse the trend.

STEWART-SICKING: And a lot of pastors think that church growth is really the measure of their success, you know, and a lot of people are having to learn to deal with shrinking numbers, shrinking budgets, even closing churches.

REV. LYNDA FERGUSON (praying in home of church members): Lord, we thank you for your grace and your mercy today…

POTTER: Lynda Ferguson is pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in rural Bostic, North Carolina.

FERGUSON (praying in home of church members): …in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

POTTER: She’s the church’s only pastor—most Protestant churches have just one—ministering to a congregation of about 300.

post03-clergystressFERGUSON: Used to be the churches were filled, and now today we have to play a role of going out and bringing people into the church or actually taking the church to people.

POTTER: In the past three years, Ferguson has put 90,000 miles on her car, visiting the sick…

FERGUSON (praying with sick church member): I ask, Lord, that you would just fill her with your holy presence and that your healing power will just consume her body.

WOMAN (speaking to Rev. Ferguson): He brought a lot of joy into this world.

POTTER: …consoling the bereaved.

FERGUSON (speaking to church members): I appreciate you letting me be part of your life.

Clergy are different in that we are called to go to many dark places. We enter into sacred places with people, places that often are very difficult and, you know, we don’t do that from a distance. Jesus didn’t sit off in a corner and say “I feel your pain” from over here. Jesus very much reached out and touched, and he felt intensely for people, and we do, too, and so when you do that on a day-after-day basis, it is a lot of stress.

POTTER: Today’s technology just adds to that stress.

post04-clergystressFERGUSON: I couldn’t do my job probably without my laptop and my Blackberry but I’m on call 24/7, 365 days a year. I receive probably an average of 30 to 35 phone calls a day, 60 to 70 emails a day, and just taking care of that takes a lot of time.

POTTER: Feeling called to serve, not to be served, Ferguson hid her stress from the congregation. She worked 60 to 70 hours a week for more than five years and took little time off. And then one Sunday night it hit her.

FERGUSON: I came into the parsonage, and I put my things on the kitchen table, and I sat down and I—my body, I just felt like I couldn’t move, and I just sat there, and I was emotionally and physically exhausted.

POTTER: For years, clergy stress was a little bit like the weather. Everybody talked about it, and nobody did anything. But now, more than 50 programs across the country are working to improve clergy health, from foundation-paid sabbaticals to peer groups and retreats sponsored by church pension plans. Here in the mountains of North Carolina, the Episcopal Church brings groups of clergy together for eight days to de-stress and re-center themselves. This program started a decade ago with one workshop. It’s now held more than 20 times a year.

Retreat leader: The official theme for today is “where am I going?”

POTTER: The sessions cover everything from finance to vocation, giving clergy who are often isolated in their work a chance to share their stories and learn from each other.

post06-clergystressREV. JOHN THOMPSON-QUARTEY (St. Mary’s by the Sea, Point Pleasant Beach, NJ): I was left alone in a very large parish and I was doing everything, everything, all the six or seven services during the weekend, running to all the hospital, home visitation. The doctor said, “You must be stressed out.” I said, “You think?”

POTTER: For many, the session on work and meaning was revealing.

REV. NICHOLAS PORTER (Trinity Episcopal Church, Southport, CT): What this has helped me realize is that I’ve sort of been feeling starved in my primary position.

REV. KYM LUCAS (St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC): I realized that at work I spend the bulk of my time doing the things I hate and not the things that I love to do.

POTTER: Trying to do it all can take a toll on a pastor’s spiritual life.

THOMPSON-QUARTEY: I often carry the burden of being stressed from work because of such nasty emails and stuff, I bring it home, and I can’t even prepare myself to pray.

POTTER: Kym Lucas has four small children and ministers alone to a busy parish—a classic recipe for clergy burnout.

post07-clergystressLUCAS: I felt like I had been burning the candle at both ends for a long time, for at least a year-and-a-half. And there was a part of me that felt a little guilty about taking this time, but I’m glad I did, absolutely glad that I did

POTTER: For Nicholas Porter, the retreat was a reawakening.

REV. NICHOLAS PORTER (Trinity Episcopal Church, Southport, CT): I love my job. Do I love all of it? No. At any given moment, if you were to have a little camera in my office, no. But I love my job. Healing lives, connecting people to eternity and eternal life and love—I mean this is great stuff. This is great stuff.

FERGUSON: That can be hard to remember when the stress of the job gets to be too much. Sometimes I’ll hear clergy, other clergy, not just Methodist clergy but other clergy, say to especially young people when they’re discerning a call to ministry, they will say to them, “If you can do anything else, do it.”

POTTER: After nearly collapsing from exhaustion and overwork, Lynda Ferguson finally took time off for a mission trip to Nicaragua and reset her priorities. She takes Fridays off now. Sometimes when her cell phone rings she doesn’t answer, and she’s lost weight in part by resisting the temptation to sample every dish at every church gathering.

FERGUSON (at church meeting): Bill caught me this morning running a little bit.

Church member: I saw you jogging.

Church member: Hey, she runs, she don’t jog.

FERGUSON: Just because I love the people, and I truly do, I cannot be there for everything, and they understand that, and they know that, and it is part of our job to set those boundaries, but it is very, very difficult to do so.

POTTER: Difficult, but essential for clergy to manage the stress that comes with the job and focus on the work they really feel called to do.

FERGUSON: There’s a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves as clergy because of what we’re doing, and we don’t want to let God down.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Deborah Potter in Bostic, North Carolina.

  • Madelyn Brinkley

    Great Job!!!!! As a member of the laity, I can’t help but think that there much be a better way. Because clergy or not – we can all associate with feelings of burnout. I also realize that we the laity must also bear the infirmities of the weak and the realization that clergy do get weak. What were suggestions for the best way of helping. I know that all begins with awareness, but where do you go from there???

  • Michele West

    As a young wife and mother of two, I think something like this would have been invaluable to my husband and I when we first began ministering in our 20yrs. We did not have it and as a result did not survive beyond 8 years before returning to school and giving up the dream that we had had as young people. Now that I am “old & seasoned”, I can see how I could be of help to the younger folks who come with such energy and devotion. I have a very strong belief that without this kind of regular support, pastoring is too difficult and stressful for a young married couple with young children. There needs to be another way to do it.

  • Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, Duke Clergy Health Initiative

    This story really captures the joy of ministry, as well as its trials. In the time allotted, it was impossible to go into the multiple layers of stress and support that clergy experience, but it is worth keeping in mind that clergy cannot combat the stress of ministry alone. In recent focus groups with 88 United Methodist clergy, we at the Duke Divinity School heard clergy say that it really helps when their parishioners: encourage them to keep a Sabbath day (even if it can’t be Sunday); pitch in on church tasks; allow pastors to turn down food when they aren’t hungry; and respect the privacy of the pastor’s family life, including a pastor’s privacy while exercising. Clergy also said that support from other clergy, including denominational officials, for carving out personal time is invaluable.

  • Rev. Sarah Stanton

    Having just retired from 22 years of active ministry as an Episcopal priest serving primarily small congregations where I was the only staff person, I am still recovering from the emotional and physical exhaustion of that ministry. Thought I would be ready to do supply work, but am in no way ready yet to reengage, other than worshipping as a person in a pew and attending a monthly women’s spirituality group (again as just a member). I love God and am so grateful that I was able to be present with so many wonderful people in both times of joy and of despair. But I am also grateful that now I can find time to have fun, meet new people without them expecting me to be their pastor, confidante, etc. Also relieved to no longer be on call 24/7 year round. Time to be with my aging parents and to care for myself. Am also grateful to the Episcopal church’s CREDO conferences – one of which made it possible for me to work as long as I did and am looking forward to attending a CREDO conference for retired clergy in the coming year.

  • Mark

    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.”

  • John C Gray, Sr

    Outstanding! Every senior minister should show this video to their councils, advisory boards, etc. After all the teaching I’ve done to bring an awareness of stresses in the pulpit, this video was an instrumental variable to enlighten my church leaders on how much stress we as pastors endure and face! Seminary never prepared me nor my wife for the stresses of ministry much less the stresses of church planting. I’m actually looking forward to planning a trip to India which a missionary friend of ours has tried to get us to do for years. Not that it’s time off but I remember the joy of the mission fields when I was in seminary. THANKS and Bless You…

  • The Rev’d Tim Rogers

    My eyes were filled with tears as I watched this video. The tears were from a deep sadness and knowing. The demands and stress of parish life were devastating. I had gained 30 pounds of weight and was on two different types of depression medications. As a single Episcopal priest my people expected that I would be available all the time. I did establish good boundaries, but it was exhausting. After 9 years I left parish life. I began to work in hospice as a chaplain which was a Monday through Friday 9am – 5pm ministry. I thought that the pressure would be reduced but, it wasn’t, just different. Working in the “for-profit world” was worse because it wasn’t about patient care, it was all about money. I have put myself on a non-paid sabbatical at a retreat center. I have been blessed to have people in my life that are helping me to stay above water financially. Where I go from here is up to God and God alone. I place myself in God’s loving care. Thank you very much for this wonderful program.

  • Jay Janell

    Perhaps it would be equally interesting to do a survey of stress caused by clergy. As a church organist, I had one church where the minister was so controlling that he drove out the director of education, the secretary, a family that was the core of the Sunday school program, and the family that ran the monthly pancake breakfast. In another church, the minister was so arrogant that she spread viscious rumors about anyone who challenged her authority. This included the church secretary, a long-serving, dedicated building manager, and me. In both cases, the ministers forbade me to discuss music selections with people who were planning weddings and funerals. Instead, they decided on the music themselves and told me what to play. After dealing with some very vindictive behavior from yet another minister, I finally decided to give up not only church music, but Christianity altogether rather than find myself in a similar situation again.