Clergy Health and Wellness in the Post-Pandemic Era: An In-depth Interview with Allison Norton


What is the state of clergy health and wellbeing coming out of the pandemic? What factors and practices influence the emotional wellbeing of clergy? Allison Norton describes new research that reveals growing discontentment even though clergy health and wellbeing tends to be better than that of the general public.

Ann Michel: Before we get into the subject of clergy health and wellness, can you describe the broader work of the research initiative Exploring the Pandemic’s Impact on Congregational Life, of which the most recent report on clergy health and wellbeing is part? 

Allison Norton: So, this is a five-year study composed of multiple parts—a clergy survey, ongoing national surveys of congregations across the country, and qualitative field work with 81 case study congregations in nine different regions in the U.S. We did field work with those congregations in 2022, and we’re back in the field right now, interviewing church leaders, doing focus group with attenders, and participant observation as a two-year follow-up to see what changes have occurred since 2022. The report on clergy health and well-being comes from the clergy survey, which is our latest national survey.  

Ann Michel: The background for this newest report is the common perception that clergy are exhausted, burned out, and dropping out of ministry in droves. How accurate is that perception?  

Allison Norton: You’re right. That is the common perception. This survey breaks the issue into two different components. One looks at contentment and the factors that are driving clergy to leave ministry, whether they are having thoughts of leaving their congregation or are leaving pastoral ministry altogether. Those thoughts of leaving are on the rise. As we’ve looked at this trend over the last few years, there is a growing clergy discontentment. But the second component looks specifically at clergy health and wellness where the picture is not as bad as one might think. In fact, when we compare clergy health and well-being to the general public, clergy tend to be quite healthier. 

Ann Michel: So, one of the surprising findings of your work is that clergy seem to be quite mentally and emotionally healthy compared to the general public, even though there has been a rise of discontentment as measured by people thinking about leaving ministry, but not necessarily actually leaving ministry. 

Allison Norton: That’s right. We also asked them how often they have these thoughts. Because sometimes we all feel like we want to quit our jobs on a stressful day. But the important factor is how often we have those thoughts. We measured that to get a good look at the dynamics leading to clergy discontentment. But as you mentioned, when we ask questions like “Are you satisfied with your life as a whole these days?” or “In general, do you usually feel happy?” clergy are doing quite well compared to the general public.  

Ann Michel: Do you think age is a factor in this? The average age of the clergy you surveyed is 59, which is very high in relation to the average age of the general populace. There is research to suggest that as people become more mature, their mental and emotional health tends to improve. 

Allison Norton: Age absolutely is a factor. When we did our first survey in 2021 the average age of clergy was 57, and it is now 59. So, clergy are older. Our survey looked at the difference age makes when it comes to health and wellness. We compared across generations, and perhaps not surprisingly, a larger percentage of millennial clergy leaders scored lower on their health and wellness scores compared to their older peers. Our boomer generation clergy were most likely to be in the “good” or the “great” health and wellness category. Gen X was somewhere in between. So, there is an age gap in terms of health and wellness, but this matches what we find in the general population.  

Ann Michel: So, how do you know if clergy are emotionally healthy? What is clergy health and wellness, and how do you measure it?  

Allison Norton: We started with the Harvard Flourishing Study. It asks people to rank on a one-to-10 scale their physical health, their mental health, their relational health, etc. The Harvard Flourishing Study uses 11 questions–things like, “Overall, am I satisfied with my life as a whole these days?” “In general, do I feel happy?” We added six other questions on spiritual health. Then we combined all 17 of these into a one-to-10 scale to compare the clergy that participated in our study. Using the Harvard measures allowed us to compare clergy with the general public, because there’s existing work using these same questions. 

Ann Michel: So, another surprising aspect of this research is that a lot of behaviors and self-care practices commonly assumed to enhance wellbeing in clergy–like taking a day off every week, being part of a peer support group, or seeking counseling or spiritual direction—correlated only minimally with health and emotional wellbeing.  

Allison Norton: We do tend to think of these things as the standards of clergy self-care. I think one explanation for why we didn’t find a large difference between clergy who took at least one day off a week and those who did not is that the vast majority of our survey participants, about three-quarters of them, were already in the habit of taking a day off each week. Many of them were also participating in peer support groups, although this has declined over the last few years. About two thirds say they are in some kind of peer group with other clergy. When we look at open-ended comments and interviews with clergy leaders, it’s clear that they find value in these self-care practices. So, the survey does not suggest they are of no value. But they didn’t have as strong a correlation to health and wellbeing as some of the characteristics and personal dynamics of the congregations the clergy are serving.  

Ann Michel: So, you are saying because some of these baseline self-care practices are so common, they’re not going to be the variable that accounts for differences. But you found more clear-cut evidence that certain spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation, and scripture reading, do make a positive contribution to clergy health.  

Allison Norton: That is true. Maintaining spiritual practices like prayer and scripture reading, and how our respondents ranked the importance of their faith in their daily lives, were associated with their overall health and wellness. Not surprisingly, there is a connection between the intensity of religious practices and clergy wellbeing. 

Ann Michel: Do you think that’s unique to the calling of clergy? Or would that finding also hold true for people in general?  

Allison Norton: We have not studied that. But, there is a body of existing research that would say for people in general, having an active spiritual life does correlate with increased mental health and wellness.  

Ann Michel: So, another surprising factor to me was the issue of loneliness and isolation. It’s easy to imagine that it would be almost impossible for a pastor to feel lonely or isolated given the nature of their work. What did your survey find in this regard?  

Allison Norton: So, nearly half of the clergy who completed our survey claimed to be frequently or occasionally lonely. This was rather astounding to us, and highlighted some relational challenges that might be specific to clergy. I think we know that being surrounded by people is not necessarily an antidote to loneliness. You can still feel lonely because loneliness has a lot to do with broader markers of relational health.  

This concept of relational health is one area in which clergy, on average, tended to score lower than the general public. We put together a scale of several questions, all having to do with relational health. One of them was specifically about loneliness, but the others had to do with questions like: Do you have someone that you can go to when you need help? Are you content with your relationships? Are your relationships satisfying? Do you feel connected to your broader community? Do you have social networks to rely on? We found that those who have great relational wellness as measured by this scale are rarely lonely.  

One thing that came up in our conversations with pastors is whether they had opportunities to build relationships outside of their church, outside of their congregation. One pastor joined a local pickleball group. There, he can be a pickleball partner and not “The Pastor.” I think this says a lot about the connection between relational wellness as an antidote to loneliness and ways clergy can create opportunities for greater connection to their broader communities.

Ann Michel: Not surprisingly, there are also congregational factors at play in determining a clergy person’s sense of wellbeing. 

Allison Norton: That’s right. We learned that the extent to which a clergy person feels there is a good fit between them and their members is related to their emotional health and wellbeing. Pastors who felt a good fit with their congregations had less relational loneliness. So, if you’re brand new to a congregation, if there’s conflict or other things make it difficult to have this sense of “good fit,” it’s especially important to find other sources of community and connection. 

Ann Michel: If I’m reading your survey correctly, clergy are more likely to have high wellness scores if they serve in larger churches, in vital churches, in churches more open to change, and in churches that have a clear sense of mission and purpose. Whereas for clergy serving in smaller or highly conflictual settings, the congregational factors are more likely to be negative. This only stands to reason. But in an era when so many congregations are strained and in decline, it’s worth emphasizing this connection between congregational health and vitality and clergy health and wellness.  

Allison Norton: Our study clearly found a mutual relationship between the health and wellbeing of a church and the health and wellbeing of the leader. We’re not saying that one causes the other, but there is a clear correlation. There are some differences among denominations. Catholic and Orthodox clergy tend to fall mainly in the “good” relational health, mental health, and wellness categories. The Mainline and Evangelical Protestant clergy were comparable to each other, with the Mainline slightly more in the “good” wellness group and evangelical pastors slightly more in the “fair” category. But church size matters too. The larger the church, the more likely the clergy person will have higher wellness scores, and those serving in small congregations of 50 or less are most likely to have poor wellness scores. If a clergy person regards their church as highly open and oriented toward change, if the church has a clear sense of mission and purpose, these factors correlate positively with the healthiness of the clergy. But if the church has high levels of conflict the clergy tend to have lower health and wellness. So, all of these things have a mutual relationship.  

Ann Michel: Based on your findings, what one recommendation would you offer to a clergyman or a clergywoman wanting to enhance their health and wellbeing? What one recommendation would you offer to the average congregation?  

Allison Norton: To the clergyperson, I would say, pay attention to your relationships. Build strong, supportive networks, if not within your congregation, outside of the church walls. Find places of meaning and purpose that are not just in ministry, that can help build relationships with others. This can be one way to lessen loneliness. For congregations, I think it’s important to see your clergyperson as a person. Know that when there’s conflict, when you feel stress in your own church, the clergyperson also feels that stress probably more than you do. So, empathy toward the clergy is important, and a willingness to work alongside the clergy to create a church culture that is supportive, not just of congregational health, but also of clergy.

Report cover for "Challenges are Great Opportunities: Exploring Clergy Health and Wellness in the Midst of Post-Pandemic Malaise"

Challenges are Great Opportunities: Exploring Clergy Health and Wellness in the Midst of Post-Pandemic Malaise is available for download free from the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregation study, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University.

Related Resources 


About Author

Allison Norton is Faculty Associate in Migration Studies and Congregational Life and Director of the Pastoral Innovation Network at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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