Myths about Clergy Burnout and Managing Stress

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The plight of stressed-out pastors has attracted a great deal of attention since The New York Times front-page report, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” by Paul Vitello and an op-ed response, “Congregations Gone Wild,”by Jeffrey MacDonald. TheHuffington Post followed with “Soul Care and Roots of Clergy Burnout” by Anne Dilenschneider citing a new report from Clergy Health Initiative at Duke on the poor mental and physical health of pastors.

The current discussion about clergy stress is a reminder that clergy leaders have the opportunity and the obligation to exemplify fulfilled living by focusing on what is ultimately important. Managing stress is part of our calling.

These timely articles have drawn attention to some very real concerns about the health and well-being of pastors. But in the midst of the ensuing conversation, there are a number of myths and misconceptions about clergy burnout that should be reexamined in light of the research on this subject.

Myth One: Taking time off is enough to prevent stress and burnout. As important as time off is, returning to work after days off, vacations, and sabbaticals without changing stress-producing behavior patterns will not make much difference. For example, a good diet and physical activity, which have been demonstrated to reduce stress, are just as essential to emotional fitness as time off.

Myth Two: Clergy leaders are in poorer health than the general population. Clergy have historically enjoyed the distinction of being healthier and longer-lived than other professionals. What seems to have happened in recent decades is that clergy have “slid toward the norm.” The overall physical health of clergy is not worse than that of the general population; rather it has become more like that of the general population. In other words, clergy today are less likely to be healthier than the norm, but that does not mean they are sicker.

Myth Three: Older leaders are more likely to burn out than younger leaders. Recent research on clergy age seems to indicate that younger clergy are more likely to burn out than their older colleagues. In general, levels of mental health improve as people age. And older clergy are more likely than their younger colleagues to have learned how to manage their stress.

Myth Four: Clergy leaders are dissatisfied with what they do. Research on job satisfaction in the United States holds some good news for clergy. Among all the professions surveyed, clergy were most likely to indicate they were very satisfied with their job — 87 percent of clergy compared to the national average of 47 percent. This is not to say that clergy do not experience high levels of job-related stress. They do. But existing research seems to suggest that a stressful job can still be rewarding.

Stress and the calling of clergy. I recently reread The Stress of Life by Hans Selye. Dr. Selye’s research, conducted over fifty years ago, examined how our bodies respond to and sometimes cause stress. He wrote about good stress and bad stress and how to achieve balance so that we do not wear ourselves out prematurely. We all live with everyday stress, which Selye described as the normal “wear and tear” of life. To live a fulfilled life, he said we must find a way to avoid the “stresses of senseless struggles.” Selye’s research helped him avoid bad stress by adopting personal “rules of conduct” or short-term, long-term, and ultimate aims.

  • Short-term aims are rewarding activities that bring momentary pleasure.
  • Long-range aims are things that we must plan for and for which we are willing to forego immediate gratification.
  • Ultimate aims are the guiding values that “should lead us through a meaningful, happy, active and long life, steering us clear of the unpleasant and unnecessary stresses of fights, frustrations, and insecurities.”

We all live with stress. Some may be induced by unrealistic expectations that we impose on ourselves or that others impose on us. Some stress is natural and good.

The current discussion about clergy stress is a reminder that clergy leaders have the opportunity and the obligation to exemplify fulfilled living by focusing on what is ultimately important. Managing stress is part of our calling.

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About Author

Dr. Tom Nees has served the Church of the Nazarene in multiple capacities including as the first director of Nazarene Compassion Ministries, USA/Canada. Early in his ministry he was the founding director of Community of Hope, a low-income neighborhood organization in Washington, DC. He now is a consultant and coach and lives in Arnold, Maryland.


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