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No Rest For the Holy: Clergy Burnout a Growing Concern

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God may have rested on the seventh day, but for a growing number of his ministers, there is more work -- and stress -- than ever, and less chance to unwind. That has led to all sorts of health problems among clergy, from a lack of exercise and a rise in obesity to problems of depression and substance abuse and all the many ills of modern life that pastors spend so much time helping their congregants tackle.

Indeed, even as the folks in the pews head off to vacations this summer, priests, rabbis, pastors and ministers of all faiths often find themselves looking after those left behind and still in need of spiritual support, or using any down time to catch up on the inevitable backlog of administrative work that always takes second place to the care of souls.

"It's a huge problem," said Rich Teeters, a veteran pastor and speaker who currently serves as at Renaissance Church, a non-denominational congregation in Summit, N.J. "People's deaths and serious illnesses and troubles and marital problems -- they don't take vacations."

Last year, for example, Teeters had to break off his vacation to conduct the funeral of a friend. "In some cases you just care so deeply, you say, 'How can I sit here and enjoy the beach or the golf course when someone I love is going through hell?' If you're conscientious, you can't just tune that out. I can't."

Teeters, who also founded a church in Vail, Colo., that he led for 17 years, has been doing a better job of setting up boundaries and taking care of himself -- and attending to his family -- since a crisis about a decade ago in which the pressures of the 24/7 job skewed his priorities.

"You start thinking of things like your church being your legacy instead of your family, and you just get all out of balance, all out of whack in your own relationship with Christ, allegedly for good reasons."

Many other clergy from all denominations are still battling the high expectations, however -- from congregants and themselves -- and they are paying the price.

A national survey in 2001 of more than 2,500 Christian religious leaders conducted by Duke Divinity School showed that 76 percent of Christian clergy were either overweight or obese, 15 percentage points higher than for the general U.S. population. And other research has shown that clergy across all faiths are succumbing to higher rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments than their congregants.

"There is a deep concern about stress," Rabbi Joel Meyers, former executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, told The New York Times. "Rabbis today are expected to be the C.E.O. of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every e-mail."

Catholic priests can be especially prone to problems too, given that they are unmarried and can throw themselves into their work with no family life to provide balance -- and a tendency to consume unhealthy food on the run. The past decade of scandal and crisis has also hit priests hard. In 2006, a priest support group established the Upper Room Crisis Hotline, a toll-free number for clergy who were feeling suicidal or depressed or overwhelmed, and dioceses across the country are establishing programs to try to get priests to take care of their bodies as well as their souls.

"As the bishops look at accountability of priests, that physical accountability has to be there, for their own well-being and the well-being of the people they tend to," Father David L. Toups, a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., who is associate director for the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. bishops, told Catholic News Service. "It's about making sure their physical and spiritual needs are being met and about them being credible witnesses for God."

Some experts say the situation may have been aggravated by the recession, as well. The down economy has not only hurt donations and created more financial challenges for pastors, but it has also created many difficulties for members of their congregation, which pastors try to address.

Even in the best of times, however, many factors can contribute to clergy health problems.

Clergy routinely work 60-hour weeks, and often have just one day off -- and not the day everyone else is off. Also, every function that a priest or rabbi or imam attends is likely to have food -- and not necessarily healthy fare -- that he or she is expected to share.

"Doughnuts will be the death of me," several Methodist pastors told researchers with the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, a seven-year project with Duke Divinity School that is looking at the health of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina.

Another problem is the clergy shortage that affects many faiths, not just the Catholic priesthood. That has left many pastors overworked, overstressed and underpaid, and too often a Lone Ranger with little support from other ministers or the congregants.

"Many clergy could not identify a close friend in the church or the community," said the Rev. Andrew Irvine at the release in 2006 of a multi-year study of Protestant clergy in six denominations in Ontario that showed many of them were burning out. "Clergy have been seen as either superhuman who needed no friends, or subhuman who could exist without them -- but certainly not human."

Moreover, like any service profession, clergy are expected to be available at all times, whether it is the dinner hour or their vacation.

"The untenable nature of the experience for me was being designated the holiest member of the congregation, who could be in all places at all times and require no time for sermon preparation," Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, said in describing her memoir, "Leaving Church," about her decision to abandon the pulpit. "Those aren't symptomatic of a mean congregation; those are normal expectations of 24/7 availability."

Indeed, unlike doctors or police, for example, pastors are supposed to be people who have dedicated their lives to a spiritual goal and are not expected to focus on themselves and their own welfare in the here and now.

"I really don't think people think about their pastors," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. "They admire their pastor, and their pastor is very visible. But they want their pastor to be the broker between them and God, and they don't want them to be as human as they themselves are."

The other problem with being put on a pedestal is that "pastors then want to live up to that expectation, and they do expect more of themselves than they expect of the people in the pews," said Proeschold-Bell, assistant research professor at the Duke University Center for Health Policy. "And they're harder on themselves when they fall short."

Proeschold-Bell said the root of the stress is that for a minister, work centers around so many different relationships, and the demand that he or she be all things to all people. She compared clergy work to planning a wedding, where it is not just the amount of work but the number of people who must be kept happy that is exhausting.

In religious communities, each congregant tends to have a different view of what a cleric should be -- preacher, fundraiser, counselor, spiritual exemplar, etc. -- but few have any real conception of what the job entails. "Some congregants think their clergy work one hour a week preaching, and maybe another hour to prepare," said Proeschold-Bell.

There has been growing attention to the issue as the problem has become more obvious, at least to denominational officials if not to the congregants themselves.

A program called the National Clergy Renewal Program, funded by the Lilly Endowment, has been underwriting sabbaticals for pastors for several years; the program will provide up to $50,000 to 150 congregations in the coming year. And places like The Alban Institute in Herndon, Va., are studying the topic and offering expertise and resources to denominations trying to make their clergy healthier

But experts also say the solutions have to start at the congregational level.

Congregants can encourage pastors to take time off, and not view everything in the church as the pastor's responsibility. They can also be sure to provide healthy food at church events. But clergy must also learn find time to exercise or relax, even if it means saying no to some requests. Otherwise, they won't be healthy enough to serve their flock later on.

Rich Teeters said he finds the only way to take time off is to get out of town so that he is physically removed from the congregation and can't respond to every phone call.

But he also believes that if a clergy person shouldn't be a martyr, long hours and porous boundaries between one's work life and personal life is also an occupational hazard.

"I still regress," he said. "It's a constant struggle, it's a process. I do really well for a while, then I can get caught up in everything."

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Gordon

The reason for clergy and parishoners, the old faithful leaving the church is quite simple; they are not receiving the LOVE OF CHRIST in that building. God just loves us, all of us, all the time, He is OUR FATHER and He sent His only Son to die on the Cross for all of us, Shed His Blood on that Cross for us and was resurrected on the thrid day so we could have HIM in our lives, inside all of us so we could become like HIM. When you go to church and come away worse off for the experience, doubting GOD, wondering why you went there ,then you are in the wrong place-simple.

August 07 2010 at 7:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Winnie

Good article, as far as it goes. Something not addressed in this article, however, is the clergy family. Clergy spouses and children are often treated as unpaid staff, and pressed into service doing everything from cleaning to secretarial work, especially as the volunteer base has dried up. Just imagine if your bankers family was expected to be at the bank whenever the doors were opened to count the money and answer the phones! That is exactly what clergy families do! Their vacations and family events are interrupted when the clergy has to return for a crisis in the congregation, they are often falling out of middle class due to decreased chruch giving, and they are, as always, under constant scrutiny. They are also stressed- out, lonely, and suffer from the same maladies as the clergy . Clergy families are the forgotten servants, as evidenced by their omission from this article.

August 04 2010 at 12:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
William Lengyel

As a cradle Catholic who has worked as a musician for the Church for 42 of my 54 years I am compelled to comment on this article. I do see the burn-out. It comes across loud and clear. If Mother Church would let the clergy do their job, that is to be our spiritual leaders. Instead we have clergy run their own little kingdom here on earth. My church, which is very soon to become my ex-church, should be growing. Instead I see members leaving on a weekly basis to go to other denominations. I will be one of them. The Church and it's leaders have caused me more mental and emotional harm than anyone or anything in my life. Yes, some do join Mother Church but the numbers are few. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops may have us think otherwise but they let us know only what they want us to know. There is still secrecy. Parishioners of a Catholic Faith Community have absolutely no say. Yes, we have the Finance Committee, the Pastoral Council and the Strategic Plannic Committee...the list goes on ad infinitum. They all just make suggestions based on intelligent research and resources BUT the Pastor has the final say, right or wrong. Parishioners also have no say in whom will be assigned to a particular parish. Some priests are better suited for a particular type of parish yet they are sent to parishes where they are out of the loop regarding heritage and ritual. During the last century we had the foreign born Irish. This century we have the Africans. Sure African seminaries are overflowing as were the Irish. What easier way to live a life of luxury verses poverty. Diocesan priests do NOT take a vow of poverty as order priests do. I know many diocesan priests who retire a millionaires. Even today I know of Bishop's who are chauffered around in limousines. Do they deserve it? Well I guess so just as a CEO of a major secular institution would. The difference is the clergy are supposed to represent Christ. I doubt that Christ would be chauffered in a limousine if He were here today. Religion has just become another big business. The difference is the product. In the secular corporate world the product might be shoes or securities. In the sacred corporate world our product is supposed to be God's Word. Finally, those of you who think there isn't a corporate ladder within Mother Church, you are sadly uninformed. Christ's Church will live on, but it will do so because of the small minority of priests who not only talk the talk but walk the walk and because of the Faithful. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

August 03 2010 at 11:01 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
God,s child

Boy , does this hit home with ,me !!!!! Clergy work for the Lord is not as glamourous as people think it is ! Many people tell me they envy me . I tell them , be careful what you pray for ! Being an Overseer for 19 years , has really taken it,s toll on me . But , in the past 5 years , I too have stepped out of the pulpit . Now , I reach many souls in a different way , that is still pleasing to God . I am not as stressed , burnt out , etc . If I do find my self starting to get burnt out , etc . I quickly shut my self down !! People will run you ragged if you let them . God wants us to take care of our selves , 10 times more then we take care of others ! My prayer is that congregations will stop and think before they bring clergy every little problem they have , with out going to the Lord for themselves first . God hears their prayers , just like HE hears ours .
Peace and blessings to all clergy every where . : )

August 03 2010 at 8:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
homewithcats

one does not need to look much further than the negative and hateful comments posted here to realize why clergy are depressed burned out and have health problems. maybe there should be a filter so that only people who participate in their own faith life would have a right to comment! not All religious groups have visible wealth nor do most local churches have piles of money, yet week after week ordinary people who have need for someone to help them pay their rent or feed their children come looking for compassionate help from the churches and other religious organizations -- and they get it, straight from the pockets of faithful, generous hard-working ordinary people who have chosen to combine human kindness and faith. So how much have you bitter angry religion-hating people contributed to relief for Haiti, Tennessee's flooding, the gulf coast and your local food bank? the church isn't perfect.my adduce: put our money where your mouth is. we do.

August 03 2010 at 8:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Dad

Gibson's No Rest for the Holy, had something missing--no claims of Divine comfort from the Most High. Jesus said, "Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted." The mourners are those who repent of their sins and give their lives to serve God, thus missing out on many earthly pleasures that some people call sin. Will not God compensate them in many ways? Over worked pastors may work smarter, instead of harder by seeking other members of the congregation to share the burdens as volunteers. Delegation is the key to avoiding burnout.

August 03 2010 at 8:14 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
homewithcats

YOU CAN SAY ALL OF THAT AGAIN! Some clergy are able to serve in parishes close to family. I was not able to do this. Two things in particular are sources of stress. My relationship with my family of origin suffered from distance. The "family" holidays that others plan were never a possibility for me. so after 30+ years of ministry i realize that i don't know them nor they me in the way that we all thought would be possible in earlier years. the second major stress in protestant denominations is that when churches decline and money doesn't stretch to meet rising costs, it is the clergy persons family that increases already sacrificial giving. Even so, clergy take pay cuts that get passed on to their spouses and children. In the end it is also the pastor who tends to be blamed for the lack of money, (poor performance, etc.) and it is the pastor who may find oneself unemployed, and without a safety net when a congregation grows too small or closes. congregations have a lot of power.

August 03 2010 at 8:08 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
realbritfl

Good Catholics are facing poverty and hunger while the Vatican sits on billions of dollars worth of treasure, art and collectibles bought with the donations of the faithful. Have you ever seen a hungry priest?
They did have one good idea though, if you can't beat them, outnumber them. Why else are they so opposed to birth control?

August 03 2010 at 7:45 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
R. St. Thomas MD

I am proud of what those men and women are doing with thier lives. They are living as human sacrifices to show the wolrd how much they care about God and humanity. As human beings we all make mistakes and are not perfect.

Rather than mock and ridicule these brave people, we should give them their due respect. For the most part, they aren't filling thier bodies with drugs, alcohol or every type of sexually transmitted disease known (and unknown) to man. If more people could show some restraint with thier flesh, we woudn't have drug addiction clincs, abortion clinics, AA meetings, prisons, detox centers, MADD, cirrhosis of the liver, dialated cardio myopthies, divorces, homicides, teenage suicides, crack and meth heads.

Those brave men and women of the cloth have my respect.

August 03 2010 at 7:41 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
davehyland

I'm glad I got my original post off before reading some of the other comments. I was right. There are many, many people who are just too angry, bored or bitter to give any credit whatsoever to many Catholic priests who have little or no contact with the Vatican, don't abuse children or adults and try their best to offer their services to the faithful. To demonize all of them or glue them to a truly ugly chapter in Catholicism is unfair and, in my opinion, will shorten the lives of many of them through stress that causes high blood pressure, heart disease and other killers. You don't need to be Catholic to be spiritual. No organized religion has a monopoly on spirituality or good works. Good people try to do good things for others. It's as simple as that. Whatever our occupation or calling, we all deserve the benefit of the doubt.

August 03 2010 at 7:39 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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