By Kimberly Thompson
Clergy suffer burnout while making their living upholding religious faith more often than you might realize. Imagine the energy it takes to be on call day and night, in person,
not to mention via smartphone and social media
and digital technology, for any and all congregants at turning points in their lives. Then factor in
the effort required during national tragedies like
9/11 or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Don’t forget the imperative to rise to the occasion
for seemingly routine events too:
services, weddings, funerals, ill-nesses, holidays, and other rites.
The privilege of having a front-row seat to existence however it
comes can also be a burden.
“Priests, ministers, rabbis and
imams are generally driven by a
sense of duty to answer calls for
help. But research shows that in
many cases, they rarely find time
for themselves. Members of the
clergy suffer from higher rates of
depression, obesity and high
blood pressure, and many are
burning out,” was the lead-in to
“Clergy Members Suffer from
Burnout, Poor Health” on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the
Nation” program in August 2010.
The scholarly article “Mental
Health Issues Among Clergy
and Other Religious Professionals: A Review of Research” appeared in The Journal of Pastoral
Care & Counseling in winter 2002.
The assessment focused on key
publications between 1975 and
2000 about “morale and occupa-
tional stress, marital adjustment
and family stress, and impairment
Numbers tell a similar worri-
some but understandable story.
There were 58,632 priests and
seminarians in the
U.S. in 1965 but
only 39,600 and
3,694 last year, respectively, while the Catholic population countrywide increased from
45.6 million to 66.8 million in that same span,
according to the Georgetown University-affili-ated Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s website. Some 1,500 pastors across denominations leave the ministry each month,
partly due to the demands of the job, while
80 percent are discouraged in their roles, and
50 percent would quit if they could land
something else, summarizes Marantha Life,
an organization for pastors, in
an undated piece on its web-
site. “Twenty-five years ago
research indicated that clergy
handled stress better than
most professions. Now, one in
five clergy, according to Roy
Oswald of the Alban Institute
[a resource for American
congregations], score high on
the burnout scale, with rabbis
being at the top of the pack,”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach stat-
ed in a blog entry, “Absence
of Gratitude Is the Source
of Clerical Burnout,” on
The Huffington Post in December 2011.
Clergy who remain at their
post often suffer from, among
other problems, “‘boundary issues’ — defined as being too
easily overtaken by the urgency
of other people’s needs,” reports
Paul Vitello in “Taking a Break
from the Lord’s Work” for
The New York Times in August
2010, citing “Mental Health Is-Religious Professionals.” In fact,
clergy confront burnout as “a
professional hazard,” he remarks
on the National Public Radio
show about the topic.
What can be done? One
remedy “has long
been a touchy
Along these lines, the Lilly Endowment’s Na-
tional Clergy Renewal Program at Christian
Theological Seminary provides grants of up to
$50,000 for sabbaticals for pastors “to step away
briefly from the persistent obligations of daily
parish life” as a means to strengthen their Chris-
tian congregations, its website explains.
The clergy is not a career but a calling, Ron-
nie Norman, senior minister at the independent,
nondenominational First Colony Church of
Christ in Sugar Land, Texas, told me in a phone
interview. “It does take a lot of resilience. You
have to be both courageous and compassionate.”
Norman, a minister for more than 20 years,
continued: “No one in the church wants you to
neglect yourself or your family. However, they
are going to rely on you to establish boundaries.”
Clergy also prevent burnout by keeping a
schedule, exercising, building in changes of pace,
pursuing pastimes, and joining support groups.
Setting priorities is important. So is delegating.
Congregations, for their part, must understand that those behind the pulpit are human beings too, who need a break now and then because of the pressure of the position — sometimes even if the respite happens to fall during a
pivotal juncture for a member. Also, since the
clergy can be a lonely perch, worshippers can
double as friends to their religious leaders.
And the more both parties set clear expectations, the more everyone is on the same page.
As Norman observes, “Learning how to say
no out of love and still show that you care
Kimberly Thompson, a National
Board Certified Counselor and Licensed
Professional Counselor based in Houston,
has provided career transition workshops
and career counseling for almost 25 years.
She has coached all levels of management
in both the public and private sectors
and developed numerous career transition and career services
programs. Thompson contributes a weekly column and blog called
“Career Rescue” for the “Jobs” section of the Houston Chronicle;
go online to blogs.chron.com/careerrescue/. She received a B.S. W.
in social work from Harding University and a M.Ed. in counseling
from University of Missouri. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org;
put Phi Kappa Phi Forum in the subject line.
When the Fire of the Calling Damps
rabbis and imams
driven by a sense
of duty to answer
calls for help. But
that in many
cases, they rarely
find time for
Photo illustration from