What You Need to Know to Care for Your Clergyperson (Even if That’s You)

Photo by Eber Devine on Unsplash

Some of the advice that Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee have for clergy is very straightforward. “If you’re really tired and wondering whether you should work more or go to bed, don’t wonder—just go to bed!” (157) Excellent tip.

Back from my nap now, I’ll go on to say that other advice in Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis, takes a little more time and attention. Drawing on the results of a biennial survey of North Carolina United Methodist Clergy conducted between 2008 and 2016, Proeschold-Bell and Byassee have a treasure trove of data to sort through in their excellent, new book. The clergy health picture is mixed.

The word ‘crisis’ in the subtitle gets your attention and that’s intentional since there are dramatic findings that should catch the eye of all clergy and those who care for them. Some clergy health problems have long been noted, but the studies cited in this book detail their extent. Obesity, with all its related ills, afflicts 41.4% of the clergy studied compared to just 29.4% in the general North Carolina population. (84) Clergy, especially those in the 55-64 age group, experience worse chronic disease in areas such as diabetes, joint disease, and angina. (85) 

Depression comes in for special attention with the authors noting:

“We would like the following point to stand out to bishops, clergy supervisors, and personnel committees: we can assume it is common for clergy to become depressed at some point during their ministerial career, with 11.1 percent of clergy indicating high levels of depression symptoms in the past two weeks.” (37)

Along with the dire picture, the data also comes with some very helpful context and some unexpected good news, too. While it’s true that clergy are experiencing some unique stressors in their work, they also top the list in a 2006 survey on job satisfaction. 87.2 percent of clergy in that survey said they were very satisfied in their work. (17)

So how to interpret what’s going on? As the authors see it, the sense of being called to their work accounts for a lot of the job satisfaction, even if clergy are also experiencing “many difficult situations on a routine basis.” (18) Being involved in work that is meaningful and even holy means that clergy look at their health and stress through a very different lens than most other people. It also means that the expectations of clergy are different.

In the second chapter of the book, the authors spell out the implications for members of a sacred profession: We expect clergy to be more drawn to their work that those in other professions. Prioritizing work responsibilities (which all may seem equally valid) may be difficult, meaning that clergy overwork. The stakes of perceived failure are higher and criticism is felt more keenly.

Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell

Throughout, the authors offer clergy supervisors, lay leaders, and parishioners advice for how to recognize and react to these dangers but one admonition is repeated multiple times: “It is essential…to give permission—repeatedly—for pastors to spend time on themselves.” (24-5) As clergy supervisors and credentialing bodies have incorporated self-care questions over the last two decades, some clergy have resisted the attention as inviting them to self-indulgence. But it’s painfully obvious that clergy who don’t care for themselves often end up damaging their effectiveness along with their health.

The book concludes with some recommendations for developing positive mental health in clergy, an approach that can undergird clergy over the long-term. Nurturing positive emotions like hope, gratitude, interest, awe, and love, Proeschold-Bell says, can give clergy a resiliency that allows them to recover more quickly when faced with threats to their mental health. Positive emotions, she says, are “something akin to an extra-strong foundation of a house.” (104)

“They hold up the house’s walls: [which in this analogy are] openness to ideas and experiences, better problem solving, and greater sociability. These walls, in turn, support the roof—which is made up of things like strong relationships, knowledge, skills, and perseverance.” (104)

Jason Byassee

Strangely, clergy can experience symptoms of depression and anxiety even when they have some level of positive mental health. Given the nature of clergy work and the number of difficult situations they are invited into, this is not unusual. But by “broadening and building on” a base of positive emotions, these situations are not always debilitating.

The recommendations for clergy to flourish in Chapter 7 are simple and probably not news to most pastors:

  1. Foster strong friendships and relationships,
  2. See yourself as a participant in what God is doing and align yourself with God’s work in the world.
  3. Create boundaries between work and other parts of life, and
  4. Be intentional in personal care

This chapter also addresses the unique situations of female clergy, young pastors, multiple church charges, and African-American clergy.

“The big takeaway from the flourishers we interviewed was this: flourishers have many different strategies to maintain their positive mental health, and even within a given day, they are flexible in how they attend to their positive mental health.” (155)

Which means being open to change. So “if you’re wondering whether you should work more or go for a walk, don’t wonder—go for a walk!” (157) Which reminds me—I should walk down to the post office and get the mail…

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