Pastoring no plush gig

No one can make you feel guilty like a pastor. Or in this case a New York Times story about pastoral burnout that I’ve been meaning to write about for two weeks:

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

This was, in fact, a story I added to my to-do list when I was at the LA Daily News. Three years ago. And clergy burnout was getting attention well before 2007.

Part of the problem, from my vantage point, stems from the fact that once a pastor has invested in his or her career, it’s exceptionally difficult to make a career change when burnout occurs. You don’t have to believe the law is just to be a high-earning attorney. But when a pastor’s faith slips, there really isn’t anywhere for them to turn.

This at least was the premise of the story I was researching. It was an idea, like my Muslim high school football player, that came out of the 2005 Religion Newswriters Association conference. It was hardly off everyone’s radar. Why I never completed the story I can’t recall. But I’m glad to see someone — and the NYT, of all places — got around to a fairly old but unreported challenge affecting Christianity.

This story doesn’t talk at all about spiritual burnout, which is something I’m more interested in than physical burnout, but it does a good job covering the physical consequences of pastors being overworked:

In May, the Clergy Health Initiative, a seven-year study that Duke University began in 2007, published the first results of a continuing survey of 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina. Compared with neighbors in their census tracts, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Obesity was 10 percent more prevalent in the clergy group.

The results echoed recent internal surveys by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which found that 69 percent of its ministers reported being overweight, 64 percent having high blood pressure and 13 percent taking antidepressants.

A 2005 survey of clergy by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church also took special note of a quadrupling in the number of people leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry, compared with the 1970s.

Paul Vitello’s article runs through a number of examples of how churches and synagogues and mosques are dealing with clergy burnout. Many now are trying to treat it before it goes full-blown by mandating vacations.

The big problem clergy have is the ability to say no. I’ve heard this from many friends in ministry. And the NYT suggests, quite logically, that it’s only gotten harder in a world where pastors friend their flock on Facebook and are always reachable by cell call or text. Or in the comments on their blog.

PHOTO: “Clergy Burnout” by Fred Lehr

Print Friendly

  • Randy

    I find it interesting that data for Catholic priests seems quite the opposite. Research shows them as being happier than any other profession. So maybe another solution should be considered. Celibacy. Maybe it is too much to raise a family and lead a church.

    Of course Catholics also take pressure off priests in other ways. They have bishops available and a pope to tackle the really hard questions. Individual pastors need not worry about getting the faith wrong on some important matter and leading their flock into sin. Protestant pastors also act as de facto pope for most of their flock. That is a ton of pressure.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    I’m a very happy Protestant pastor (raising a family), but the Times article attracted a bit of attention among my colleagues. Our consensus was that it was… okay, but a little superficial. It seemed to suggest that the whole problem would be solved if pastors took more vacation, which is off target. (At least in the ELCA, we are usually given quite a bit, and many of us even take it).

    In a follow-up NYT op-ed piece, a UCC minister from Connecticut proposed that pastors are being hit hard by the increasing pressure to soothe and entertain their flocks, with the implicit threat that parishioners who aren’t sufficiently soothed and entertained will join aother church. There is a grain of truth there, but the argument seems awfully narrow.

    I seem to recall some research (okay, an article in New York Magazine, but I think there was research behind it) which suggested that burnout occurred when ideals were very high and actual work satisfaction very low. It would have been helpful to see some reference to this theory, or any other academic study of the subject.

  • kjs


    Do you have sources for your data? What about those Eastern Orthodox priests who are married? How does the extent of Roman Catholic clerical sex abuse compare to the extent among Protestants? And, of course, how do Protestant churches with episcopal governance (e.g., Anglicans, Methodists) compare to those which are congregationalist (e.g., Baptists, most Pentecostals, most “non-denominational”) or presbyterian (e.g., Presbyterians)?

  • Amy

    Re: Randy

    While celibacy (or more likely not having the added stress of a family) might be a contributing factor, I doubt it’s the only one. The Catholic Church has quite a few rules to try to help avoid burnout. Priest are required to take off one day a week no including the weekend, which they usually ‘work’ (exceptions are obviously made for emergency situations, funerals, etc.). They are also required to take a retreat every year. Moving parishes on a regular basis can also make a difference. And if the bishop thinks a priest is getting burned out, he can send him on sabbatical for a year or so (and the priest doesn’t have to figure out how to pay rent, etc during that time).

  • Keith Glover

    In an article by Anne Dilenschneider, she states, what I believe to be a real issue of Pastor/Clergy burnout: lack of personal relationship between the Pastor/Clergy and Jesus.

    “Until the 1920s, the pastor was a cura animarum, the “cure of souls,” or “curate” — a person who cared for souls by helping people locate themselves in God’s greater story. The first step in this work was the pastor’s own attention to her or his soul-care through an intentional focus on her or his personal relationship with the Holy. Yet, as I learned as a participant in a Lilly Endowment convocation, seminaries focus on academics and do not train Protestant clergy in spirituality or spiritual formation. At most, even in 2010, only a handful of seminaries require a semester of study in this essential subject”

    I know that the demands on church leadership to get butts in pews and bucks in the offering plates has the greatest consequences of health issues on pastors I know. Some real truth in this article. Religion (efficiency) is killing Christianity (effectiveness). It is the balance act of most institution between “being” and “doing”. Running wigits through an assembly line is good for products, but it has never worked well with God’s crown jewel creation: HUMANS! Transformation of a life is not something we can put into a formula and expect great results every time; nor would we really want it to be!

  • Dave

    As it happens, I just got elected to the Board of a UU church that is looking for a minister. I intend to keep this topic in mind.

  • Bob Smietana

    One of the interesting about the Duke study mentioned in the NY Times story is that the ministers felt their spiritual life was going well. One of the researchers said that pastor had a hole in their theology of the body — that they almost felt like caring for their bodies didn’t matter

  • Bobby

    Interesting story by Bob today on the same topic.