How Deep the Well?

With apologies, this is a “rerun” of the post I put up in March.  A number of people have asked for it to be “made available” because they had trouble finding it.  I’m just reposting it to make it easier to find.  The topic is clergy self-care, but it applies every bit as much to laity leadership as well.

A young clergy woman, beloved by her congregation, finishing her seventh year as a full-time pastor, successful by almost any and every measure, surrendered her orders and left the church.  Her excuse?  In a word, burn-out, but in more detail — too many demands from too many people taking too much time while constantly failing to live up to too many unrealistic expectations.  (In other words, a normal pastoral ministry.)  I asked what changed over the seven years, and she confessed that nothing in the job changed, but she had.  She wanted a life, and ministry had become for her a slow, painful death.

woman-praying-bwI share this story because this young pastor was part of a study I did on the spiritual life of pastors.  One of the main questions we explored was, “how deep is the well from which you draw?”  We explored over 200 pastor’s prayer lives, engagement with scripture, worship lives, self-care, and personal relationships to better understand how pastors renew their spirit and stay grounded in Christ.  The thesis we tested was this: you can’t give what you don’t have.  If the pastor isn’t spiritually nourished and constantly renewed, he or she will not long last in the pastoral vocation.  Not surprisingly, the young woman pastor was “too busy” to pray regularly, read the Bible, worship, exercise, rest, or spend time with friends and family.  Somehow her ministry displaced her spiritual life.

What follows is a narrative summary of the study, and I will go ahead and spoil the ending: the results aren’t pretty.  It is an uphill climb for 4-out-of-5 (80%) of our pastors to maintain any kind of integral spiritual practice in the midst of daily ministry.  Pastors do pray, read the Bible, and worship, but generally in service to their leadership, not their personal formation.  When pastors eliminate the time allotted to  the prayer, scripture study, and worship they perform as part of their job, these three practices all but disappear.  Regarding self-care (physical, emotional, and intellectual) and relationships, the picture grows bleaker still.

Prayer — most pastors are professional rather than prolific pray-ers.  They pray at worship, at meetings, at dinners, at fund-raisers, at Bible studies, in hospitals and in homes, with the ill and the bereaved, in prayer groups and before meals.  But once they hang up the minister-mantle many keep mum.  One hundred percent of our respondents say they pray regularly, but when we ask people to estimate the amount of time they pray apart from church responsibilities, only 54 (27%) say they pray every day, and only 26 (13%) set aside a specific time for prayer and devotions.  101 (50.5%) claim that when work pressures increase, prayer is one of the first things they set aside.  118 (59%) see no reason to add more prayer to a life already full of it — they feel that the praying they do professionally is sufficient.  76 (38%) confess they feel they should pray more often than they do, and 42 (21%) wish they would be more disciplined to do it every day.  Two people (1%) pray for more than one hour each day, fourteen (7%) pray thirty minutes each day, and eighteen (9%) pray between 15-30 minutes each day.  The most common response was a habit of slipping in a quick 2 minute prayer from time to time on an irregular basis.

Study of scripture/devotional reading — once again, the vast majority of pastoral leaders read and study the Bible for professional reasons — to prepare sermons, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, devotions for meetings, and newsletter/website articles.  Over 90% (181) of the respondents lament that they simply do not have time to do the kind of Bible reading/study they would like.  As with prayer, most (155, or 77.5%) feel that the time they spend with the Bible in preparation for preaching and teaching is adequate.  Two-thirds (147, or 73.5%) do most of their reading — including the Bible — each week on-line.  Only 38 (19%) of pastors say they read a “religious” book in the past twelve months (with the most frequent being “The Purpose Driven Life.”).  49 (24.5%) regularly use commentaries, Bible dictionaries, concordances, etc., when studying the Bible.  Only 32 (16%) claim to do daily devotional reading of scripture.  Once again, as congregational demands increase, time with the Bible decreases.

Worship — this, I believe, is an area for concern.  182 (91%) of pastors said the only worship they attend other than what they lead is at conference, district, regional, or national events.  170 (85%) say that they attend fewer than 3 worship experiences a year in which they have no responsibility to provide leadership.  154 (77%) admit that leading worship changes the experience, and makes it difficult to be fully present and to be fully engaged as a participant.  Many pastors lament that it is almost impossible to simply relax and worship — too often they find themselves critiquing other services or picking up ideas they can use in their own congregations.  Virtually none of the respondents have an intentional, weekly worship experience apart from that which they lead for others.

Self-care: Physical — Yikes.  Clergy do not get enough exercise.  Thirty (15%) of the participants in the survey exercise every day for at least twenty minutes; seventy-three (36.5%) exercise at least three times a week; but, eighty-seven (43.5%) do not exercise at all!  One hundred thirty-eight (69%) of the sample weigh more than is deemed normal/acceptable for their height and age.  94 (47%) report battling chronic health issues, 88 (44%) are on some form of anti-depressant, mood-enhancing prescription drug.

Self-care: Emotional — One hundred forty-two (71%) say they have trouble dealing with stress and display symptoms of depression.  Only 59 (28.5%) are engaged in ongoing counseling.  A mere 52 (26%) of respondents take one day off per week, without exception.  67 (33.5%) report that they “lose” one-to-three days off per month due to work related demands.  43 (21.5%) have not taken a vacation in at least three years.  13 (6.5%) set aside “mental health/spiritual retreat” days at least once a quarter.

Self-care: Intellectual — Pastors are not big readers.  20 (10%) read 6 books or more each year.  143 (71.5%) read between 3-6 books each year.  30 (15%) read 1-3 books each year.  7 (3.5%) don’t read any books at all.  These figures include leisure as well as work related reading.  Pastors average thirteen hours per week of television viewing, which is about the same amount of time they spend on-line (14 hours per week/ 2 hours a day).  Seven (3.5%) were taking a class of some kind (5 at local seminaries, 1 a dance class, 1 a cooking class).  Two-thirds (136, or 68%) faithfully fulfill their annual continuing education commitments, but that is the full extent of their structured learning.  Four respondents (2%) were doing on-line/distance learning courses.

Relationships — this is the only category that shows a substantive gender bias:  women are three times as likely as men to engage in and protect healthy relationships.  One hundred forty-four respondents  (72%) confess some feelings of guilt about the sacrifices loved ones have to make due to their ministry.  Twenty-eight (14%) claim to have multiple strong relationships where they get together at least once a week with more than one friend or colleague.  79 (39.5%) say they get together with one good friend or colleague on a weekly basis.  60 (30%) say they get together with friends/colleagues at least once each month.  The problem comes with the remaining 33 people (16.5%) who say they rarely, if ever, get together with friends or colleagues.  There is a very high correlation between this last group and those requiring mood enhancing/anti-depressant  medication.

The results are problematic — some glimmers of hope, some signs that things aren’t as bad as feared, some signs that things might be worse than we thought.  It certainly challenges our annual conference, board of pensions, and board of ordained ministry leadership to reevaluate continuing education and pastoral support structures.

But another important implication should be identified: seventeen of the 200 respondents decided to leave the ministry in the three-and-a-half years since the study was initially conducted — and all of them share a similar profile:

  • no regular prayer life apart from professional responsibilities
  • no regular engagement with scripture or devotional reading apart from professional responsibilities
  • no worship life apart from professional responsibilities
  • poor self-care: physical, emotional and intellectual
  • lack of strong, close relationships with friends and colleagues

How deep is the well from which we draw?  If we are not being fed on a regular basis, what makes us think we have anything of value with which to nourish others?  If we are not drawing from a renewing, sustaining source, why are we so surprised when we “burn-out?”  The correlation is strong and, unless we as Christian leaders reorient our priorities, the message is clear.  If we do not cultivate a vital prayer life, dedicate ourselves to an intensive  study of scripture and spiritual teaching, participate in worship as a fully engaged member of a congregation, commit to regular and intentional self-care — physically, emotionally, and intellectually — and nurture and protect key relationships we will not be the people God needs to lead God’s people.

21 replies

  1. I want to post a long response that was shared with me (with permission) but I want to honor the anonymity of the person sharing this reflection. It represents one of many I have received. It, and all the others like it, makes me wonder, “How did we create a system that does so much damage to so many lives?” This person is no longer United Methodist — which is our loss. I appreciate the depth of honesty in this response:

    I’ve read the article and agree with the findings. However, unless structural changes are made not only at local congregational levels but within the mainline denominations as to how pastors are supported by the upper reaches of bureaucracy and their local boards or ministry, or presbyteries, ministers who try for the 50 hour work week with 2 24 hour periods off will not be supported and may be called on the carpet by a bishop or others in control of their professional life by the denomination.

    When I was ordained in 1999, I was specifically told by our bishop at the time that 70-100 hour work weeks for the first four-six years after ordination would be expected of me and others in the room. Time off would be limited to one day a week, a two week vacation, and if there were office hours for our congregations, we were to be in those offices doing the work of the local congregation, and that our ministerial careers would rest on how much we could do and accomplish in those four-six years. Those who wanted to be ‘stars’ or on DS or bishop’s track for advancement worked those hours and more, often taking over various conference jobs on top of everything else. If you survived this period of time, you were considered “fit” to continue ministry by your colleagues.

    After chatting with friends from seminary, we quickly realized we were all getting the same message. Out of 24 of us in the MI, OH, IN, KY, TN and IL conferences, only 3 at this time are still currently in appointive ministry. Most of us were burnt-out in a decade of being moved from place to place, expected to fight fires, deal with decades old battles between congregational groups, and if we were women, somehow change the minds of older men who would not attend worship (but often sat in another part of the building listening to worship) while we were the spiritual leaders of the congregation. Still other congregants castigated our ministry and our age because we were 30-45 years younger than themselves. To prevent more problems under their watch, the DS structure often took the side of the congregation and impressed upon each of us that we weren’t doing enough to make these congregants “happy”, “content” and “willing to work with you in ministry”.
    Many of us had no further guidance concerning how much more we were supposed to give over while trying to preserve and uphold the doctrines, theology and spiritual practices of our denominations. Out of the 24, 22 were married at the time they recieved their first appointment after ordination. Currently only 16 are still married to the same partner, and 2 have remarried.

    This article is right in many ways–a pastor must have a spiritual life. That is one of the many reasons I joined OSL, after understanding my attraction while in seminary to communal living and monastic practice. A pastor must also attend required conference events not related to self care, or perhaps they might be disguised as self care but are really about ranting and raving at pastors to ‘take care of themselves’ without genuine interest in making sure that happens. Of course the fact that this will change from bishop to bishop, president of the presbytery or other top leadership is normal. You may have a bishop for four years that is into nurturing and supporting pastors, only to be replaced with an administrative bishop who simply sees you as an employee who might be interfering with his/her bottom line (apportionments at 100%). Previous generations of clergy in my conference were supported by nurturing and accountability groups that were required
    for new ordinands. This practice had long since left the conference by the time of my ordination. As the new orders of ministry in the UMC swept in, many things were cast aside, whether they were beneficial or not.

    A pastor must see in many denominations to continuing education. While this is a benefit in many ways to those who are life long learners, perhaps still others are prohibited from studying ideas and areas that might relieve some of the stress and burn out of their profession. I was lucky in the fact I had a large musical education and background and loved all things worship. This helped in a couple of congregations where music ministry did not exist and helped strengthen the congregational worship when it was begun. What was not lucky is that my interests were merely tolerated in many of the congregations I served, who were most unhappy the hymnal had changed (1989) and would see any other positive changes within worship as acting against their better interests in order to attract newcomers who they really didn’t want to have in the first place. It was definitely a strange time to be in ministry in many ways.

    I was very, very blessed to have OSL, FUMMWA and other groups that I was a part of to strengthen me, and keep me spiritually grounded. I am also a life long learner and oh, dear Lord! the books I shlepped from place to place! Often times I found myself in congregations where the average reading level was between 6-8th grade for adults and children were not being encouraged to read much of anything. So, I kept encouraging. When I told my story to colleagues about what we were doing to help folks actually read the Bible and other books to help their spiritual life, I was told that I should’ve been a teacher and not a minister. Is it not our job to educate? That large collection went to some folks in the order, as I prepared for my new life, and to our family place of worship in the US, with giddy glee on the priest’s face as he saw what I had brought him.

    I tell all of you this story because I want to also dispute that those who are experiencing burnout and leave often do not have sources of spirituality, of creative/educational outlet, of continuing study and connections among colleagues that can be considered safe and effective. What they don’t have is congregational support, denominational support or further colleague support beyond the true connections they might’ve made. Often pastors in small parishes are locationally, mentally and pyschologically outside the perimeter of those serving large and medium churches, where there might be far more support for ministry endeavors.

    One of the interesting differences I see within congregational life here in Canada for priests, pastors and commissioned ministry workers is the fact that it is expected that the congregational leadership will promote education and continued study by example. That they are left without interruption to have worship and study time.

    But I wonder if that is because the culture here is far more shifted towards an English cultural understanding of what being in ministry is, and requires (ie, if you are to teach, you must have time to study and develop your skills, if you are to be an effective spiritual leader, you must attend private worship), as well as understanding that religious workers days off are exactly that- and unless an emergency has happened they are not called or encouraged to call in to ‘be updated’ on the parish news for the day.

    The other interesting difference is that the ministry culture here is still primarily male oriented, and ordained women (less than 15% of any denomination here) struggle to have any standing whatsoever within denominational life. I have to wonder that if women had parity or increased in numbers, would the demands of congregational life change, because women are often put in the place of congregational parent to the parish? And often women come to parishes in need of deep healing who have yet to recognize that about themselves.

    Often these parishes are the congregations struggling with the changes in the world outside their community building–diversity of culture, sexism, racism, diversity of worship practices on generational needs, the understanding that their little congregation is no longer rural but suburban, or even urban in some cases. These are often the congregations that new ordinands are assigned to and are told to ‘make it work’, “we want to see good results here”, or some sort of thing that doesn’t take into consideration really what this congregation is all about.

    Perhaps the congregation instead needs to be instructed on how to allow ministry to develop naturally, to support their pastors with salaries that are above the poverty level (or accept that they will go on medicaid for insurance and food stamps to provide for their families), to understand that a pastor’s day off is a day off, not to be on call for anything but emergencies, and that if they want to survive in this new world of Christian faith intersecting culture, they have to understand they must change or die. I know of only one person in the bureaucracy of ecclesiastical leadership who has spoken those words to a congregation and gave them a timeline in which certain changes must be made, ministry had to be allowed to grow and flourish and the congregation actually listened.

    At the end of all this, I guess my question is two fold: what are denominations actually doing to encourage pastoral self-care and nurture among colleagues, and why are congregations being allowed to get away with intentionally damaging pastoral careers? Is it because many denominations are so concerned about the financial bottom line that they’ll sacrifice many pastors to keep those dollars flowing in? Or is it because it’s too difficult to help these congregations see that they are not Christian-like in their behavior?

    I know I haven’t contributed or commented much on recent topics of conversation, but this is one of those topics that goes directly to the heart of how and why people are leaving the ordained ministry across all major denominations either voluntarily or involuntarily.

  2. Thanks Dan! I believe Roy Oswald states that we need new heros in the faith who model for the church good boundaries and good care. He argues that clergy ought to limit their time to 50 hours per week, and to have two days (24 hour periods) off each week. This is not the standard for most clergy, nor is it celebrated within the system. I think the work of the clergy ought to be augmented with the whole church’s ministry, thus maybe a larger portion of the clergy role ought to be to “equip the laity for the work of ministry.” Gracias.

  3. Wow! This is excellent work and important information. None of this surprises me. This post made me recall my experience with the PPRC of the last church I pastored. My move to a new appointment had been announced. The purpose of the meeting was to put together a profile of the ideal pastor for that congregation. Using a piece of newsprint and marker I asked the PPRC members to call out characteristics they’d like the DS and Bishop to consider when they decided on who to appoint. The list included things like “biblical preacher”, “can sing”, “mature”, “visits homebound members”, “good with youth”, “married with children”, “good listener” … you get the picture. After filling the newsprint with this list I noticed something I thought was important that was missing. So I said, “Don’t you want a pastor who prays? I mean someone for whom prayer is a daily practice for him or her?” There was a long pause. Then the PPRC chairman spoke up and said, “Yeah. Sure. As long as they do it on their own time.” From this I concluded that prayer was fine as long as it was a hobby, but they really didn’t see it as an essential practice for ministry.

    My experience tells me that ordained ministry is dangerous for the spiritual life and discipleship of the ordained. The church can be, and often is, lethal to clergy spiritual life and health. This is so largely because we have professionalized the work of ministry and disempowered the laity. We have convinced the laity that the only people “qualified” to do pastoral ministry is the professional, seminary educated, ordained clergy. Therefore, in far too many congregations the entire weight of pastoral ministry is placed on the shoulders of the appointed pastor. The life of the spirit is slowly squeezed out of them until they experience burnout and may act out in inappropriate or unethical behavior. The congregation then, often, blames the victim and wonders what’s wrong with the conference for sending them such weak, ill-prepared people.

    You have done some important work Dan. I hope it gets published somewhere. Have you talked to Lovett Weems about this?

  4. Dan two things: is this study part of your published works or is it published else where? And second, other than the obvious “don’t do this/do more of that” your post is not prescriptive. What would you suggest? How about, oh say, from a local congregation’s perspective? How would your SPRC chair use this data?

    • Dean, my former employer decided not to publish the findings from this study. I have not “formally” written it up beyond the summary and proposal stage, so (for now) what you see is what you get…

      One of the most overlooked and least utilized functions of the Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) is to work with the pastoral leadership to set priorities, clarify expectations, negotiate schedule, and establish healthy accountability. Where leaders of the church make explicit that the pastor(s) will take days off, will take renewal leave, will have time each week for adequate preparation — not just to “do the job,” but to improve skills and stay spiritually rooted and grounded — will have the churches support for exercise (like telling the congregation that it is good for the pastor to swim or jog or play raquetball when “he/she should be out visiting…”), and that they expect him/her to attend to family and friendships, the whole thing works better. The SPRC has a unique and powerful opportunity to be an advocate for the pastor, explaining to the whole congregation what has been established as reasonable expectations for the use of the pastor’s time, talents and energy.

      Ultimately, however, it always falls to the individual, and that’s where the problem rests. Many people enter ministry with a deep sense of needing to be needed, needing to make sacrifices for others, needing to be a caregiver, needing to meet any and all expectations. These Herculean aspirations, while well intentioned, are fundamentally non-sustainable, especially without help. I believe it will take a denomination/system-wide commitment to wellness, health, and balance for real change to occur. The majority of respondents in the sample (135/62.5%) said they did not feel supported in their efforts for renewal and self-care by the church system (congregation, conference, denomination). They learned nothing about self-care in seminary or Annual Conference. Continuing education, in many places, was pedestrian and superficial, with not clear objectives for development or improvement. Congregational expectations were — by and large — unrealistic and often toxic. Seminary and other areas of professional development offered very little guidance for personal development and practice, focusing instead on academics and professional competency.

      Long winded answer (sorry) to your question — work with SPRC to identify the priorities for your work (where should you focus the majority of your time, what is of lesser importance, and where should the community of Christ step up to share the burden), negotiate a reasonable time-frame (no pastor has the luxury of a 40 hour work-week, but we have some killing themselves with 80 hour weeks, and even that isn’t enough…), and strategize how to let the congregation know what these discussions determine. Also, make personal spiritual development, self-care, and continuing education part of the “job description.” Include healthy personal practices in your annual performance review. Establish a workable plan for accountability — ask the church to help you stay focused on pray, study, exercise, rest & renewal, and maintaining healthy relationships. It isn’t easy or simple, but it is important.

  5. I’m a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. A recent article in the Presbyterian Record has similiar survey results,
    I appreciate the issues seeing the light of day but can’t help but feel that churches are most likely to simply shoot the wounded. I don’t see much help, just blame for “letting yourself get in this shape”. When your family is one stipend cheque from poverty there’s no incentive to push the congregation for help and, quite frankly I wouldn’t be taking my mental health issues to Presbytery. You’re likely to be buried and forgotten,

  6. I have purposely flown under the radar to avoid “promotion” to the larger churches, so I would have more time for spiritual/emotional/physical growth. The small membership churches can make heavy demands on clergy, but I have discovered that there is more wiggle-room in the rural, county-seat parish for personal development. Sometimes I have experienced concern from other clergy that I haven’t advanced according to my gifts and abilities. I don’t have a satisfactory answer to their concern, other than a healthier life and healthier relationships. Life is full of trade-offs and our values should reflect our choices. In ten years I will likely retire having gladly served mainly small membership churches.

    • Fantastic. We need more examples of a healthy, balanced approach to ministry. I had a few in my survey sample, but not nearly enough. I commend you on keeping your priorities straight.

  7. Thank you for the insight and reminder. I have been out of seminary for 14 years now, and don’t remember any course/seminar on self care. What I know I learned from trial and error – on my own. Perhaps there is more we can do, as a Church, early, before it is too late.

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