Episcopal clergy 'very stressed,' but 'very happy'

August 11, 2010

In early August, New York Times religion writer Paul Vitello touched an ecclesial nerve when he launched a story, "Taking a Break From the Lord's Work," and raised a range of important questions on clergy wellness. His reporting, based on studies of clergy health, cut across the interfaith spectrum and resonates with lay professionals in the church, as well. It concluded that self-care, sabbatical rest and time for re-creation help church leaders lean into rising levels of stress, depression and fatigue.

A week later, Jeffrey MacDonald opined in the Times in "Congregations Gone Wild" on the same clergy propensity for physical and spiritual burnout, yet his conclusions shifted the debate in a different direction. MacDonald nodded to "several new studies" on clergy burnout and offered seemingly anecdotal evidence that demeans the laity as entertainment hounds who hunger for little more than "comforting, amusing fare" and render the clergy the "spiritual equivalents of concierges."

Based upon relevant data gathered and addressed in 12 years of conducting research and hosting more than 200 conferences on wellness in the Episcopal Church, CREDO Institute Inc., an affiliate of the Church Pension Group, comes to a different conclusion.

Through analysis articulated in the Clergy Wellness Report (2006) and the initial findings of the Emotional Health of Clergy Report (2010), we have observed that there is more to the challenge of clergy stress than fickleness of congregations and the cultural pressures of increased consumerism among churchgoers.

This research points to interesting conclusions that differ slightly from the research Vitello noted, as well. CREDO' s research found that the only major health factor for which Episcopal clergy are at greater risk than the larger population is stress. Yet, remarkably, work-related stress, which frequently leads the general population to employment dissatisfaction, job loss or job change, exists alongside notably lower "turnover intent" for Episcopal clergy. Compared to the general population, Episcopal clergy report significant levels of well-being, self-efficacy and meaning in their work.

"Clergy are both very happy and satisfied and very stressed," concludes the Rev. Joseph Stewart-Sicking, who continues to study clergy emotional health. "These two dimensions are somewhat independent and are influenced by different factors. In order to help clergy achieve a healthy balance of emotions, it is not enough to reduce stressors or capitalize on the positive things in ministry; it will take both. Moreover, just helping clergy cope with problems is insufficient to help them flourish."

Stewart-Sicking, an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, is one of several researchers from whom CREDO gleans reliable statistics that serve as a guide for shaping conferences and developing wellness resources.

CREDO recognizes that the health and well-being of Episcopal Church clergy and their worshiping and outreach communities present a complex challenge and call for complementary solutions.

"It is often not enough to change a person to bring about well-being; sometimes systems and environments also have to change," Stewart-Sicking adds.

Our research points to the need to consider numerous variables on the road to wellness, including clergy gender, family structures, isolation and social support, congregational stress and systems analysis. In response, CREDO is committed to developing a wide array of wellness resources to serve the members of the Episcopal Church.

But one fact is incontrovertible, and also grows from the research. The transformational difference in navigating the currents of their vocational commitments relies more on clergy's attitudes, ability for self-appraisal and commitment to personal wellness -- and far less on brooding about when parishioners might see them in a more favorable light.

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