Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell on Four Steps Clergy Can Take to Avoid Burnout

Above-average rates of depression have been found in clergy. Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

Anyone familiar with the schedule kept by the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was not likely surprised by the news that he is stepping away to take a much-deserved sabbatical. Rev. Wesley was known to be on call to answer his parishioners’ needs 24 hours a day.

I’m grateful that Wesley, in announcing his sabbatical, also shared his reasons for it — feeling far from God, tired in his soul and needing to recuperate mentally and physically. I hope his message reaches beyond his church and denomination and spurs action for kindred clergy who find themselves having similar feelings.

The Rev. Howard-John Wesley.
Photo by Dave McIntosh,
courtesy of Alfred Street Baptist
Church

In 2015, 52 church-appointed Methodist pastors agreed to be interviewed by me and my fellow researchers at the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, write down what they did every hour of every day for a week and score their activities for meaning and enjoyment.

In this study and others, including a survey that compared 1,726 clergy to thousands of other North Carolinians, we found above-average rates of depression, obesity and chronic diseases, all of which are substantiated by other researchers who studied clergy of other denominations. One reason for these poor health patterns is how clergy respond to the demands of ministry; their call is so sacred that they often stretch themselves too far.

We also found that, not only can clergy combat burnout, they can flourish in their vocation.

By comparing the behavior of flourishing clergy and those experiencing burnout, we were able to identify four strategies for clergy to flourish: caring for their physical and mental health, setting boundaries for their work and personal lives, nourishing friendships and mutual relationships, and working in alignment with God.

Taking care of one’s health is a particular challenge when a pastor’s schedule is at the mercy of parishioners’ needs. Flourishing clergy not only proactively made plans to attend to their physical, mental and spiritual well-being, but also made backup plans to adjust for their unpredictable schedules: If a meeting preempts plans to attend a morning exercise class, walk with a parishioner at lunch. Called away for a hospital visit? Then play basketball with the youth group in the evening. They also reported finding time to practice spiritual devotions and walk in nature.

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Source: Religion News Service