Thursday, January 21, 2010

Clergy in Crisis

Earlier today, our congregational nurse left some information in my inbox that was shared at a recent meeting she attended concerning "Clergy in Crisis." Several studies are cited in this information that provide some interesting and alarming statistics about the wellbeing of those who serve churches in vocational ministry.

A study done by Duke University concluded that people who attend church regularly, pray and read their Bibles consistently have lower blood-pressure, are hospitalized less often, are less likely to suffer from depression, more likely to recover from illness, and have stronger immune systems than those who do not. The paper also states that since 2000, 130 separate studies document the increased wellness of those who practice spiritual disciplines. This is certainly good news for Christian people growing in their faith. However, this information is followed by some very alarming statistics about spiritual leaders in full-time ministry.

The studies are not cited, but conclusions are listed which state that Clergy are in the top 10 occupations of people dying from heart disease. Almost half (48%) of ministers surveyed indicated that their occupation was hazardous to the well-being of their families. Nearly as many (45%) will experience burn-out or depression. This figure seems a little low to me, probably because many who were surveyed were not honest about their own experiences of burn-out and depression. A great majority (70%) stated that their self-esteem is lower now than it was when they began their ministerial careers. One in five claim to be at the end of financial collapse (again, maybe a low figure). Most disturbing is the admission that more than one in three (37%) admitted to being involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in their congregation.

One figure that is easy to misinterpret states that for every 20 people who enter vocational ministry, only 1 will retire from the ministry. This may mean that people in ministry are so committed to it that they do not consider retirement an option. R. C. Sproul recently stated that he will retire "when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible." If that is what this study affirms, then it is commendable. However, I do not think that is what the study reflects. Rather, I believe that this figure indicates that fewer than 5% of people entering ministry will endure in the ministry. Many will abandon the work for other careers for a variety of reasons.

So, why do these things happen? Two statistics are stated which shed some light on possible reasons. First, research indicates that weight, mental health, heart disease, and stress are among the most pressing issues facing ministers today. Second, the average pastor spends about fifteen minutes a day in personal worship (however that is defined). Most pastors would not be content to know that this was the case among his congregants, so why is it so with the pastors themselves? The paper that was presented at this seminar indicates that clergy are faced with greater demands today than ever before, and with less support. A study is quoted which reveals that clergy work on average 21 hours more per week than members of their congregations. This means there is little time left for personal spiritual development or much needed rest. Other contributing factors cited are inadequate resources and a lack of social and/or peer support.

To put this into historical perspective, three studies are cited from various periods of the 20th Century. In 1950, clergy had lower rates of disease, longer lifespans, and healthier lives than those in other careers. In 1983, Protestant clergy had the highest overall work-related stress of professionals with a low availability of resources. By 1999, clergy were found to have the highest death rates from heart disease of any occupation!

So what can be done about this? Though the paper suggests many things, it seems to me that there is a great need for pastors today to be transparent with their congregations about their very real human struggles. Also it seems that pastors need to become more intentional about setting boundaries in their lives to protect themselves, their families, and their spiritual well-being. But there is also a responsibility on the part of congregations, lay-leaders in particular, to be understanding and realistic with pastors. Expectations may need to be adjusted in many cases; support may need to be offered in a wide range of ways. Churches need to ensure that their pastors are getting the family time and rest that they need by providing regular, protected days off for pastors, and offering periods of paid sabbatical leave. One thing is certain from these statistics: if these conditions do not change in the near future, clergy and congregations alike will be facing a crisis of monumental proportions. If you are a pastor or a member of a local church, I hope these figures will raise our awareness of the contemporary trends, and perhaps spark some conversations that need to take place for the well-being of our leaders, our churches, and the work of the Kingdom.


Jesse Watkins said...

What kind of regular sabbatical leave do you suggest? I met a pastor who's church gives 3 additional weeks of leave just for study. So they received 3 weeks of vacation and 3 weeks of study. That sounds nice.

Russ Reaves said...

I think a reasonable idea might be a month (aside from normal vacation time) every 3-5 years, or 3 months every 7 years or something like that. I really can't say because I have never had one. Not complaining- most of us haven't had one (in Baptist life anyway).