Clergy Burnout

I’m grateful to my friend Pam Garrud to pointing on her Facebook profile to this piece in the New York Times about clergy burnout. As someone who needs medication to control hypertension and whose girth has increased, some of it hit home.

I’m not one of those ministers who fails to take their annual leave in the way the first page of the article describes. I do try to take some exercise. Usually after the school run, I get out the iPod and go for a brisk walk. However, that doesn’t stop me wondering what some less charitable members of a congregation might think if they saw me out walking. I was told at college that ministers should be at their desks at 9 am. I, however, might well be walking. Of course, most church members are fine about it. It just takes the vociferous minority. Not that they ever say it to your face. You hear on the grapevine.

The importance of stillness and sabbath is critical. I have seen ministers wreck themselves with workaholism. In the middle of the day, I was able to smell the alcohol on the breath of one (now deceased) Superintendent.  To say nothing of how he spoke publicly about his wife.

But the NY Times piece rightly goes further than just ministers not taking care of themselves. On the second of the two pages, it talks about the pressures of declining and aging congregations. It talks about how clergy push themselves further, due to these factors. What it doesn’t say is that those same factors lead some churches to place extra strains of expectation upon their ordained staff. ‘Miracle worker’ might just as well be put in the job description.

To that end, when I was formally welcomed here, I quoted Monty Python:

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.

The trouble is, many of us in the ministry don’t believe in the grace we preach. And nor do our congregations. We are paying a price.


  1. You know, I keep wondering sometimes why we put so much demand on a pastor, especially in churches that don’t give him control over church matters. How can we demand so much and provide so little? It’s honestly one of the things that makes me hesitant to go back to seminary and become a preacher.


    1. Dan, at least that means you’re counting the cost. Ask Alicia what the toxic elements of your character are, and consider how you might handle them.

      But for all I’ve said here, and it is coloured by some bad experiences, there are also great joys in this calling. Don’t lose sight of them, either.


  2. I like this post. especially the Python. Is that from Life of Bryan? Anyway, I wish the data compared our reltive age with the GP because depression and hypertension are age-related. Too, other helping profession should have been correlated not just the GP.

    Clergy’s stressors are higher, off the charts higher, so it’s not wonder. Yes, sabbath helps but it’s also about the structure of the job itself, which takes its cue, at least in the UMC from the 18th century. I believe it’s unreal and needs to change, or should we just get back on our horses??



    1. Hi Scott,

      Welcome here, and yes it is Life of Brian – although I wouldn’t want to associate myself with Brian’s behaviour in the film that leads to the quotation!

      Would be interested in the medical data you know, and in what you say about 18th century concepts of ordained ministry. I suspect we might have some common ground. Anyway, I can’t ride a horse!


  3. “However, that doesn’t stop me wondering what some less charitable members of a congregation might think if they saw me out walking.” I can totally relate to that in every manner possible.


      1. just keep exercising (walking, running, swimming, sports etc) ,,, eating well (you mentioned the girth … do something about it now) and generally taking care of yourselves (including time off with spouse!). though heaven will rejoice at your arrival You are no use to your congregation dead ….


  4. Nil illegitimi carborundum, as they say. If ‘certain members of the congregation’ have a problem with the minister going for a walk, they have a problem, period. Perhaps giving them something to complain about is truly ministering to them – they’re only happy when they’re complaining!

    To be honest, if that’s all they have to worry about, they’re well blessed.


    1. Indeed, Tony, but they don’t know they’re blessed and as I’m sure you know only too well, they stifle fruitful ministry when there is a significant vociferous minority of them, all of which adds to the stress.


  5. Oh, yes. It’s a well-known phenomenon that a minister only becomes perfect when he is being described to his successors. |Indeed, the principle reason for decline the church is the decline in the quality of ministry, because no minister has ever lived up to the standards of those who went before, so successive generations are getting worse, so…
    : “We’re all doooomed!”


  6. Hi Dave, did I read that right…the minister and the congregation do not believe in the grace we preach and this is a lack of faith? Can you explain what you mean? I can understand that the loud voices of the minority can stifle the mission and the ministry and I am very disappointed. These people should not be tiring you out and stopping the joy. Judgement from others is surely what Jesus himself spoke out against many times. Also I don’t get that desk advice from college, because if you are walking you are out there in the world with the people. As a nurse I would urge you to WALK if you have hypertension!
    I know it is nothing to do with me, but hope you don’t mind me commenting.
    Lastly, good idea to quote Monty Python and not Father Ted, particularly the character of Jack!


    1. Hi CT, interesting to know you are a nurse. Your comments are most welcome – keep them coming! While I post on issues that I care passionately about, one reason I blog is because I like to encourage discussion and healthy debate.

      What I mean by not believing in grace is that ministers end up measuring themselves by ‘performance’, and congregations measure their ministers the same way: how busy are they? how many people have they visited? etc. Whatever we preach and formally affirm, it often degenerates into a ‘salvation by works’.

      I agree entirely with you about the importance of walking – not just for hypertension, but also for meeting people. My wife and I have networked extensively in the community where we have been living here. However, some people want you to spend all your time with the church people, as a private chaplain.

      The college tutor who said we should be at our desks at 9 am every day was the same one who told us on another occasion that we should visit five people every day. If someone was out, that didn’t count towards the five. So no real time to spend with people, just a quick pat on the back and off you go to the next person on your hit list.

      As to Monty Python and Father Ted, the reason the context of the MP quote is dubious (worthy as it is out of context) is that Brian has just been sleeping with a girl he is not married to called Judith. The quote is Brian’ mother’s disapproval. Certainly there is also plenty of unsuitable material in Father Ted – I agree – but I have met the odd real-life Father Ted and there are some episodes and scenes that are well worth quoting. The episode about Lent is particularly striking, in my opinion.


  7. My first super told me that when he was a prob, the super would phone at 9.00 to make sure he was ‘shaved and shod’ and in his study. That was in the days when a minister would spend every morning in the study, every afternoon out visiting people in their homes, and every evening in meetings and fellowships. It was also the days when TV played the National Anthem and everyone went to bed before midnight. Now that people work odd hours, meetings and visits can happen at any point in the day, and the internet has made us a 24/7 society, those old disciplines really do need retranslation. My wife and I are night owls, rarely in bed before 1.00 – it isn’t unusual for me to be engaged in emails or blogs at silly o’clock. Now, if online discussion, evangelism, apologetics etc is part of ministry, why should I be so fixed about the supposed being at my desk by 9.00? We are fortunate in that (for the most part) we have a high degree of freedom to order our working life as we please, with certain fixed points dictated by the business of running the church.

    As you say, more grace in our attitudes to work would be much healthier. How much of the pressure we self-inflict or allow others to impose is due to unresolved or hidden guilt? I’m not really good enough – must work harder? Irrelevant. A week or two ago, I was still in my study one afternoon, feeling a bit guilty I hadn’t got my act together and gone visiting – then the phone rang, and I had two lengthy and profound pastoral phone conversations. If I’d gone out, those people would have met my answerphone, which doesn’t have the same pastoral manner as the real me. God will use us, and that’s why we’re here.

    But I still have to write that darn sermon and prepare that **** agenda! 😉


  8. Thank you Dave for your comments and the reply to my query. I’ll look out for that episode of Father Ted that you mentioned! I was also interested to read the comments of Tony Buglass. I am particularly interested at the moment in the theme of grace, hence my question. I can now see grace is a component of healing, allows you to channel God’s love according to His agenda and is vital to mission. The old school of whip cracking rules don’t sound so hot and I guess you have made that point. Tomorrow, perhaps then a nice lie in..wake up naturally…the midweek services…some hanging around as the Inner Voice directs, ah yes and that walk 🙂


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