Stress and Burnout Endanger Clergy Health


Members of the clergy are more likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses such as obesity, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and depression than most Americans. These are the first published results of the continuing survey of 1,726 ministers, which began in 2007 and is being conducted in North Carolina by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University. Researchers Proeschold-Bell and LeGrand report that the obesity rate among clergy aged 35–64 years is nearly 40%, or over 10% higher than among the local population.

A similar survey by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and cited by the New York Times) reported 69% of its ministers as being overweight, 64% as having high blood pressure, and 13% as taking prescription antidepressants. Similarly, a 2005 survey of Presbyterian clergy had reported that occupational stress and burnout played a factor in 4 times as many ministers leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry, as compared with the 1970s.

What Is Occupational Burnout?

According to its most widely accepted definition, occupational burnout includes:

  1. Emotional exhaustion, which can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment.
  2. Depersonalization, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, which can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and negative attitude toward others.
  3. Dissatisfaction, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, which can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further environmental demands.

There are several theories that have been proposed to explain the genesis and development of occupational burnout. Read about them after the jump, with some suggested remedies and a summary of the most recent research.

Michelangelo_Sistina_GioeleThe professional engagement theory identifies as the main cause of burnout the imbalance between what individuals give to their job and what they receive in return. In the continuous interaction between workers and their work environment, three situations may be observed: 1) individuals give to their job and receive a commensurate return; 2) individuals give significantly more to their job than what they receive in return; or 3) individuals receive appreciably more from their job than they are willing or expected to give. The risk of burnout is greater when individuals perceive that they give more to their job than they receive from it.

The motivational model theory recognizes the importance of individual motivation in the process of burnout. A key motivational factor is the way in which the individual acquires, utilizes and maintains the resources necessary to fulfill current job requirements and to guard against any future reduction of resources. Thus, emotional fatigue can be explained by a perceived or actual lack of resources in individuals who can no longer control the stressors they must face. Depersonalization and feelings of decreased achievement may be explained by the same process.

The stress and motivation model is an alternative theory that hypothesizes burnout as developing when professional requirements are high and professional resources are limited. Poor working conditions lead to depletion of energy and a fall in motivation. The onset of burnout is produced by two factors: the stress reaction, which is determined by professional requirements and inadequate resources; and loss of motivation, which is a by-product of the scarce availability of personal resources and the feelings of futility that result from it.

Among clergy, use of antidepressants has risen and life expectancy has fallen. The advent of 24/7 communication made possible by cell phones and social media has added significant new dimensions of stress. Many pastors are expected to be chief executive officers of their congregations as well as their spiritual guides, to be on-call without interruption, and to participate in all activities. Vacations are generally not taken or are too short or interrupted to produce real relaxation. The ubiquity of communication demands is exacerbated by boundary issues that are exhibited by many pastors—defined as being too easily overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs.

What Can Be Done

Personal autonomy, strong social support, and strong organizational support appear to prevent the onset of stress and the development of burnout. Availability of personal resources is positively associated with productive attitudes and behaviors, and negatively associated with unproductive behaviors. According to the tenets of positive psychology applied to work organizations, a negative affect (negative emotion) characterizes individuals who tend to focus on the negative aspects of work, relationships with others, or the world in general and who are more likely, in most situations, to experience higher levels of stress.

As a personality trait, negative affect has a pervasive and sustained influence on perceptions and behaviors. Negative emotion is also associated to the perceived scarcer availability of resources such as social and organizational support. External resources and internal resources (engagement in one’s work) are positively associated with productivity and efficiency and with productivity-enhancing behaviors, such as overtime.

Thus, many churches have already moved to institute programs of clergy support that may include

  • leadership coaching (in cases when there are clear issues of time and resources management, interpersonal conflict resolution, and boundary making),
  • psychotherapy (in cases when boundaries have been crossed in a way that provides evidence of chronic stress or other mental health issues),
  • medical intervention (to control the effects of psychosomatic illnesses and diminish their symptoms and health impact).

Recent Research On Clergy Burnout

Here are three recent studies on the topic of stress and occupational burnout:

Beebe, R. S. (2007). Predicting Burnout, Conflict Management Style, and Turnover Among Clergy. Journal of Career Assessment 15(2): 257-275. Typically, the literature on clergy burnout employs an individual model and describes the pastoral role from the perspective of multiple demands or offers prescriptions for recovery. Although some literature examines the systemic nature of clergy burnout, little attention is paid to the internal psychological dynamics surrounding social expectations of the clergy role. Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self offers insight into the relationship between self and role within the context of the clergy-congregation emotional system. A sample of clergy (N = 343) was surveyed to examine the impact of differentiation of self and role on burnout, conflict management style, and tenure. The analysis indicates clergy functioning at higher levels of differentiation of self and role experience lower perceived burnout and prefer a collaborative conflict management style.

Grosch, W. N. and D. C. Olsen (2000). Clergy burnout: An Integrative Approach. Journal of Clinical Psychology 56(5): 619-632. Understanding how clergy, who begin their careers with high idealism, optimism, and compassion, come to experience burnout is difficult. One body of research suggests that clergy, among others, burn out because of the systems in which they work. From this perspective, burnout is the result of external systemic factors such as bureaucracy, poor administrative support, and difficult work conditions. The other body of research suggests that burnout is the result of intrapersonal factors such as high idealism, Type-A personality, narcissism, and perfectionism. It is the authors’ position that these two bodies of research are compatible, and that it becomes easier to understand burnout by integrating the self psychology of Kohut with the general systems theory of Bowen.

Weaver, A. J., K. J. Flannelly, et al. (2002). Mental Health Issues Among Clergy and Other Religious Professionals: A Review of Research. Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 56(4). The authors reviewed the literature on mental health issues among clergy and other religious professionals. Existing research indicates the Protestant clergy report higher levels of occupational stress than Catholic priests, brothers, or sisters. Catholic nuns reported the lowest work-related stress, whereas female rabbis reported the highest stress levels in various studies. Occupational stress appears to be a source of family stress among Protestant clergy.