Mistaken attitudes to the issue surrounding clergy burnout are not helped by the frequent interchangability of the terms ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’. While related phenomena, burnout and stress describe different realities. In his wee booklet Ministry Burnout (Grove Books, 2009), Geoff Read makes the point that ‘stress is essentially the physiological or psychological response to many different sorts of situations and demands … Burnout is one response to sustained exposure to certain sorts of stressors. A person reaches a state of burnout when the three factors of emotional exhaustion, detachment and sense of lack of achievement have reached a level of such severity that the person’s ability to function is significantly impaired’ (p. 6).
I was encouraged to see Read here drawing upon work undertaken by Leslie Francis whose own research in the area of psychological health and professional burnout has yielded very important findings. Francis’ research suggests that personality is the strongest predictor of burnout; that ‘personality factors provide a better prediction of burnout than personal, contextual, family or ministry factors raise important questions for selection, formation and support of those called to ordained ministry’ (p. 20). Two studies conducted in 2004 among Anglican and Roman Catholic ministers highlighted ‘the centrality of extraversion and of neuroticism in predicting clergy susceptibility to burnout … Put crudely, neurotic introverts are much more likely to become victims of burnout than stable extroverts, and this holds true across a range of different ministry contexts’. (Leslie Francis and D.W. Turton. ‘Recognizing and Understanding Burnout Among Clergy: A Perspective from Empirical Theology’, in Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters: Enhancing Pastoral Care and Guidance. Edited by David Herl and Mark L. Berman. Lima: Wyndham Hall, 2004, 315). Francis also co-authored (with Rodger Charlton, Jenny Rolph, Paul Rolph, and Mandy Robbins) the report ‘Clergy Work-Related Psychological Health: Listening to the Ministers of Word and Sacrament within the United Reformed Church in England’, published in Pastoral Psychology 58/2 (2009): 133–149. The report was the first ever published study of work-related psychological health of United Reformed Church (URC) ministers, and drew upon conversations with 58 URC ministers serving in the West Midland Synod. The report drew a number of noteworthy conclusions:
- Those surveyed are ‘aware of suffering from high levels of negative affect and who yet succeed in deriving high levels of satisfaction from their ministry. A responsible Church should not, however, allow the high level of positive affect acknowledged by the ministers to mask the deleterious effects of high levels of negative affect. The problems of high levels of negative affect, poor work-related psychological health and professional burnout among ministers of word and sacrament within the United Reformed Church are too serious to be ignored’.
- Although there are clearly many areas in common between the experiences of URC ministers and those serving in other denominations in England, there may be some areas of stress that are being highlighted in distinctive ways by URC ministers. ‘These areas included the pressures generated by serving in a denomination which has experienced significant decline both in membership and in ordained ministers, but which has not reduced its number of churches in comparable ways. Ministers are serving multiple churches characterised by dwindling and ageing congregations. There is a feeling of uncertainty in the air regarding the long-term sustainability of the United Reformed Church and such uncertainty is bad for the morale of ministers’.
- Overall, ministers have low expectations regarding the ability of the URC to support their needs and to protect their work-related psychological health. ‘Such low expectations may or may not be an accurate reflection of the real state of things, but it is nonetheless a worrying reflection on how the denomination itself addresses the psychological health needs of its ministers’.
- Overall, ministers welcomed the survey, and ‘saw it as a positive sign that the wider Church was concerned about and committed to addressing the issues of clergy stress, professional burnout and poor work-related psychological health among ministers. Awareness of these issues, the ministers argued, needs to be urgently raised throughout the Church as a whole’.
But back to Read. Read writes about the need for clarity around ministry roles, and the need for pastors to be able to answer the vocational question, ‘Why do I do what I do?’ That this question is taken seriously is essential, he insists, for being able to make meaningful decisions about the use of time in the how and what of ministry. ‘It empowers clergy to shift from a reactive ministry, driven by the expectations and demands of others, to one that is proactive, intentional and driven by conviction’ (p. 16). And he names three areas which merit particular attention in relation to burnout: the now-but-not-yet gap between the ontological and eschatological realities in which we live and life as it is experienced in the here and now; living with conflict and criticism; and the ambiguity of role.
One thing that I really appreciate about Read’s booklet is the stress that he places upon the question of our identity in Christ. Drawing upon Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Wendell Freist’s article ‘Understanding and Prevention of Missionary Burnout’ (Taiwan Mission Quarterly, 1992), Read argues that while the question of our identity in Christ is one which all Christians share, ‘the representative dimension of priesthood and profile of other “professional Christians” does mean that any deficits will be under particular and sustained pressure’ (p. 13). He points to the way that Jesus’ own ministry began as ‘highly significant and instructive’ insofar as it followed the pattern of identity, vocation and only then ministry, and suggests that ‘without a clear sense of identity and purpose, clergy are subject to the stress of either the chronic effort to fulfil [others’] expectations – acting like a plate spinner dashing to keep numerous plates in the air – or living with the chronic pain of never truly being themselves – like a left-handed person forced to write with the right hand’ (pp. 13–4). He continues:
In his work on burnout originally addressed to OMF missionaries, Dr Wendell Friest describes two distinct missionary types. Type A is characterized by a sense of self worth and self-acceptance based on achievement. Type B finds identity in giving and meeting the needs of others. Both lead to driven lives that Friest characterizes as achievement fatigue (Type A) and compassion fatigue (Type B). Like Nouwen, Friest believes that reconnecting with the freedom that is rooted in our identity in Christ is a crucial resource for the Christian in combating burnout, for both Type A and B temperaments. This involves not just the theological but also experiential movement from slave to sin, to son/daughter of God, and then on to a freely chosen slavery or servanthood.
The heart of the good news is the restoration of God the Father’s original purposes for his children: the status of sonship rather than slavery (Gal 4.4–7). But, so often, experience lags behind the theological reality and so acceptance and identity can remain rooted in slavery or addiction to achievement or meeting others’ expectations. Burnout can be not only a result of such slavery but also a key opportunity to face this disconnect between what we preach and what we experience. Burnout can become an invitation to connect experientially with the transforming power of grace in terms of our identity. Freedom simply to ‘be’ replaces the drive to have to ‘do’ to prove something (Type A) or assuage the guilt of being unable to fulfil all the needs of others (Type B). This newfound freedom finds expression in ministry, enabling one ‘… to get back into the slave modality without losing the son-daughter modality.’ Friest calls this Slave Modality 2, what I prefer to call servanthood. In Christ we see this voluntary self-emptying as described in Philippians 2.5–11. Paul’s prized status as ‘slave’ (1 Cor 9.19) is one he freely adopts. It is clear from Romans 12.1 that this is a voluntary decision on the part of the individual, a free response to God’s merciful adoption of us as sons and daughters.
Friest comments, ‘If we are slaves to God unwillingly because we feel this is God’s demand, something he has imposed or exacted, there will never be joy in our lives – only complaining (maybe repressed), resentment, and bitterness … [But] in being both a child of God and a slave of God we are identifying with Jesus. We are free “to be abased, and … to abound” (Phil 4.12).’ We can enjoy life without guilt, and we can serve without drivenness or compulsion, and without a need for achievement or recognition.
Both models of identity also invite conscious reconnecting with the one who calls and, prior to that, who simply loves us. This is a spirituality that is relational, about me as me rather than just me as a minister. What is my God like? Have I unconsciously distorted my perception of him too? Is there a disconnect between the God of grace I say I believe in and proclaim and the image of him that I actually live and take into my vocation and on into my functioning in ministry? Allowing God to be God to us enables a growing experience of one’s identity in Christ to re-emerge. This is rooted in grace and unconditional love rather than just existing with an identity dependent on performance and the opinion of others. (pp. 15–6)
Other posts in this series:
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part II
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part IV
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part V
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VI
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VIII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part IX
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part X
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XI
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV