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Saturday, 1 October 2011

No rest for the wicked? A note about clergy stress

One of the most frequent pastoral issues I face as a bishop is clergy stress. It may not be widely recognised that the ordained ministry is among the most stressful of occupations. Nevertheless it is true. Priests and deacons are highly dedicated individuals who invest much of themselves in their vocation. This alone has the potential of increasing levels of stress and burnout. They are also working with people and are constantly required to motivate and inspire a volunteer community which adds additional emotional demands. Some of the key contributing factors to clergy stress include:

  • Too many competing demands on time and energy
  • Unrealistic expectations:  perfection and omnicompetence! 
  • Conflict about the nature of their calling. In the 21st century religion is increasingly consumer-driven, and churchgoers often want clergy to soothe and entertain them rather than challenge and guide them as  spiritual leaders and pastors.
  • Unclear boundaries. A combination of long working hours and a generally porous boundary (even in terms of physical space) between work life and personal life has its hazards.  
  • Loneliness
  • Poor eating habits
  • Lack of physical exercise
There are circumstances in our Diocese in Europe which contribute additional stressful challenges for our clergy in comparison the situation in the rest of the Church of England. These include:
  • a sense of isolation in one's ministry and physical distance from colleagues 
  • the congregationalist tendency of some of our parishes
  • cross cultural and linguistic challenges
  • the distances that need to be covered to carry out normal pastoral duties
  • generally less housing than the normal living and working space provided in an English parsonage
  • finding appropriate and / or affordable schooling for children and employment possibilities for clergy spouses
  • different de facto employment status as Diocese in Europe clergy are paid locally, which can lead to confusion about who is the priest's "boss". In the extreme, there can be inappropriate exercise of power by laity. 
  • the limitations of time, energy and financial resources to address real growth and development needs  
So what is a priest or deacon in parochial ministry to do? There are a some ways for clergy to help keep stress at an appropriate level. It is not rocket science, as the saying goes, but we all need reminders from time to time!

  • Nurture a set of spiritual disciplines including daily office, retreats and quiet days, meditative and other forms of prayer.
  • Take regular time off. I am convinced that the assumed pattern of clergy only having 1 day off a week is probably not enough. But time off also includes moments for daily relaxation, and taking full entitlement of annual leave. Remember the importance of "unplugged" time - away from the mobile phone and computer. For clergy in this diocese interested in sabbatical leave, there are guidelines available here. 
  • Get proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
  • Find intentional support systems. Although easier said than done in our scattered diocese, there may be ecumenical possibilities (where language is not a barrier). Some clergy are meeting in clusters or chapters in a given region. Electronic communication such as skype conversations can also be helpful.
  • Set realistic time management goals. Don't be afraid to say "no".   
The laity can support our clergy to keep a proper balance.

Churchwardens have a key role as they are given particular responsibility to cooperate with and care for the priest.


  1. Spot on! It is something we all need to hear and read fairly regularly so that we clergy can watch out for the warning signs. One of the most helpful phrases I heard from our Diocesan was "All things are possible but not all things are doable" I have always found that very helpful to throw out as the occasion demands....both to myself and others. Robert Ellis Mallorca.

  2. I was not surprised to see "isolation" at the top of your list of challenges! I'd be interested to read more of your thoughts on the stress of congregationalism, and to know who the priest's "boss" is. But what baffles me a bit is the stress of more housing than normal - is that the stress of added household cleaning? maintaining a home in the UK in addition to one in Europe? Truly uncertain.

    Thank you, though, for raising these concerns! Competing demands and unrealistic expectations are, I find, already problematic even for ordinands!

  3. Storyteller is right. I meant LESS housing, not more. Duly corrected. Thanks

  4. Very good post, thank you Bishop... even for those of us in English ministry many of both your primary contributing factors, and some of what you describe as European additions are true.

    There is increasing isolation in Rural Ministry such as ours, more 'congregationalist' tendencies, even in shared 'Mission Communities' (as we call our benefices in Exeter Dioceses), limitations of Clergy housing - though still pretty generous, admittedly - increasing travel and larger areas to cover and even cultural disparity in the different way in which ministers and the Church and those around see the world, language can sometime be a problem even in UK (I'm a local boy, so I understand the dialect in our patch, but some really struggle).

    Though the lines aren't so plainly drawn re Stipend there is still a perception that 'we're paying you' and the message that local giving doesn't even begin to match even one Stipend is not getting through. Spousal issues complicated too, still some expectation of having an unpaid minister, particularly to children, and Clergy house being public property for meetings, Sunday school etc can be stressful. My wife has to work to cover all of our expenses, more so since we took out a small mortgage on a tiny place in Riberac! Lack of security re retirement and pension, which many of our parishioners share too, is also a concern.

    A very helpful post, thanks again....