A Study of Clergy Stress, Part I

Over a period of several years I wrote a series of books on various aspects of Christian ministry called Studies in Ecclesiastical Sociology in connection with my teaching duties in the theology summer program of Oxford University.  One of those studies, Scholar, Priest, and Pastor: Ministry Priorities Among Clergy Today (a study of stress and satisfaction in the workplace for Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic clergy) drew a great deal of attention owing to the empirical nature of this study.  Whereas Church officials are often satisfied with speculating about problems and their presumed solutions, and in this particular case the problems related to clergy stress, I have always found as a social scientist that it is better to ask than to guess.  Two criticisms of the Church officials’ modus operandi, I felt, should be addressed.  First, their tendency to speculate about an hypothesis (instead of collecting the data) and the presumption of truth (the false notion that what we “perceive” to be the truth “is” the truth).  When dealing with human reactions and emotions, it is not the truth one should seek but what the reacting person “perceives” to be truth, for it is on the basis of the perception that the individual reacts and not what is absolutely the truth. Social and behavioral scientists are never happy with either of these reductionistic tendencies, where the first one dismisses fact with prejudice and the second one presumes perception to be synonymous with the truth.

So, to get at what the clergy in these four traditions perceived to be truth about the situation and circumstances of ministry, I simply asked them a series of fact-finding questions, thereby sidestepping the dangers of speculation and avoiding the pitfalls of mistaking perception for truth.  One thousand clergy in each of the four traditions, namely, Methodist(M), Lutheran(L), Catholic(C), and Episcopal(E), were asked to answer fifteen questions, carefully constructed according to the standard rules of research instrument design set forth by the social sciences.  The data were collected, sorted, analyzed, and summarized in the book mentioned above.  The driving motivation was to gather data based on clergy responses from which, then, conclusions about stress and satisfaction in the workplace could be reasonably drawn.  Rather than having Church official speculate about what they thought might be the character and cause of stress experienced by the clergy in the workplace, this study asked the clergy themselves to provide answers leading to a clearer understanding of the roots of stress as well as points of satisfaction in their actual ministry.  Also, rather than ask members of the congregations what they thought and how they felt, the clergy themselves were asked what they thought and how they felt.  On both counts, asking questions of the clergy and identifying their own perceptions of their situation, we believe this study came closer to actually understanding the nature of stress and satisfaction among the clergy far better than all of the speculative books by armchair Church officials could ever provide.

In this brief summary essay of that major study, the interest is in summarizing points of particular interest and relevance to the topic of stress within the profession of ministry.  The justification for this interest is the empirically validated reality of the exponential rise in health problems being encountered by the clergy today at a rate never before seen in American society.  Heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, and stress are higher among the clergy under 40 years of age than in any other professional group and the numbers continue to rise.  Couple that with the disturbing rate of “clergy burnout” such that individuals who have spent years in training for the ministry are, in some instances, staying in the profession of ministry less than five years after which they drop out of the ministry (and not a few leave the faith-community entirely).  Certainly, any concerned individual can see the value of studying the phenomenon of clergy health, both physical and emotional, to get at the root causes of this abandonment of one’s profession.

Throughout and in deference to time and space, I will abbreviate references to “average” numbers within the four traditions of Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopal by using M, L, C, and E.  Of the four thousand randomly selected clergy surveyed from a national data-base, one thousand in each of the four traditions, the average age was M=46, L=48, C=56, and E=53.  Male gender was M=80%, L=98%, C=100%, and E=94%.   Caucasian ethnicity was M=95%, L=96%, C=94%, and E=100%.  Those holding “advanced degrees” beyond the credential required for ordination were M=32%, L=38%, C=58%, and E=22%.  It should be emphasized here that in a future study, both women and non-Caucasian clergy should be studied but in the data-base used for this study there were relatively meager numbers representing these two specific groupings of clergy.  Another variable which might prove relevant in the study of stress among clergy is that of rural parishes versus urban parishes.  Naturally, there is much yet to be learned here.

In addition to the biographical data, the survey made inquiries regarding the actual clock-time spent discharging these fifteen specifically designated clergy functions during the average work week.  Keep in mind that the actual “truth” is not being sought here, but rather what the clergy person “perceived” to be the truth about time allocations, for it is the perception rather than the factual truth which determines the clergy person’s assessment of time spent discharging his/her duties.  In the interest of efficiency, I will abbreviate the fifteen questions and beside each indicate the tradition and time reportedly spent on each.  Subsequently, we will report the “stress” and “satisfaction” assessments based on the disparity between what the clergy person perceived his/her “time valuation” to be versus what they perceived the parish’s “time valuation” to be.  Here, most decidedly, is the basis for determines stress in the workplace, namely, the breadth of difference between what the clergy “thinks” is important versus what they perceive the parish to “think” is important.

ACTIVITIES of the clergy questioned and reported   (hours reportedly spent)

  1.  Preparing the Sunday HomilyM=6.5   L=7   C=4.5   E=8.5
  2. Studying/reading major theologians of the day.M=2.25   L=2.5   C=2.5   E=2.5
  3. Systematic, regular exegetical study of Scripture.M=3.75   L=3   C=2.75   E=3.5
  4. Serving as a spokesperson of authority for the teachings of the Church.M=2.5   L=2.75   C=4   E=2.25
  5. Functioning as a valued and respected intellectual within the life of the parish.M=3.75   L=3.75   C=4.75    E=3.75
  6. Leading the congregation in public worship.M=3   L=3   C=8.25   E=2.5
  7. Presiding over the Eucharist/Communion.M=1   L=2   C=8.25   E=3.75
  8. Exercising “sacramental” functions of ministry such as hearing confessions, baptizing, absolutions, anointing the sick., etc. (excluding Eucharistic celebrations).M=3   L=2.5   C=4.5   C=3.25
  9. Functioning as a spiritual Director to members of the parish.M=4.5   L=3.75   C=3.25   E=2.75
  10. Exercising discipline according to the canons of the Church including counseling as relates to discipline.M=1.25   L=1.5   C=2.5   E=1.75
  11. Involved in individual and family pastoral counseling sessions.M=4   L=3.25   C=3.25   E=3.25
  12. Involved in social activities within the life of the parish itself.M=4.25   L=3   C=3.5   E=3.25
  13. Involved in social activities within the life of the outside community.M=3   L=2.75   C=2.5   E=2.75
  14. Addressing within the public forum social, moral, and political issues of the day within the life of the community.M=2   L=1.75   C=2.5   E=2
  15. Serving the administration of the parish.M=6.75   L=5.5   C=6.5   E=6.5


Note:  What is interesting even before we commence a question-by-question analysis is the realization that among the Protestant clergy (M,L,E), 1. And 15., i.e., sermon preparation and church administration, constitute the primary time-allocations whereas with the Catholic clergy (C), 6. And 7., i.e., public worship and the celebration of the Eucharist, consumed the greatest amount of weekly time.

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