A Study of Clergy Stress, Part III

Published January 22, 2013 | By John Morgan

Continuing with our four-part series on clergy stress, this week, Dr. John Morgan addresses the issue of stress inducers within all four traditions covered in this study: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic.

Take a look at the first two posts in this series (A Study of Clergy Stress, Part I and A Study of Clergy Stress, Part II), and don’t miss next week’s final post in which Dr. Morgan discusses the satisfaction inducers for clergy.

“Clergy Stress and Satisfaction in the Workplace:
A Comparative Study of Four Christian Traditions”

(Part III)

by Dr. John H. Morgan

STRESS-INDUCERS  (common to all and distinct to each tradition)

In the area of commonly experienced stress-inducing situations within all four traditions, there are three which stand out, namely, (1) the study of Scripture, (2) involvement in the social life of the parish, and (3) addressing social, moral, and political issues.  All four denominations more or less generate stress over each of these three activities; in all three, without exception, it is the laity who places a low ranking of importance on them, while the clergy, across the board, places a high mark of importance.  That stress is generated, and that conflict necessarily exists, is clearly borne out by the data.  Distinctive, rather than common, stress-inducing situations to each of the denominations have proven more interesting and telling.  Among the Catholics, there is only one clearly distinct instance of a stress-creating situation, and that is over the issue of the pastor spending time studying contemporary theology.  (The Episcopal clergy shares this experience.)  That the Catholic laity thinks little of this enterprise, whereas priests think it quite important to engage in such study, calls for a concerted effort on the part of the clergy to inform and instruct the laity on the meaning and value of such study and its significance to the ongoing vitality of the priests’ ministry.  A distinctive stress-inducer within the Lutheran tradition has to do with the pastor’s involvement in the social life of the outside community, an activity greatly devalued by the laity but much valued by the clergy.  Again, more instruction of the parish on the meaning and value of this activity, as it is a manifestation of the pastor’s role to evangelize and witness to the faith in the world, is obviously required here, and, using a different tack, to challenge the parish to be less selfish with the pastor’s time and more giving and generous toward the community.  This Lutheran tendency to see the pastor as “for the parish’ rather than “for the world” has been a consistent finding in this study.

Four stress-inducing situations we have found to be distinctively Methodist in character are, namely, (1) the pastor as intellectual, (2) presiding at Holy Communion, (3) ecclesiastical discipline, and (4) administration.  In every instance, the stress is created due to the laity’s low estimation of these particular forms of ministry and the pastor’s high valuation of their importance in the overall exercise of ministry.  That the intellectual flavor of the clergy has not been a distinctive characteristic of the Methodist tradition is well established, but the pastor is today called upon more than ever to display an awareness of the affairs of the world and to demonstrate an acquaintance with the flow of public information.  This trend and its importance must somehow be conveyed to the parish such that the laity becomes supportive of the pastor’s desire to participate in the intellectual activity of the community.  Methodist clergy’s low showing as to holding advanced degrees in theology and ministry (only the Episcopal clergy are lower) seems to be reflective of this tendency within the tradition to downplay scholarship generally.

The devaluation of the time spent in presiding at the Lord’s Table on the part of the Methodist laity, while the clergy find themselves increasingly valuing this activity highly, might be suggestive of the still strong “Protestant” notion about the Eucharist among the laity and a growing sense of “catholicity” regarding Communion among the clergy.  Bringing Holy Communion into the central arena of the parish’s worship life within Methodism is a recent development and has been initiated by the clergy rather than the laity.  Whereas the sermon seems to be the focus of the congregation (72% rank it high), the Eucharist seems to be the increasing focus of the clergy (74% rank it high).

Another stress for Methodist clergy is the difference of opinion with respect to the meaning and nature of the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline, and this problem will not go away, since the core of the problem centers around the problematic balance between sola Scriptura and personal piety.  These two emphases within the tradition preclude any strong sense of the meaningfulness and, indeed, rightfulness of discipline of any kind being administered by the clergy upon the laity.  Finally, the matter of administration will be an enduring struggle between the laity (concerned with local parish life) and the clergy (concerned with the management of the institutional church locally and nationally).


Dr. John H. Morgan is the Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the Foundation.

Have you been keeping up on the developments in clergy stress research?  Are you affected by some of the stress inducers discussed in this article?

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