A Study of Clergy Stress, Part IV

This week, we finish our four-part series on a study of clergy stress conducted by Dr. John H. Morgan, Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences.  This study addresses clergy perceptions of congregations’ expectations across four traditions: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic, delving into how clergy utilize their time, what causes stress and what causes satisfaction.

Take a look at the first three posts in this series to have some background on the study: A Study of Clergy Stress, Part IA Study of Clergy Stress, Part II, and A Study of Clergy Stress, Part III.

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

(Part IV)

by Dr. John H. Morgan

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

This component of our study naturally proved the most pleasing for the identification of causes of satisfaction within the parish on the part of the clergy is, indeed, a worthy enterprise.  And, we found five common satisfaction-inducers across denominational lines worthy of our attention.  They are (1) sermon preparation, (2) serving as the Church’s spokesperson, (3) leading the public worship, (4) spiritual direction (with the exception of the Episcopalians), and (5) pastoral counseling.  Clearly these are the areas among Protestants and Catholics, laity and clergy alike, where there will be mutual agreement, generally speaking, as to the high valuation allocated for ministry:  preaching, witnessing, worshipping, and spiritual and pastoral guidance.  That pastors do themselves and their parishes a great service directly in proportion to the amount of time allocated for these five primary functions goes without saying.  We would suggest that in most cases where stress is being generated in the parish setting, the pastor and the congregation would be well served if these five activities were to be accentuated.

The distinctive satisfaction-inducers, those unique to each individual tradition, were less clear among the Protestants, none showing up in the data for the Methodist tradition and only one for the Lutherans.  When we remember that seven out of fifteen activities were stress-inducing for Methodist clergy, whereas for Lutherans and Episcopalians only four, and for Catholics only three, we should have anticipated that satisfying situations would less likely be distinctive to the Methodist tradition than to the other three.  For Lutherans and Episcopalians, the highest single activity of satisfaction not held in common with the other two traditions was that of presiding at the Eucharist (which they shared with Catholics but not Methodists).  This reflects a growing sense of “catholicity” among the Lutheran and Episcopal Church leaders and laity in America; the trend will certainly continue.  Distinctive satisfaction-inducing situations for the Catholics number three and they include (1) presiding at the Eucharist (shared with Lutherans but not Methodists), (2) sacramental ministries other than Eucharist, and (3) involvement in the social life of the parish.  These three activities are historically characteristic of Catholic clergy and today the level of satisfaction between clergy and laity in these three areas proves to be a distinctive mark of the relationship which exists between the priest and the parish in the Catholic Church.  It is a source of strength and hope for their future as well.

It would be unfair of us, on the basis of this one study, to attempt to pontificate as to the full scope of ministry in today’s Church or to propose that we have both identified the causes of stress among the clergy and a solution to that problem.  We have, however, studied 4,000 randomly selected clergy divided equally among four major Christian traditions.  That which has caught and sustained our attention throughout this study has been those activities of ministry which are perceived by the clergy themselves to be stress-inducing and, happily, those which are satisfaction-inducing activities.  We have attempted to analyze highly problematic areas in order both to deepen our understanding of the problems and to hopefully provide relevant information for those in decision-making positions of power and leadership upon which they may act.

Several major problems across the board have presented themselves to us, such as the need for communities of faith to be better informed and educated as to the nature and function of ministry, and the relevance of such activities as studying Scripture and theology, and, in many instances, the need for the community to appreciate the relevance of clergy activity in the wider world beyond the parish.  But one of the most striking and consistently troubling phenomena gleaned from this study has been the quite obvious reality of the overworked clergy.  That is to say, clergy are spending too many hours on the job discharging too many duties with too many stresses and frustrations, many brought on by their own perceptions of parish expectations and, in others, by their own self-understanding as to the nature of ministry.  Whatever the cause, clergy stress and exhaustion – physical, emotional, spiritual – is a problem that will not go away easily and must be addressed by both the lay and clerical communities alike.  Whether suffering from a messiah complex (I must save the world) or from an anxiety about job security (I must keep proving myself), the problem is real and pervasive.

Throughout this study, we have endeavored to make clear the fact that what is being discovered in these data are “clergy perceptions” rather than either perceptions of, and by, the laity or insights gained by an objective gleaning of parish-based responses.  The issue before us from the outset has been “clergy perceptions” of these various ministry activities such as their perceptions determine their outlook on their communities and their ministries.

Other studies might be done in which the parish itself is asked to address the same, and other similar, questions regarding their understanding of ministry and their expectations regarding their clergy.  Indeed, it would be a worthwhile endeavor.  Yet, nevertheless, it would be quite different from what we set out to do, and the findings may or may not corroborate ours here.  But in closing, let us be clear on what we have done.  Firstly, we have asked the clergy to tell us what they do with their time and how they evaluate those activities in terms of priorities, and, secondly, we have asked them to share with us what they think their communities of faith think and feel about those same activities in terms of priorities.  In so doing, we have identified points of stress and points of satisfaction felt by the clergy in the exercise of their ministry.  If we have done this, we have fulfilled our goal.  If not, it still needs to be done.


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

Have you been following this series on clergy stress?  Do these issues resonate with your in your work, or that of your colleagues?

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