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Fighting Clergy Burnout

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It is no secret that clergy of all religious traditions today are plagued by a relatively high level of stress and fatigue. I speak as an Orthodox Christian priest, but these remarks concern virtually anyone who has undertaken full time pastoral ministry.

Most clergy are overworked and, relative to their congregations, underpaid. Like everyone else, they have children to put through school, medical bills to pay, and mortgages to deal with. To make ends meet, they usually need two salaries. This takes the wife out of the house and places her as well into the stress and strains of the workplace. When husband and wife return home in the evening, they often grab a quick to bite to eat, then the priest hurries off to a parish meeting, a mid-week service or Bible study, or a difficult counseling session with someone in the congregation.

Still others suffer from a martyr complex: they believe that the way to please God and guarantee their own salvation is literally to kill themselves with work.

We have just come through the second most marvelous, most busy and most stressful season of the liturgical year: Nativity and Theophany, which most people around us know as Christmas and Epiphany. For an Orthodox priest, Theophany services are the longest of the year (even though there are fewer of them than at Pascha or Easter), and they are usually followed by a long series of house-blessings. Couple this with the usual pastoral chores that arise at any time, and you have a set-up for exhaustion if not for burnout.

There are many reasons why clergy tend to exhaust themselves and finally burnout. Some are compulsive workaholics: they can’t relax and enjoy themselves, or take a day off each week, or look forward to a vacation, because some unconscious baggage makes them feel guilty if they do. Others are compulsive people-pleasers: they spend all their time and energy trying to meet others’ needs and expectations, convinced that they are thereby exercising “ministry.” Still others suffer from a martyr complex: they believe that the way to please God and guarantee their own salvation is literally to kill themselves with work.

It’s no wonder that most clergy wives feel abandoned, neglected, ignored—and at the same time put upon to fill a role as taxing as that of their clergy spouse: bake the prosphora (eucharistic bread), direct both choir and church school, run interference on the phone and at the door when the priest is otherwise occupied (or hiding), handle a variety of administrative details in the parish—and then serve as full-time mother, cook, housekeeper, and, if she has the time, spend some forty hours a week bringing in another salary.

Divorce rates among Orthodox clergy used to be minimal. They have soared in recent years, at least in this country. Although the pastor’s role hasn’t really changed, the stresses have increased enormously, largely because our clergy have bought into the workaholism and sleep-deprivation of most of their parishioners. And if they have not, then they are made to feel guilty. It’s a no-win situation.

This is a subject we will have to return to in the coming months. For the moment, let me point out just one factor that plays more of a role in clergy stress and distress than we usually recognize. It is the simple fact of too little sleep.

Last fall the National Sleep Foundation published an appeal to employers to allow their employees to take a short nap while on the job. It has been found that just a few minutes of sleep after lunch, for example, can reduce stress significantly, while increasing both concentration and memory. Those of us who have had to teach a class in the two to four slot know all too well how much that nap is needed, both for the professor and for the students.

Any effective answer to clergy burnout has to involve everything from personal therapy, where appropriate, to sabbaticals offered our priests and encouraged by our bishops. (Mutatis mutandis, this is true for the pastors of any church body.)

A good start—while we wait for a Lilly sabbatical grant and pray for a geographical cure in the form of a transfer—would be to take seriously our physical, mental and spiritual need for adequate sleep. Eight hours per night is still the recommended amount. Any less can be compensated for, at least in part, by a brief siesta. A good rule for that is to lie flat on the rug, use a pillow and light blanket, and doze off, getting up immediately as soon as you wake up. Very quickly you can train yourself to go under for just a few minutes, then awaken fully. After a few seconds shaking off the sleep, you are fully rested and ready to take on, if need be, another six to eight hours of productive activity.

This might sound simplistic, but adequate sleep is also one of the most effective antidotes to depression (it restores seratonin and other neurotransmitters). Neither our parishes nor our families want sleep-deprived and depressed pastors. Nor, if I may dare say so, does God. This may be just a little step toward health and sanity, but it’s an important one. So please (I say to myself), please give it a try.

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About The Author


The Very Rev. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1984-1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France and with his wife Lyn he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, SC. His published works include, The Sacred Gift of Life, The Power of the Word, and The Shape of Biblical Language. (St Vladimir’s Press)