By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Flourishing in ordained ministry does not depend on having a prestigious position or even an encouraging congregation. It is associated instead with practices and perspectives that often lie within a cleric’s control.

Practical Advice for Clergy

The Duke Clergy Health Initiative makes these suggestions based on its new study:

Remember whom you serve

  • Rather than solely looking for praise from the pews, derive your sense of success from knowing you are giving your all to enact the work God calls you to do.
  • Remember that you are participating in a process: you are working with God, and only he is privy to the full picture.

Discern, discern, discern

  • Create time for spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study to understand the work God is calling you to do.

Practice healthy behaviors

  • There is tremendous pressure to eat what is offered to you at church gatherings. Remind yourself that your flock does not want to make you unhealthy. Take smaller portions with a clear conscience.
  • See to the doctor regularly, including annual checkups.
  • Get outside. Ride bikes, play golf, or take a walk every day and set a goal for the number of steps. Find time to breathe fresh air.
  • Make healthy activities a priority, but also adjust how you incorporate them into your daily routine. Do you prefer the gym but you have no time for that today? See if someone will take a walk while you meet. Pastors’ lives are too unpredictable to keep to the same habits all the time, but that does not mean you have to dismiss your health goals.

Invest in spiritual

  • Start each day by reading the Bible. Does travel interfere with your reading Scripture? Listen to a devotion on an MP3 player or mobile device.
  • Set aside time for prayers and individual time with God.
  • Keep a regular Sabbath. Make time to pray and play.

Make time for personal interests

  • Set aside time to engage in your personal interests, but also incorporate these into your ministry if possible. Pick the time that works for you
  • Schedule activities in clumps. Pick one night of the week when you will attend church meetings and urge others to use this as a basis for scheduling.
  • Set office hours for when you will be available at the church each week, and let your parishioners know.

Use space creatively

  • One pastor described taking regular office hours in a local café. This allows him to have space outside of the church to connect with church members, as well as the broader community.
  • To create distance from work during a free afternoon, some pastors recommend leaving town, even if only as far as the next town.
  • If you keep a Sabbath, include that information in the signature on your emails.
  • If you say no to a request on your day off, offer an alternate time or day when you can help.
  • Ask members of the staff or vestry about their top priorities for you and share yours. Then discuss any diverging points. Being honest about your gifts and limitations as a leader and cleric is important.

Manage your technology

  • Some clergy set a stop time every evening, after which they will not answer any call. These clergy say they check voicemail and will respond if there is an emergency, but by waiting for a message, they can decide whether something needs to be addressed that night or can wait.
  • Work with another cleric who can be on call when you are off or away. Include this person’s contact information in an automatic email reply and on your voicemail greeting.

Find support from other clergy

  • Identify another pastor who can serve as a mentor.
  • Form or join a peer or covenant group.
  • Find at least one person in whom you can confide and who can support you in the face of ministerial and personal challenges.

Seek emotional support

  • Meet a friend for lunch, especially if you feel yourself feeling down or low on energy.
  • Create an annual ritual, such as a retreat with friends, so you maintain your connection to them.
  • Make yourself accountable to a close friend or spouse who knows the daily stress you face. Help each other maintain boundaries and healthy practices.

That hopeful message comes from a forthcoming study in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community. Researchers found clergy were more likely than the average American (68% vs. 58%) to enjoy good mental health, to flourish. Those thriving in ministry tend to be intentional about health, maintain good boundaries, and stay focused on God’s mission rather than dwell on their members’ criticisms or particular results. They also pause to celebrate.

“The clergy that are flourishing do something very specific: they share their successes with the people they care about,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, associate research professor of global health at Duke University and coauthor of the study. “When something goes well at work, they don’t just sit in their office and think, Well, that was great. They actually tell somebody about it. Whether that’s a spouse, a friend or a parishioner, they talk about it. And burned out clergy don’t do that.”

Though most clergy in the study were found to be flourishing, others still struggle with mental health. The study, “Attitudes and Behaviors that Differentiate Clergy with Positive Mental Health from Those with Burnout,” cites other findings that say Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy experience relatively high rates of depression vis-à-vis the broader population. Episcopal priests report experiencing more emotions, good or bad, than the average person. And depression stubbornly persists among clergy, even with treatment.

But researchers posit that depression might be avoided altogether through practices aimed at cultivating frequent good emotions. The benefits could be physical, too. Joy and contentment are “predictive of consequential outcomes such as [decreased] cardiovascular disease,” less usage of acute health care, fewer prescriptions and less missed work, according to research cited in the study.

“Flourishing now means you’re less likely to have a new chronic disease or hospitalization in the coming years,” Proeschold-Bell said. “If we can help people get to flourishing, then we can help prevent future depression and also prevent chronic health conditions.”

This new research comes amid better awareness of health challenges facing clergy, including relatively high rates of depression, hypertension, and obesity. It stems from an intensive Duke Clergy Health Initiative study exploring mental health among 52 United Methodist clergy in North Carolina.

While clergy burnout and poor health have caused concerns in recent years, less attention has been paid to what works for the majority of clergy who flourish — people like the Rev. Susan Hartzell, rector at St. Peter’s in the Woods in Fairfax Station, Va. She says she approaches every person and situation with the same outlook: “This is going to be good. God is in this with me, and we’re going to do great work together.” She fosters gratitude in herself by sending thank-you notes on stationery to parishioners, staff, and others who have given generously to a project or activity.

“I have experienced the positive energy that comes back to me when I share my positive energy with people,” Hartzell said. When she urged the congregation to host a temporary homeless shelter at St. Peter’s to prevent hypothermia on cold nights, they trusted her enough to take steps year by year and make it a reality.

Other disciplines help keep the mind upbeat even in stressful times, Hartzell says. A Pray As You Go app (pray-as-you-go.org) supplies a 12-minute devotion that she can observe during her commuting. She schedules a sabbath day off almost every week. If she has to miss it one week, she makes it up within a few days. When she misses her morning exercise that involves walking her dogs, she makes it up in the evening.

Such habits of making backup plans for restorative activities are hallmarks of pastors who flourish, Proeschold-Bell said.

But personal disciplines mean little if they are not built on a strong and healthy sense of self, said Edward Henley, a Tampa-based Episcopal priest who works with clergy as associate faculty with the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.

“We might know that those disciplines would be very helpful,” he said, “but if you are in a state of high anxiety or in the midst of high chronic stress, the idea of taking on very helpful disciplines almost seems unattainable.”

Henley said a cleric must establish a mature level of self-differentiation, a strong sense of self as an individual and not merely a reactive person, in a family system. Until that happens, dynamics from one’s family of origin continue to repeat, such as when a priest reacts instinctively to a senior warden who reminds him of a domineering older sibling. Taking time for exercise or gratitude will not change those dynamics; one needs to break the cycle by working through the issues and gaining a broader perspective.

“There is no need to precipitate those habitual conflicts,” Henley said. “Then, by thinking clearly, the leader allows other people to respond well.”

Feeling attacked or emotionally beaten down in congregational life can be a stumbling block to flourishing. Eight percent of clergy in a larger, associated study said a church member had raised doubts about their faith within the past six months. Fifteen percent said a member had questioned their devotion to the ministry in that same time frame.

“It’s really a big deal if someone is verbally questioning to you your devotion to the ministry and you’re the pastor,” Proeschold-Bell said.

In the study, flourishing clergy distinguished themselves in how they said they respond to criticism. These persons tried not to tie their feelings to short-term results. They focused instead on aligning their work with God’s higher purposes.

“Clergy who focus on the daily opinions that congregants have of them may experience lower levels of positive mental health as a result,” the study said.

At St. Paul’s Church in King George, Va., rector Lee Gandiya says he finds comfort in 2 Chronicles 20:15: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.” He applies principles from his years as a chaplain in the British Armed Forces. That includes creating “a shared understanding of God’s mission in this place.”

“I stay positive by building cohesive teams through mutual trust … and reminding my teams of Yeshua’s intent and commands and above all to accept prudent risk in faith,” Gandiya writes via email. “Prudent risk allows me to let go and close each day with a very simple prayer: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I am going to bed!’”

Embracing habits that foster mental health, such as making time for exercise, rest and prayer, can be easier said than done for clergy who are pulled in many directions at once.

“There are obstacles to it,” said the Rev. Lisa Hines, canon for wellness and care in the Diocese of Texas. “Physically, lots of clergy aren’t healthy. They don’t have healthy diets or exercise. You can see that just looking at the room” when clergy gather.

The diocese funds clergy sabbaticals, and clergy in the diocese receive five paid days off per year for spiritual retreat. At the annual clergy conference, Hines said, Bishop C. Andrew Doyle presents clergy work as an appreciated, holy endeavor.

“That’s really important and ties to that element in the research of people feeling that they’re doing God’s work,” Hines said. “They’re not just chiseling a stone. They’re building a cathedral. They’re part of something bigger than they are, something that has real value.”

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