Heart and soul: The pressure and privilege of ministry

Heart and soul: The pressure and privilege of ministry

We all have our ‘quiet’ moments when we take time to think and reflect; to allow ourselves to just stop and listen, and to recharge and feel whole again. But what of the minister who is on 24/7? Always on call and ministering to others; committed to their vocation beyond measure?

Grant Bickerton is a registered psychologist who works for Campus Crusade for Christ Australia (CCCA). His published research provides significant insights into the key organisational, personality and spiritual factors that influence the wellbeing of ministers. He became interested in researching the subject while he was doing ministry work on a university campus in Sydney.

“I observed Christian workers across the board — ministers, friends, people in cross cultural ministry work — who just didn’t seem to be doing that well psychologically and spiritually in their work, and their experience when they left their profession seemed even worse. I wanted to understand the causal properties that lead to wellbeing and burnout. Particularly spiritual factors, what I like to call ‘spiritual resources’, and how they contribute to wellbeing.

“I started looking at what organisational, psychological and spiritual factors promote the sense of resilience, wellbeing and engagement in ministry, as well as the things that relate to the negative experience of burn out, depression, anxiety and tensions to leave ministry,” said Grant.

To help with his research, Grant invited representatives from over forty denominational synods, state bodies, church and para-church organisations, locally and abroad. In all, more than 1,000 Christian workers, ministers and chaplains participated in a series of surveys and interventions.

“I followed them for about 18 months, measuring various aspects of their work experience, their psychological makeup, personality profile, and so on. I also explored measures of burn out, and work engagement trying to understand what leads to what, and what the mediating processes were,” explained Grant.

Some of the key findings of his research included the fact that burnout is primarily driven by stressful and demanding aspects of ministry work and are strongly related to measures of emotional ill health and thoughts of leaving ministry. Interestingly, he found that simply avoiding burnout didn’t lead to increased wellbeing. Rather, being motivated and having energy to work hard lead to increased engagement, which in turns reduces the likelihood of burnout.

The wellbeing of ministers is significant for the Church given the integral role a minister plays in the life of a congregation. Grant’s research showed that when a minister is doing well over a sustained period of time, communities of faith do the same. When a minister’s wellbeing is under pressure and they’re not doing well, the life of the faith community suffers.

“For ministers in vocational religious work, spiritual factors dominate their mind. It’s how they do their work, it’s the goal of their work, and it’s in their work conversation all the time. So spiritual factors play a greater role in work themes as well as all the personal aspects of personal meaning, personal energising, personal use of religious means to cope with stress, etc. It can bolster someone’s motivation in work life, but when there’s struggles, it has even more of a detrimental effect because for those people it can be much more a part of their identity,” stated Grant.

Jane Fry is the Associate Secretary of the NSW. ACT Synod Secretariat. She’s been in congregational ministry for nearly 20 years and has seen first-hand the ill-effects of failing to pay attention to your own wellbeing in ministry. “Burnout and depression are common, and it’s a very hard place from which to try to offer ministry or leadership. Lots of ministers do it from there, but it comes with a huge personal cost. One of the early Church fathers said the glory of God is a human being feeling fully alive. It’s very hard to feel fully alive, let alone look like it, when you’re running on empty and probably exhausted.

“As a minister, experiencing burnout is an isolating experience, and I think in some cases there’s a lot of shame involved. The faith story is such a big story; an exciting story and such an engaging story that when you start feeling as though you’re not coping with it, it’s a very shame-inducing thing,” said Jane.

Through his research Grant identified a number of pressures on ministers. “I think it’s always been a difficult job. There’s always been incredible work demand and time pressures on clergy. They’re always on call, ministry never ends. There’s always more to do in terms of your ministry, and that can lead to a sense of over work and have a negative influence on family life.

Time pressures aside, there is a myriad of other internal and external factors that influence a minister’s wellbeing, some of which can be managed and others that are beyond control.

“I found that clergy have both really high stress levels and really high job satisfaction levels. But they need to fight the temptation to please people as much as they can. They need to take time out to recuperate and to protect their family. They need time to refuel spiritually and to have an alive faith. It’s hard living the tools of your trade when you’re so busy trying to minister other people. So keeping your own faith alive and vibrant can be really hard at times,” said Grant.

Time pressures aside, there is a myriad of other internal and external factors that influence a minister’s wellbeing, some of which can be managed and others that are beyond control.

“I think culturally we live in a much faster world and we all suffer from the demands that places on us. When you offer yourself into ministry, it’s because you have some sense of call. You’re offering yourself to a vision that’s bigger than you, and there is a profound element of self-giving. By their very nature, ministers find it very hard to say no and to draw boundaries around their personal space, which is where you look after your wellbeing.

We all have our ‘quiet’ moments when we take time to think and reflect; to allow ourselves to just stop and listen, and to recharge and feel whole again. But what of the minister who is on 24/7? Always on call and ministering to others; committed to their vocation beyond measure?

Grant Bickerton is a registered psychologist who works for Campus Crusade for Christ Australia (CCCA). His published research provides significant insights into the key organisational, personality and spiritual factors that influence the wellbeing of ministers. He became interested in researching the subject while he was doing ministry work on a university campus in Sydney.

“I observed Christian workers across the board — ministers, friends, people in cross cultural ministry work — who just didn’t seem to be doing that well psychologically and spiritually in their work, and their experience when they left their profession seemed even worse. I wanted to understand the causal properties that lead to wellbeing and burnout. Particularly spiritual factors, what I like to call ‘spiritual resources’, and how they contribute to wellbeing.

“I started looking at what organisational, psychological and spiritual factors promote the sense of resilience, wellbeing and engagement in ministry, as well as the things that relate to the negative experience of burn out, depression, anxiety and tensions to leave ministry,” said Grant.

To help with his research, Grant invited representatives from over forty denominational synods, state bodies, church and para-church organisations, locally and abroad. In all, more than 1,000 Christian workers, ministers and chaplains participated in a series of surveys and interventions.

“I followed them for about 18 months, measuring various aspects of their work experience, their psychological makeup, personality profile, and so on. I also explored measures of burn out, and work engagement trying to understand what leads to what, and what the mediating processes were,” explained Grant.

Some of the key findings of his research included the fact that burnout is primarily driven by stressful and demanding aspects of ministry work and are strongly related to measures of emotional ill health and thoughts of leaving ministry. Interestingly, he found that simply avoiding burnout didn’t lead to increased wellbeing. Rather, being motivated and having energy to work hard lead to increased engagement, which in turns reduces the likelihood of burnout.

The wellbeing of ministers is significant for the Church given the integral role a minister plays in the life of a congregation. Grant’s research showed that when a minister is doing well over a sustained period of time, communities of faith do the same. When a minister’s wellbeing is under pressure and they’re not doing well, the life of the faith community suffers.

“For ministers in vocational religious work, spiritual factors dominate their mind. It’s how they do their work, it’s the goal of their work, and it’s in their work conversation all the time. So spiritual factors play a greater role in work themes as well as all the personal aspects of personal meaning, personal energising, personal use of religious means to cope with stress, etc. It can bolster someone’s motivation in work life, but when there’s struggles, it has even more of a detrimental effect because for those people it can be much more a part of their identity,” stated Grant.

Jane Fry is the Associate Secretary of the NSW. ACT Synod Secretariat. She’s been in congregational ministry for nearly 20 years and has seen first-hand the ill-effects of failing to pay attention to your own wellbeing in ministry. “Burnout and depression are common, and it’s a very hard place from which to try to offer ministry or leadership. Lots of ministers do it from there, but it comes with a huge personal cost. One of the early Church fathers said the glory of God is a human being feeling fully alive. It’s very hard to feel fully alive, let alone look like it, when you’re running on empty and probably exhausted.

“As a minister, experiencing burnout is an isolating experience, and I think in some cases there’s a lot of shame involved. The faith story is such a big story; an exciting story and such an engaging story that when you start feeling as though you’re not coping with it, it’s a very shame-inducing thing,” said Jane.

Through his research Grant identified a number of pressures on ministers (see The top seven pressures faced by ministers on page 21). “I think it’s always been a difficult job. There’s always been incredible work demand and time pressures on clergy. They’re always on call, ministry never ends. There’s always more to do in terms of your ministry, and that can lead to a sense of over work and have a negative influence on family life.

“I found that clergy have both really high stress levels and really high job satisfaction levels. But they need to fight the temptation to please people as much as they can. They need to take time out to recuperate and to protect their family. They need time to refuel spiritually and to have an alive faith. It’s hard living the tools of your trade when you’re so busy trying to minister other people. So keeping your own faith alive and vibrant can be really hard at times,” said Grant.

Time pressures aside, there is a myriad of other internal and external factors that influence a minister’s wellbeing, some of which can be managed and others that are beyond control.

“I think culturally we live in a much faster world and we all suffer from the demands that places on us. When you offer yourself into ministry, it’s because you have some sense of call. You’re offering yourself to a vision that’s bigger than you, and there is a profound element of self-giving. By their very nature, ministers find it very hard to say no and to draw boundaries around their personal space, which is where you look after your wellbeing.

“So you have to be really alert and intentional and aware of what the cost is and where it is for you. When you work as a minister it’s not easy to see any tangible outcome or result for the effort, time and emotional energy you expend. The bottom line is that it’s not about you and it’s not about meeting your needs. It’s about making yourself available to others and you can’t do that if you’re running on empty because your needs will eat you”, said Jane.

While there is no denying the pressures on clergy, some of which are unique to those with a religious vocation, for every pressure there is an equally rewarding experience.

“I think it would be a huge mistake to ever let the pressures of ministry overshadow or outweigh the enormous privilege and blessing that it is. You don’t get many opportunities to be able to contribute your best self to helping the Church be the church for the sake of the world we’re in.

“You’re continuing the work of Jesus Christ in various ways, such as feeding the hungry or binding the broken hearted, while at the same time challenging whatever it is that leads to the work you do. It’s such a privilege to be in that space and to contribute to that.

“At the heart of it, it’s about relationships. Ministry is a profoundly intimate, whole-of-life profession because you become involved in the lives, the families, the tragedies, the joys, the ups and downs of a whole community of people over an extended period of time. Your life, and the life of your family becomes intertwined with a whole community and I don’t think that happens in any other profession. That’s the gospel story from the beginning to end,” reflects Jane.

According to Grant, the key to wellbeing at work is to build both job and spiritual resources — not just reducing demands or symptoms of burnout. So what can we do as a Church and a people to support ministers and make a difference?

• Support ministers to understand and identify the processes at work that contribute to occupational stress and wellbeing.

• Help ministers develop genuinely supportive relationships with people who understand their spiritual vocation, as well with others who may not.

• Assist ministers to be ever mindful of their own spiritual development, and keep their own faith alive, vibrant, and active. They need to resist displacing or misplacing their own spiritual vitality in their work by running activities of faith for others at the expense of personally engaging, experiencing and growing with their loving heavenly Father themselves.

• Congregations can assist a minister with administrative tasks, share the responsibility for crafting specific and timely directions for their community, and keep the minister accountable with taking adequate time for recuperation and spiritual development.

“There needs to be change at all levels. At the leadership level we need to help ministers identify what it is that will help them and help resource their ideas and initiatives. At the congregational level, we need to be able to have those discussions as a community and create space to have a bit of shared understanding about the reality of what it is like being a minister.

“For the minister, they need to take responsibility and find the resourcing they need to do well. They need to ask questions such as: What will help me in my spiritual life? What will help me improve my relationship with my family? What will help me be more effective in my role? What job resources are going to help me do well and how do I access them? And amidst all these questions they need to ask themselves when will they find time to personally engage with God?” said Grant.

“From a ministerial perspective, I think the rural church has a huge amount to teach the urban church, particularly in terms of how to live in a time of scarce resources and how to work together. I think the rural church has absolutely demonstrated a willingness and an intent to make that happen.

“I think the Uniting Church doesn’t do too badly educating and supporting ministers. This Church has always made generous provision for continuing education and has been proactive about encouraging ministers to keep learning and growing through ministry. However, I do believe it could be more intentional about fostering collegiality and encouraging ministers to work together across their placement boundaries. That’s not only a good way of sharing expertise, gifts and skills around the Church, but is often rewarding, satisfying and energising. And that’s a great way to feel fully alive,” explained Jane.

You can read an overview of Grant Bickerton’s research, Wellbeing in Ministry, by visiting https://www.missionsinterlink.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Well-Being-in-Ministry-Study-overiew-and-results1.pdf

For more information and resources for Ministers go to nswact.uca.org.au/resource-centre/synod-secretariat/ministers-resources/

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