Women ministers still on the frontier

Women ministers still on the frontier

Ministry is a stressful vocation. Long hours, a hectic workload and an inbuilt community all contribute. The stress and burnout of female clergy represents a gap in current research.

“Stress in ministry is an interest of mine,” said the Rev. Peter Pereira, currently in the third year of a research program with the University of New England.

His exploratory work involves interviewing eight Uniting Church ministers.

Australian research into the stress and burnout of ministry workers has focused on males or has not been gender specific. However, research into the stress and burnout of church women is necessary, said Mr Pereira, because women have different stressors to men. These include gender-based discrimination and balancing work and home life.

Studies into the role of women in American church life point to a barrier for female clergy based on gender. Although women are deemed equal at a denominational level, academic Patricia Chang has demonstrated that at congregational and parish levels the church’s view is sometimes different.

In 1992, Chang incorporated survey and interview data obtained from 1,435 clergy and several hundred laity. The study indicated that women had made great progress “relative to the pioneers who entered the seminary in the 1970s”.

But it also identified areas of ongoing struggle for female clergy. Some issues included lower salaries than male colleagues, “flat” career trajectories and resistance to hiring a female pastor at the local church level.

According to Mr Pereira, his research shows female clergy in Australia often face the same barriers. This is evident in the working title of his thesis, Still Pioneers.

“The frontier has still not been broken,” Mr Pereia said. “We have women ministers but the gender wars that you would hope did not exist still exist at a grassroots level.

“What makes discrimination more dangerous is that, technically, we are a church that accepts women. So any sexism that exists within the Uniting Church is subtle.”

One member of the Uniting Church’s female clergy recalled experiences that illustrated Mr Pereira’s point.

“One of my female friends was working part-time in ministry,” she said. “She got chronically ill and had to retire due to ill health, but is only given a half of a half stipend because she was only working half-time at the time. The reality is she was doing more hours than her male colleague.”

Research into the stress of women in the workplace indicated greater responsibilities in home and family life as a significant cause of stress. Karen Mitchell-Lambert, former chaplain to the University of Western Sydney said that was a problem for her.

“For me, some of the biggest stresses are doing my job and all it entails,” she said.

“This involves running a household, both financially and through housework, being a significant member of my local and church community, being a good friend, a good partner and a great mum, as well as in there doing some stuff to take care of myself.

“Although the last three — friend, partner and mum — are the most important things to me, the other things just don’t stop.”

Stress and burnout have significant effects on clergy’s wellbeing.

“I have been burnt out twice definitely and possibly a third,” recalled one of the Uniting Church’s female clergy.

“My experience of burnout is like having a really bad flu: everything aches and I need to sleep and do nothing. I have no energy for very much. Usually after a significant time of rest, the energy comes back and I am able to return to ministry, but it requires significant cutbacks and boundary setting on my part.”

As this description shows, stress is debilitating. Alarmingly, studies show female clergy may be more susceptible, due to the added dimension of discrimination and the greater responsibility that is often taken by women for the juggling of the work-home interface.

According to Mr Pereira, there are signs that women’s mental and physical health may be more at risk from occupational stress than is the case for men. This demonstrates the importance of research into female clergy’s experiences.

While some of the experiences of women in Australia’s churches remain unaddressed, Mr Pereira hopes this will change.

“I’d like to see my research lead to some education in congregations about the discrimination that is still there,” he said.

Ms Mitchell-Lambert suggested churches employ a care strategy for burnt out clergy.

“It is so important to care for them and share what is going on, but expect absolutely nothing from them, including getting out of their pyjamas or off the lounge,” she said.

“It would be really good to check with them what they need: meals, shopping or just some space. Plan among the church who will be the best people to contact them to find that out, but give them a couple of days to figure it out.”

Jonathan Foye


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