Resilience in Ministry: Three Action Steps

Pastor Jacob looked at the email, grimaced, and thought, “Not another one.” His heart sank a bit. Another individual was contacting him after visiting the church on Sunday and asking for a pastoral visit, ending his email, “And my wife and I are very interested in the possibility of joining your vibrant congregation!” Pastor Jacob realized the irony of his gut reaction. When he had started in ministry twelve years ago, he was “on fire” for reaching people with the Word of God, but now he mostly just felt tired. His church of ninety-five members was understaffed, yet they asked him to cut back to three-quarters time to save money and make budget. Despite this cost-saving move, expectations remained high, hoping that he would work just as hard, continue to offer Bible studies, attend meetings, create new programs, and actively evangelize the community. Mostly, though, Pastor Jacob just felt tired.

Pastor Jacob is not alone. At LeaderWise, which is a ministry development center, we see about 750 people in ministry each year. His story follows a familiar trajectory. When we meet with individuals as seminarians and candidates for ministry, there is a high level of idealism and optimism, as people feel deeply called to ministry and enthusiastically envision the possibilities. Then, when meeting them after several years of congregational ministry, many are tired, even a bit burnt out. Still, most haven’t given up. It’s upon that thread of hope and commitment, no matter how slim, that we begin to help clergy build their energy and resilience.

An initial read of the statistics can be staggering. According to a recent national survey of clergy in one large denomination: 80% of clergy are overweight or obese, 45% report significant work stress on a regular basis, 28% experience work impairment due to depressive symptoms, and 13% receive ongoing treatment for clinical depression (United Methodist Church, 2017). The number of clergy who are clinically depressed is twice the rate of the national average (New York Times, 2010). The toll is profound for clergy spouses, too, with 73% describing their health as merely “fair” or “poor” (Carroll, 2006).

And, yet, there is hope to build on. Ministry can be immensely rewarding in spite of the costs. One national survey finds that 87% of clergy are satisfied with their calling to ministry (University of Chicago News, 2007), and another that 98% view their work as “meaningful,” which is the highest of all jobs and professions (PayScale, 2014).

Given that ministry comes with both great joy and cost, and it likely always will, how do we build resilience to maximize the joy, and, more importantly, to serve out our calling to ministry? At LeaderWise, we strive to help our clients go beyond words to action. Your effectiveness in ministry extends only to the degree to which you remain physically, emotionally, and spiritually fit. We rarely see ministers washing out because of poor knowledge of theology. Much more common to our experience, clergy quit because they’ve seriously overextended themselves at the expense of personal health, and often at a cost to their family relationships and friendships, too.

We recommend three specific action-step strategies to jumpstart your journey to resilience.

  1. The X then Y Strategy. You know what you need to do, such as exercise or eat better, but consistently neglect to do so. What’s the best way to actually begin a healthy behavior? Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, a health psychologist, researched different strategies and found the simplest is most effective. He refers to it as setting an “implementation intention.” It’s as straightforward as “x then y.” When I’m in x situation then I’ll do y behavior. For instance, when heart attack survivors were asked to exercise twenty minutes per day, only 29% did it. When presented with the dire consequences if they didn’t, such as premature death, the compliance rate increased to 39%. And, most significantly, when they were asked to set a clear implementation intention (e.g., when it’s 4 pm, I’ll exercise for twenty minutes on the elliptical), compliance skyrocketed to 91% (Gollwitzer, 1999). As you think about your personal well-being, what’s one behavior for which you could set an implementation intention? Be specific, “if x then y.”
  2. The Premack Principle Strategy. Named for Dr. David Premack, this strategy is familiar to most parents. A common refrain in households across the globe, “When you complete your homework, you can go out and play.” The strategy is to take a frequently occurring behavior, such as play for children, to reward a less frequently occurring behavior like homework completion. As adults, it can be something like, “I won’t eat breakfast until I exercise for thirty minutes” or “I’ll drink a cup of coffee to reward myself only after I spend fifteen minutes in prayer.”
  3. The Relationships Strategy. A recurrent theme we hear from clergy and their spouses is how lonely they feel. We frequently have them complete a loneliness survey at workshops, and, on average, they score significantly higher than the general population for loneliness. In a recent national survey, about 30% report feeling “isolated and lonely” as their typical state (United Methodist Church, 2017). Research on the effects of loneliness links it to premature death, immediately behind cigarette smoking and untreated hypertension, and at a rate that is twice the risk of obesity (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2012). On the flip side, a longitudinal study of men from the 1930s to the 2000s finds social connections to be the number one predictor of physical and emotional health (Vaillant, 2002). If you could do one thing today to enhance your overall well-being, pick up the phone and call a friend.

Ministry is both highly rewarding and challenging, and it’s a privilege to be called and serve. In order to remain viable for many years, and to lead others to Christ, use these three action-step strategies to transform your well-being.

Dr. Mark Sundby, Ph.D., is a 1996 graduate of the University of Minnesota with over 20 years experience as a psychologist. He serves as Director of LeaderWise in New Brighton, Minnesota. LeaderWise develops leaders through coaching and consulting and offers a state-of-the-art assessment process. 

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