Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are generally driven by a sense of duty to answer calls for help. But research shows that in many cases, they rarely find time for themselves. Members of the clergy suffer from higher rates of depression, obesity and high blood pressure, and many are burning out.

Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health

Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health

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Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are generally driven by a sense of duty to answer calls for help. But research shows that in many cases, they rarely find time for themselves. Members of the clergy suffer from higher rates of depression, obesity and high blood pressure, and many are burning out.


Paul Vitello, religion reporter, New York Times
Robin Swift, director of health programs at the Clergy Health Initiative, Duke University Divinity School

TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are generally driven by a sense of duty to answer calls for help and to do the best they can to serve others. But recent research shows that in many cases, they rarely find time for themselves and as a result suffer from higher rates of depression, obesity and high blood pressure.

Many clergy members simply burn out. Traditional church support, offerings, volunteers and an active congregation is not what it once was, forcing men and women of the cloth to take on added responsibilities on top of their Sunday service duty.

Many denominations now offer programs to address the issue of clergy burnout, encouraging these worn-down keepers of the faith to take some time off and, to borrow a computer term, refresh.

Pastors, preachers and all members of the clergy, we want to hear from you. What don't we understand about your job? What has changed in the past 10 years? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, a final sing-along with none other than the late Mitch Miller, but first: burnout among the clergy. Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Paul Vitello. He is the religion reporter for the New York Times, and he wrote an article about this problem in the weekend's paper. Paul, welcome to the program.

Mr. PAUL VITELLO (Religion Reporter, New York Times): Thank you.

COX: You know, from your story, we see that clergy burnout doesn't happen in just one denomination. It seems as if it's a pretty widespread phenomenon.

Mr. VITELLO: Yeah, it seems to be a professional hazard - in the last decade or so. It seems that from mainline Christian denominations like the Methodists and Presbyterians, to Jewish congregations of all the different denominations of the Jewish faith, and Catholic priests as well, for various and sundry reasons, have been experiencing an increased risk of high blood pressure, obesity and other indicators of shortening lifespan and stress, most of it related to stress.

COX: Let's talk about some of those various and sundry reasons. Is it because of the economy? Is it because of the tension because of the wars? Is it because more people are going to church? Are you able to put a fix on what is causing this right now?

Mr. VITELLO: A short answer is no, because there's so many reasons. Some of them have to do with the economy, I'm sure, but most of the research that's being done right now out of Duke University, for instance, the divinity school there, has been doing research on clergy stress going back about four or five years, which would predate most of what, you know, what effects would be felt from the recession.

And going back as far as 10 years, there's been beginnings of these health indicator problems, which originally came to the attention of the various denominations, mostly the - initially the mainline Protestant denominations because of concerns over rising health care costs.

They're mostly - most of the denominations are self-insuring groups, and when there is a blip in their health care cost, you know, lines, they feel it intensely because they're very small insurance pools.

So, beginning with the Lutheran Church, and then the Methodists and Presbyterians, began to look more closely at this and study it going back before the recession, also before the electronic communications revolution.

You know, a lot of pastors that I talked to mentioned, you know, how much more accessible they are and how much more vulnerable they are to being called upon...

COX: At any time of the day or night, right?

Mr. VITELLO: Day or night, and...

COX: Absolutely. Let me bring in another voice to the conversation, if you don't mind. Joining us now from a studio at Duke University is Robin Swift. She serves as the director for health programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, which is part of the Duke Divinity School. Welcome, Robin, to the show.

Ms. ROBIN SWIFT (Clergy Health Initiative, Duke University Divinity School): Thank you very much.

COX: The research that you were a part of doing - and we're going to get to a couple of callers in just a moment - I know that it was limited to the Methodist church in North Carolina. But what were you able primarily to determine from your research?

Ms. SWIFT: We've done two different kinds of studies, a qualitative series of focus groups to ask pastors about their health in the context of their lives, and then a broad sort of census, quantitative study we did in 2008 to look at their data compared with data for other North Carolinians.

And you are probably asking about our quantitative findings...

COX: Yes.

Ms. SWIFT: ...where we found that pastors' health was worse off across the board than the populations where they serve. Their rates of obesity were about 10 percent higher.

We looked at other kinds of chronic diseases. High blood pressure rates were about four percent higher, asthma rates also about four percent higher. Their diabetes rates are about three percent higher than other North Carolinians.

We also asked about mental health, looking at depression rates in pastors, which approach about 10 percent, and although there's - go ahead.

COX: Let me stop you only because you're giving us a lot of numbers, which is hard to - which I wanted, too, because I asked you to do that. But it's a little difficult to digest. So let's try to break it up into pieces, and what we'll do in order to accommodate that is let's duck in an email here and then comment on that and then come back and have you give us some more of those details.

Ms. SWIFT: Great.

COX: This comes from Linda(ph) in Oberlin: I took a five-year leave of absence after my husband died and found that while clergy may handle death well when it happens to those in our care, we do not know how to care - we do not know how to take care of each other as clergy.

I wrote a document addressing this issue and am happily surprised that it is being studied in the Kansas West Conference of the United Methodist Church. I think that if there had been a program of care in place, I would not have been gone for five years. I just got back into the ministry in July. This is Reverend Linda from Oberlin, Kansas.

Since we're talking about the Methodist Church, I'll come back to you first, Robin. What's your reaction to that?

Ms. SWIFT: It sounds right on the money. Pastors, because of their calling, put everybody else first and have a difficult time naming their needs for self-care, and they also, like the Marines or emergency room staff, expect a level of high functioning from each other.

So are sort of surprised and often daunted by the need to care for each other. They want to, but they're not entirely sure how, and...

COX: Paul - I'm sorry, finish. I apologize. I thought you were finished. Go on.

Ms. SWIFT: They're also very aware of the need to keep professional boundaries with and for each other. So it's hard, when you're stressed out, to know how to invite others into your pain, and others may be waiting for a signal from the person in pain to offer help.

COX: Well, Paul, in your research, do you find that there is an institutional support in place for some of these members of the clergy, something that will allow them to begin to deal with, not only with these - what we're just now talking about, their own personal pains, but also with the ability to take some time away and to, as we said in the beginning, refresh?

Mr. VITELLO: Yeah, there's quite a bit, but I should say that it depends on the kind of congregation that you're from. If you're from a well-organized denomination, like we've been talking about Methodists, and you are in a large congregation with perhaps an associate pastor behind you or two, then the opportunity to take vacations and to take sabbaticals is much greater.

The greatest stress that I found in my own research in talking to pastors was among those who were independent Evangelical Christian ministers with small congregations of 50 to 100, and who literally felt the total weight of all their congregants' needs all the time.

COX: You know, it just so happens that we have an Evangelical pastor on the line, joining us right now from Sioux City, Iowa. John(ph), you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN (Caller): Hello, thank you. And I think this is a great show. I'm an ELCA pastor who is totally burned out and in between calls and/or looking for another way to make a living simply because my congregation has left the denomination over the decisions about a year ago in the ELCA pertaining to homosexuality.

But all of the stresses and strains that you folks have been talking about I can easily relate to.

COX: What do you think that you need, if I may ask you that, John, what is it that you need?

JOHN: Well, I think one of the least talked about issues for clergy is the increasing lack of respect toward clergy from all sides, not just from parishioners and community, but also from the denominational leaders and the hierarchy.

Pastors are theologians. We go through a lot of training, but often are not well-regarded for all of that. And instead of getting to do what we're trained to do, often we're expected to do things for which either we're not qualified or we don't enjoy doing, that really should be done by laity. Especially, I was an open country parish pastor, and boy did I wear a lot of hats sometimes.

COX: Like... I'm interested in hearing more. We have to go to a break in just a moment. John, let me ask you to do this. Please hold on, because I think that what your story is goes to the heart of the matter that we're talking about, along with Robin and with Paul. So stick around. Can you? Can you hold on?

JOHN: Sure, I will.

COX: All right, hold on. I'm going to put you on hold, and we'll come back to him in a minute.

Robin, I want you to think about this, and Paul, as well. He talked about a lack of respect, and I don't know whether that was something that you were able to look into in the course of your research and investigation. But I want to talk about that with you both. Paul, can you stick around a little bit longer, as well?

Mr. VITELLO: Sure.

COX: I appreciate that. We are talking about burnout among the clergy. Robin Swift is with the Clergy Health Initiative at the divinity school at Duke University. More of your calls in a moment.

If you are a member of the clergy, what don't we understand about your job? What has changed in the past 10 years? Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. The email address, I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox, in Washington. Our focus today is on burnout among the clergy. Studies show that preachers, imams, rabbis and ministers don't take enough time for themselves, are more likely to suffer from depression and other health problems, and often feel selfish saying no.

Robin Swift works on one of those studies. She is director of health programs at the Clergy Health Initiative at the divinity school at Duke University. We have posted a link to their research at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And all members of the clergy, we want to hear from you. What don't we understand about your job, and what has changed in the past 10 years? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address: And to join the conversation, go to the website,, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Paul Vitello is the religion reporter for the New York Times, whose article "Evidence Grows of the Problem of Clergy Burnout" ran on August 1st. He is still with us, as well.

Now, I'm going to go back right now to John, who is an evangelical pastor from Sioux City, Iowa. John, are you there?

JOHN: Yes.

COX: One of the things briefly I'd like to get you to tell our audience - you talked about how you wear so many hats, and there are so many things that you have to do. Briefly, please, what is it that you have to do, and what are some of those hats and responsibilities?

JOHN: It varies from congregation to congregation, but for small congregations where the pastor lives in a parsonage, for example, pastors are often expected to open, unlock buildings and then lock them again. It wasn't uncommon for me at times to need to do, in some of my parishes, some of the custodial work. I've, in some congregations, been the de facto secretary for many functions, let's say, of the secretarial duties.

And where small congregations are struggling for volunteers, pastors feel an enormous burden to keep programs going even when the volunteers burn out, and it, you know, so some pastors...

COX: Have more to do. They have a lot more - they have to pick up the slack, in other words? Is that right, John?

JOHN: Exactly. Right. Like, I formed my last church's little choir because no one was stepping forward to do that kind of thing.

COX: John, thank you very much for the call. I appreciate your hanging on and sharing that story with us. We have several calls we want to get to. Robin and Paul, don't go anywhere. I'm coming back to you in a second. This is Susan from Boise, Idaho. Susan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Suzie? Susan? Okay, we lost Susan. I guess she wasn't able to hang on.

Let's talk really briefly, Paul, about what John described. That's the essence of what your article was about, wasn't it?

Mr. VITELLO: Right. And I think what John described is, as you say, you know, right at the heart of it for the independent - he's with the Lutherans, and the mention - the problem that he referred to as having broken up his congregation, which is the decision of the Lutheran Church to ordain gay ministers, is typical also of another stress on many pastors in the past 10 years, have been many such social issues, same-sex marriage, the ordination of gay or - and women ministers have come into it.

And one of the things that I heard a lot of people talk about in a more abstract way was just the emergence of the megachurch and the pressure that that put on many pastors, at least internally, to grow, you know, to grow their church.

It was never enough to have a small church of 100, you know, if you could imagine one that was 200. And it's a subtle, but relentless pressure that many of them feel, and it's not just abstract. It also is the question of finding those new volunteers, finding new sources of revenue for programs.

COX: Absolutely, and trying to grow. Let me bring Robin back into the conversation. Robin, we haven't talked to you in just a moment. We haven't forgotten about you. But you're the researcher, and in terms of the research and the studies that you have done, how much a part of that is what John described, before we go to our next call?

Ms. SWIFT: I think John's description was really eloquent, and the way our focus group research presented was that people aren't aware of the depth and breadth and intensity of what they ask pastors to do, and they also forget that they treat the end of their workday as the end of their workday, but it's often the beginning of the pastor's workday.

So there's not only all the things that a pastor does during the daytime -making hospital calls, administering the parish, planning a sermon or Sunday school lesson - but there's the phone calls and the meetings that they field at night. There really isn't much rest time.

COX: All right, we have another caller. This is Ron, joining us from Kansas City, Missouri. Ron, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RON (Caller): Hello, hello. One of the things that I wanted to tap into was as a minister of the Gospel, I do appreciate the callers recognizing that ministry is a call, which is absolutely a phenomenal aspect.

I think many people have vocations, but when it comes to ministry, there's a seriousness of the call or the intention of God to have an individual involved, not only their selves, but their whole livelihood into the ministry.

With that said, though, I've been in ministry - active, full-time ministry -for about 10 years, and I came into ministry from a different vocation, from the corporate America vocation.

And one of the things that I have found recently as I've struggled, I feel getting close to burnout because one of the issues that I have is I'm constantly the one that's being tugged at by my parishioners.

I have a staff of elders. I've got deacons. I've got other folks in ministry leadership positions that are able to go out and do what they've been called to do in terms of ministries, but the congregation doesn't see my elder staff, my deacons or other ministry leaders as important or significant.

They must see the pastor. If an elder comes to the hospital and visits, it's okay, but where's my pastor? If the - if someone dies, and an elder goes by and prays with the family, that's great. But where's my pastor?

So one of the challenges that I have is trying to respect people's expectations, and then also have a high regard for the call of ministry, because you don't want to be seen as out of touch with your congregation.

COX: That's an interesting call, and thank you very much for it, Ron. And Ron is - what he is saying is you cannot be everything and all things to all people.

Let's take another call. This is Don in Rochester, New York. Don, welcome. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DON (Caller): Thank you. Thank you.

COX: Your comment, sir?

DON: Well, I think John's description is extremely, extremely good and accurate. Personally, I found - I was ordained in the 1970s. So I've been at this a while. And the expectation ranges from everything from preaching sermons to moving furniture, and I think I do more furniture moving than preaching, actually.

COX: Oh, my.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DON: It's normal to expect 50 to 60 hours a week in terms of evening meetings, plus the things that one is asked to do during the day. And it not only involves the clergyperson, it also involves the whole family.

COX: Well, let me ask this before I say goodbye to you, Don, thank you for calling. Do you take vacations every year?

DON: Yes, I do.

COX: All right, so that has helped you?

DON: Oh, it helps. And in 2008, I was able to get my first sabbatical. So it was 38 years between ordination and my first sabbatical, and the only way I was able to get that was through getting a national grant to pay for it. But the congregations I have served have been smaller, and they just have not felt they had the money to be able to afford a sabbatical for clergy.

COX: Well, Don, thank you very much for that, sharing that with us, because I want to read an email that actually goes quite along - goes along quite well with what you are just - the point that you are just now making.

It comes from Theresa: Yes, my profession is stressful, she writes. As a newly married, pregnant, Episcopal priest, I feel pulled in many directions. I have been ordained and serving St. John's Episcopal Church - a progressive, growing, urban congregation - for six years in St. Louis.

I am the only full-time staff person. Like John, I do all kinds of tasks every week. Our church pension fund offers an eight-day renewal retreat for clergy every three years or so, where we examine our vocational, spiritual, physical and financial health. I am really grateful for this incredible resource. It has helped me to reconnect to God and to my vocation.

My question, Robin: Are we seeing more and more of this, where ecumenical councils and the like are beginning to provide this kind of in-service support for people of the cloth?

Ms. SWIFT: Thankfully, yes. We looked, and there are about 53 programs dedicated to clergy health around the country. Very few have been as generously funded as ours. And we have a really strong evaluation base, so we can take a look at what has actually worked. But I think, as Paul pointed out earlier, the increase in health costs have driven a number of denominations to think about an organized response to improving the health of their pastors. And there are some terrific programs out there.

COX: Let me read an email and then go to a phone call that are both sort of connected, talking more personally about the pastoral experience. This one comes from Sarah Jo(ph). She writes - she's in Ohio: My father became a pastor later in life. What most people don't think about is what happens when the clergy has to tell people things that they don't want to hear, when the demands of holding people accountable for their actions elicits absolutely incredible enmity, enmity from former friends. I have watched people outright lie and rip my parents' reputation apart. The stress almost killed my mother, and I don't say that lightly. Sarah, thank you for that.

Let's go to - let's see. Let's go to Rochester, Minnesota, where Melanie(ph) is on the line. Melanie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MELANIE (Caller): Hello. Yes. My dad was a Baptist minister. He was ordained in 1969. He retired in 2000. The stress was too much for him. And the amount of stress put on my sister and my mother and I for being in the spotlight, constantly.

COX: We're listening. I'm sorry. I thought you had more to say. Thank you for that.

MELANIE: Oh, no.

COX: That's okay. We understand. Thank you, Melanie, for that call. Paul, I'll come back to you briefly. In your article that you wrote, well, you talked about the impact - being a person of the cloth has on them individually as well as their families. You didn't talk a great deal about the families. Is that an issue too?

Mr. VITELLO: Yes. Well, it certainly is, and it often comes down to a choice that a pastor makes between giving time to his congregation and giving time to his family, which is a very painful choice oftentimes because the congregation, as one of the callers said, is a calling and often comes first.

I had one pastor that I talked to in New York City who told me that he advises all his young minister friends who are men and who are married to grab every possible vacation week or - with his family and run with it, because too many -he said too many young people whose fathers have been ministers throughout their childhood have turned away from the church in a certain kind of resentment toward the obligations that their fathers were under during the time when they wanted them at home.

So it's a very complicated, you know, story for families and the pastor in the middle, between the congregation and his own children and wife.

Ms. SWIFT: Tony.

COX: Let me just give this little piece of information, then I'll come right to you, Robin.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay, Robin. What are you going to add to that?

Ms. SWIFT: Just that lots of us are in very stressful jobs, and the difference for pastors is that they're called on to mediate God for people, to make meaning in moments of crisis. And it's a very different calling, job, responsibility than even the intense work of being a physician, being a firefighter, being a parent.

COX: It's interesting that you should say that because I have in my hand a very interesting email. I was going to relate it to you, as a matter of fact. It comes from Nathan in Muncie, Indiana: In my thesis work I studied pastoral burnout and found that the loneliness factor played a big role. Pastors have huge holes in that they cannot just go out and have - it's written, a little difficult to follow. Let's see if we can get it straight. Pastors have huge holes in that they can't just go out and vent to just anyone about their job. Churches need to find a balance of watching out for the needs of their pastors while not overstepping the professional boundaries. Can churches do that, Robin?

Ms. SWIFT: Oh, I think there are lots of ways churches can do that, and we have a few suggestions. One is they can be the first to encourage their pastor to take a vacation. They can consider making non-urgent phone calls during business hours. And instead of finding fault, they can voice support every time they get a chance. They can create healthy food offerings when they gather together, have walking versus sitting meetings, share the workload, and realize that this is a calling for all people of faith, to honor their bodies and their health, and figure out how they can do that.

COX: Interesting that you should say that. Excuse me for interrupting, but we got an email that I was going to share with you. And it says simply: Cut out the free fried chicken, grits and gravy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: And I suppose there is something to that, because you're talking about that right now.

Ms. SWIFT: I think indeed there is. But it's a hard culture to change. And remember that unlike other professionals, pastors are the only ones that get fed at almost every encounter they have with people.

COX: That's an interesting thing. Our time is running short. Let me bring you, Paul, back in to ask you, in terms of the article that you wrote, whether or not what will be needed - and I need a pretty concise answer from you - is a change in the culture of our clergy, our approach to them and their approaches to themselves.

Mr. VITELLO: Yeah. And I think that change is happening. The way I came to this story in the first place was a couple of pastors that I knew were taking a week at a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts and I thought that would be a fun story to write about, a week of - in a silent - an order of silent monks -monastery. And in doing - in following them through that decision, I came upon all the research that's been going on at places like Duke that pointed to a larger story here. But, yes, I do think a lot of people are now taking very seriously their obligations to their own physical health and to deal with their stress in the ministry.

COX: It's been a very interesting conversation. We could go on and on and on about it. Unfortunately we don't have the time to do that. Let me thank you all for participating. Paul is the regional - religion reporter, Paul Vitello, the regional - I'm going to get it right, Paul. Paul is the religion reporter for the New York Times, where his article, "Evidence Grows of Problem of Clergy Burnout," it ran on August 1st. There's a link to it at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you again, Paul.

Mr. VITELLO: Thank you.

COX: Robin Swift serves as a director of health programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, part of the Duke Divinity School. She joined us from a studio at Duke University. Robin, thank you as well.

Ms. SWIFT: Thanks.

COX: And thank you to all the listeners who called in and all of those who sent in emails. A very interesting conversation.

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