Understanding Clergy Resilience
Margaret Clarke, PhD, is Counselling Department Head & Assistant Professor at Briercrest Seminary in Caronport, SK
In July 2020, as I was in the midst of my study of clergy resilience, I shared a post using the metaphor of the blow-up clown toy from the 70’s. These toys have an unbeatable ability to pop back up no matter how hard or how often they get hit. Several things help this toy bounce back…their sand filled stabilizing base, their buoyant air filling, and their flexible plastic bodies. And, like this classic toy, I wondered about the resources that help clergy to “bounce back” from the challenges they face.
My study is now complete, and as other research has found; clergy do face many challenges! In my study these challenges were gathered under the themes of workload, expectations, isolation, and personal challenges. For example, one aspect of workload was the complexity of the emotional and spiritual needs clergy respond to. Expectations included things such as unrealistic expectations from others, as well as unrealistic self-expectations. Clergy experience isolation due to several factors. For example, one isolating factor occurs because people can be guarded in forming friendships with clergy and clergy also have to be thoughtful about the implications of overlap between ministry and personal relationships. Clergy also face personal challenges such as marital/family conflict or health issues.
It was surprising, given that the survey was completed in June and July 2020 near the beginning of the pandemic that those clergy who completed the online survey seemed to be doing pretty well. Despite facing challenges, the health and wellness scales used in the survey indicated that clergy were “bouncing back”, kind of like that clown who gets hit but pops back up.
In the scales used in the survey there was no indicator of burnout or secondary trauma…although these results may have been different if a different type of scale was used or if responses were collected today, now much further into the pandemic. Despite the various challenges recounted by clergy in the open-ended questions, they also reported a higher degree of health and wellness satisfaction. Responses also revealed a decent level of grit and showed a “high resiliency trait” among the clergy who participated in the survey.
In doing a comparison of responses based on the different demographics of the survey respondents, such as age, gender, and education, many did not show any statistical differences. However, a few were found to be of significant difference. First was age, with those older having higher grit and life satisfaction scores but lower health scores. Second, clergy who perceived their congregation as flourishing had higher health, ego-resiliency, grit, and life satisfaction scores than those who did not consider their congregations to be flourishing. The impact of age and perception of flourishing can inform how to better support clergy based on their stage of life and ministry context.
So, what is it that helps clergy “bounce back”? Four categories of supportive resources emerged from the survey responses and interviews.
Not surprisingly, spiritual resources were a significant aspect that clergy considered to help them be resilient. Theological meaning, a clear calling, and a sense of partnership with God were particularly influential on clergy resilience. A wide variety of spiritual practices, such as prayer, scripture, and worship, were also very important and considered to support resilience.
A second category was relational supports included a wide variety of supportive people comprising spouse, family, friends, peers, mentors, supervisor, congregation, and professionals. For example, many clergy share a joint sense of calling to ministry with their spouse and their spouse share in the ministry load, provide a sounding board, and encourage balance and boundaries and this was supportive of resilience.
Personal resources was the third category of supportive resources. This included balance of ministry and personal life, caring for health, boundaries, self-awareness, life-long learning, institutional alignment, and personal attributes. For example, boundaries through the ability for clergy to say “no” to expectations was important to maintaining balance between ministry and personal needs.
The final category of resources that support clergy resilience were organizational resources. These were aspects primarily influenced by congregations, denominations, or educational institutions than by individual clerics. Resources in this category included provision, role flexibility, rigorous pre-service discernment and preparation, early ministry support, skill-specific training and supports, and relational opportunities. For example, denominational or inter-denominational events were important as opportunities to develop relationships with ministry peers.
Perhaps some of these findings aligned with your existing thoughts about clergy resilience or perhaps some things surprised you. How so? What ideas do you have for how individual clerics can connect and be connected with supportive resources? How can congregations, denominations, and educational institutions support and contribute to clergy resilience and well-being?
If you are interested, you can read the Executive Summary of my study to learn more about the details of the challenges clergy reported, survey responses to the health and wellness scales, nuances of the supportive resources categories, and the Clergy Resilience Model I developed based on the study findings. If you would like a very deep dive into my study, you are also welcome to take a look at my full dissertation or my Faith Today article.
What We Are Reading
Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis
Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee
Building on the theme of clergy resiliency, this book brings together the expertise of a health psychology researcher and a pastoral theologian. Proeschold-Bell and Byassee link sound social scientific research with theological engagement on clergy health. What is health? How healthy are clergy? How might one think theologically about health? And what are practical steps that clergy can take to become healthier, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy they currently are? These are some of the questions the authors explore in this book, themes that dovetail well with some of the important research and findings that Margaret Clarke has pursued with Canadian clergy. Clergy will be well-served by investing time in this book.
Dr. Joel Thiessen is Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute.
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Thursday, February 10, 2022 - 9:00 AM Pacific | 12:00 PM Eastern | 1:00 PM Atlantic
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