What's Tony Thinking

Clergy Well-Being


Next week I’m doing a two-day, on-line seminar with a dozen pastors of the United Church of Canada. All are located in British Columbia. It’s a self-organized group. Besides their denominational pedigree, they also have in common that all are under 40 years of age. They initiated the idea and invited me to give leadership.

How are clergy doing in this time of COVID, when church is so different and the general levels of anxiety in the population have spiked for multiple causes? Matt Bloom who heads up a project at Notre Dame looking at these questions says, “He’s worried.” The link is to a recent podcast with Bloom via the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, D. C.

Bloom talks about four key factors identified in their research: daily well-being (do the good days out number the bad ones?), resilience (ability to bounce back from set-backs and adapt in the face of challenges), authenticity (basic self-regard, confirmed by others who love and value you and your work, not trying to be someone you’re not), and thriving (finding meaning and purpose in what you do). For further discussion of these key markers and opportunities to utilize an app that evaluates pastoral well-being and provides feedback to users check out their website. 

To be sure, it is a tough time for most everyone — the vulnerable elders, people living alone, parents trying to negotiate schooling, employers wondering if they can keep their business going for another month, and for clergy.

Clergy are caught on the horns of a persistent dilemma at all times but one that is heightened in times like these. On one hand, clergy are generally in pretty close touch with human suffering and evil. If you’re doing your job, you get an unrelenting exposure to human suffering (as do many other occupations like cops, social workers and journalists). On the other hand, (and unlike most other vocations) clergy are called upon, expected really, to offer words of hope and a message of good news. So you’re trying — as conscientious pastors must — to hold two realities that are at the very least in tension and may seem outright contradictory.

Negotiating that tension between feeling and entering into the pain and tragedy of human life and sharing hope and grace that are authentic can be very hard.

In a sense, this is the age-old theological problem known as “theodicy.” If God is good and God is God (all powerful) how can there be so much suffering and evil in the world? Clergy don’t just write tomes about theodicy, they live it.

Still, I see some positive signs for clergy well-being these days. One is that so many congregations have adapted quite well and graciously to doing worship in different forms during the pandemic, whether via Zoom, pre-recorded services or house-church subsets. Hopefully, churches can put these adaptive successes in the bank, so to speak, and draw on that account in the future. I hear from some clergy that COVID has, perhaps ironically, made possible changes that were previously un-thinkable.

A second thing I see is exemplified by the group of under-40 Canadian clergy that I will be meeting with via Zoom next week. Clergy in present generations are less inclined to “go it alone,” and more likely to work at building networks of support and asking for help. While denominations have a role here and some are doing great work, it is also true that clergy can’t always wait for their denomination to put something together. Good on you Maple Leafs!

A third positive is that there are more initiatives these days to support younger or newer clergy and to ensure that they make it through the crucial first five years. One of these is the Next Generation Leadership Initiative of the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ. You might ask, why are a Pension Board doing that work? I’m sure they care deeply about clergy well-being in ministry and their flourishing, but they have also noticed that when many clergy bail on pastoral ministry in their first five years contributions to the pension funds go down. It’s a good investment.

Matt Bloom, whose work I cite to above, also studies the well-being of people in other kinds of work, e.g. global relief workers and health care workers. He says clergy differ from most others he has studied in that the people they serve are also the people they work for, their employer. He’s right. It’s a different situation and can be dicey. At the same time I think it is a little more complex than that. If clergy think of themselves only as employees and congregations as employers, where’s God in that picture?

Both clergy and a congregation “work for” God. When the arrangement is reduced to only a contractual arrangement between pastor and church, something crucial has been lost or forgotten by both parties.



Categories: Uncategorized