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Ministry Burnout: Myth or Reality?

By Leslie J Francis.

Anglican priest, chartered psychologist and fellow of the British Psychological Society. Professor of Practical Theology at University of Wales, Bangor.

Work-related health

The work-related health of the clergy is a matter of much more than academic concern, although academic research has played an important part in trying to come to terms with what defines it, the factors which promote or detract from it, and the consequences of good or bad work-related health. This topic is of concern for at least three very practical reasons, all of which need to be taken seriously by the Church at large.

First, work-related health is a major factor in shaping general personal health, both physical and psychological. Priests who suffer from poor work-related health may as a consequence fall sick in other ways.

Second, work-related health is a major factor in shaping how well the job is done, both pastorally and administratively. Priests who suffer from poor work-related health may as a consequence fall down on the job, leaving parishioners unsupported and crucial tasks uncompleted.

Third, work-related health could be a major factor in shaping how others view the clergy and how they view the Church those clergy serve. Priests who suffer from poor work-related health may as a consequence project an uncaring, ineffectual image to the world, increasing the impression of the Church being marginal and irrelevant to the day-to-day matters of secular life.

A confused picture

At face value mixed messages seem to be sent out about the work-related health of the Roman Catholic clergy. In 2003 Monsignor Stephen Louden and I published findings in our book The Naked Parish Priest1 based on a detailed enquiry among more than 1,400 Catholic parish priests. The book drew attention to two very different sides of the story.

Many of the chapters provided personal testimony of men, dedicated to their work, who were deriving a great deal of satisfaction from their calling. A young priest in his early thirties said simply: "I am very happy in the priesthood and could not imagine any other life."

A priest in his early forties commented more expansively:

"I am very happy being a priest. I feel that we are in both challenging and exciting times for the Church. It has never been easy to be a priest; each age demands new things, but the Church is ever ancient, ever new. Keeping these two in balance is the heart of the priests' ministry."

A priest in his late sixties reflecting on ministry said:

"I am personally completely fulfilled in my ministry and am extremely happy in all that God has given me in the priesthood."

Listening to such accounts of job fulfilment, the conclusion could be easily drawn that Catholic priests enjoy a high level of work-related health.

Many of the chapters, however, also provided personal testimony of men, no less dedicated to their work, who were suffering a great deal of stress and frustration from their calling. A young priest in his late thirties said:

"As things are there is no future in the priesthood in England and Wales. Too many priests don't give a toss any more, and those in responsible positions are generally not interested in the personal well-being of their colleagues unless one is a personal friend."

A priest in his early forties said laconically:

"I experience great loneliness and isolation. I believe that is very common among us."

Another priest in his late thirties took a different perspective and was already looking thirty years ahead:

"The presbytery system with no defined job description or on/off hours is too stressful. I do not feel lonely; rather I long for a place of my own where I can relax and be myself. Hence my 'dream' to retire from a presbytery as soon as I am financially independent, i.e. by 65 years."

A priest in his early seventies said:

"In general I am quite tired out. This is mainly due to not having the opportunity to get away for a proper holiday due to lack of supply cover."

Listening to such accounts of work pressures, stresses and frustrations, the conclusion could be easily drawn that clergy suffer from a low level of work-related health.

Defining burnout

The clergy are clearly not the only profession likely to present a confused picture, combining high levels of job satisfaction with high levels of work-related stress. Serious research conducted among secular caring professions may help both to sharpen our understanding of work-related health and provide some objective measures so that we can begin to quantify the levels of good work-related health and the levels of poor work-related health among the priesthood.

Significant advances in this field were made by the American psychologist Christina Maslach.2 Maslach offers conceptual clarification regarding the nature of poor work-related health through the construct of 'professional burnout', clarifies the component parts of this construct through empirical research, and develops an instrument for measuring levels of burnout among individual practitioners.

According to Maslach, professional burnout is diagnosed when three characteristics coincide: high levels of emotional exhaustion, high levels of depersonalisation, and low levels of personal accomplishment.

The first aspect of professional burnout is increased feeling of emotional exhaustion, where workers, through their own emotional giving, find that they can no longer continue to give at an emotional level. Emotional exhaustion will often be associated with such expressions as 'I don't care any more' and 'I don't have any feelings left'. As emotional resources are depleted members of the caring professions feel that they are no longer able to give of themselves at a psychological level.

The second aspect of professional burnout is the development of depersonalisation. As their work begins to take its psychological toll, members of the caring professions can begin to adopt negative, cynical, and dehumanising attitudes towards, and feelings about, their clients, leading to withdrawal from real engagement with them. Clients are often viewed as somehow deserving of their problems.

The third aspect of professional burnout is the experience of reduced personal accomplishment. Alongside emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, members of the caring professions may begin to feel unhappy about themselves and dissatisfied with their accomplishments on the job. They may begin to feel that they are having little beneficial impact on the lives of those whom they set out to help.

Maslach's model of professional burnout is in effect a development of a well established psychological model made known by Bradburn under the name of balanced affect.3 Balanced affect is to do with the interplay between positive feelings and negative feelings. Professional burnout reaches its most desperate when high levels of negative affect (emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation) are no longer balanced by high levels of positive affect (personal accomplishment).

Assessing clergy burnout

Maslach and Jackson developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory to assess the three components of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and lack of personal accomplishment) among members of the caring professions. Although this instrument has been used in some studies among clergy of various denominations4, Christopher Rutledge and I suggested that there were significant problems in applying the instrument in its original form among clergy5. As a consequence we proposed a modified form of the Maslach Burnout Inventory designed specifically with clergy in mind.

We first tested this modified instrument in a survey mailed to a 15% random sample of male Anglican clergy in stipendiary parochial ministry in the Church of England. A total of 1,476 questionnaires were mailed and 1,071 usable responses were returned (73% response rate). On the basis of these replies a comprehensive picture was produced of the work-related health of Anglican clergymen in England. The following picture emerged.

In respect of emotional exhaustion:

* nearly a third of the Anglican clergymen felt that they were working too hard in their parish ministry (31%), and said that they felt used up at the end of the day in the parish (29%).

* One in five felt frustrated by their parish ministry (21%).

* One in eight said that working with people all day was a real strain for them (12%).

* One in ten said that they felt fatigued when they got up in the morning and have to face another day in the parish (9%).

In respect of depersonalisation:

* one in six of the Anglican clergymen felt that parishioners blame them for some of their problems (16%).

* One in ten said that they were less patient with parishioners than they used to be (11%) and that parish ministry was hardening them emotionally (9%).

In respect of personal accomplishment:

* less than half of the Anglican clergymen felt that they had accomplished many worthwhile things in their ministry (48%), or that they were positively influencing people's lives in their parish ministry (44%).

* Less than a fifth felt that they dealt very effectively with the problems of their parishioners (18%).

Burnout among Catholic parish priests

Building on Rutledge and my work among Anglican parish clergymen, Louden and I included the modified Maslach Burnout Inventory in our study of Catholic parish priests6. We mailed our survey questionnaire to all regular and secular priests in England and Wales involved in parochial ministry. A total of 3,581 questionnaires were mailed and 1,468 usable responses were returned (41% response rate)7.

Table 1: Work-related health measures of Anglican clergy and Catholic priests

On the basis of these replies it became possible for the first time to make an objective comparison of the levels of burnout experienced by Anglican clergymen and Catholic priests working in roughly the same geographical area. Two clear conclusions emerge from this comparison, which can be illustrated by the figures in table 1.

On the one hand, Catholic priests experience higher levels of emotional exhaustion and higher levels of depersonalisation than is the case among Anglican clergymen. In other words, they suffer from higher levels of negative affect. This finding is consistent with the view that the sharp drop in the numbers of Catholic priests is now putting more serious strain on the ministry-related demands placed on the remaining and diminished workforce. Reduction in clergy numbers also affects the Anglican Church, but as yet less dramatically.

On the other hand, Catholic priests experience higher levels of personal accomplishment than is the case among Anglican clergymen. In other words, they enjoy higher levels of positive affect. This finding is consistent with the view that Catholic ministry in England and Wales remains better delineated than Anglican ministry, in the sense of relating to a more clearly defined faith community, being supported by distinctive social networks as exampled by the Catholic school system, and generally leading worship among larger congregations.

The balance of evidence, however, suggests that the high work satisfaction may just prove insufficient to compensate for the high emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.

Predicting clergy burnout

Across the caring professions attempts are made to identify candidates for burnout in order to implement preventative strategies. Burnout is wasteful of professional resources and costly in terms of time lost from work, sick-leave, and early retirements.

In predicting burnout the key debate concerns the relative impact of contextual factors (the nature of the job) and personal factors (the nature of the person). This debate has been advanced considerably by a recent study among 1,278 Anglican clergy reported by myself and Douglas Turton8. This study compared the impact of a number of contextual factors with the impact of personality as assessed by Eysenck's three dimensional model of personality9. The personal factors emerged as much more important than the contextual factors.

The Louden and Francis study among Catholic priests also confirmed the power of personality theory to predict levels of burnout. Indeed this may prove to be the most important conclusion from their study.

Given the views that burnout is good neither for the parish priest nor for the parish which he or she serves, and that burnout is more of a reality than a myth, it may be very important to recognise that candidates for burnout may be predicted by routine personality testing well before crises are reached. Once predicted, pastoral strategies may be put in place to support such priests and to intercept the path to debilitating burnout.

Such a strategy would make good pastoral sense in terms of protecting parishes from the hurt and decline brought about through clergy burnout. It would also make good human sense in terms of protecting individual priests from the torment and frustration brought about through clergy burnout, and it would make good strategic sense in terms of lowering the exit rates from ministry at a time when priests are so difficult to replace.

The first step, however, may be the need to convince the Church that personality psychology might be a God-given tool in clergy development and deployment10.

Ministry Today

You are reading Ministry Burnout: Myth or Reality? by Leslie J Francis, part of Issue 34 of Ministry Today, published in June 2005.

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