Clergy struggling with identity and feelings of loneliness, exhaustion

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A majority of Ontario clergy in six major Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, are lonely and unfulfilled, exhausted from working long hours and are suffering a “critical crisis of identity,” with most feeling like a chief executive officer rather than a pastor, a recent study shows.

Compiled by Knox College, University of Toronto, the study, entitled Clergy Well-Being: Seeking Wholeness with Integrity, revealed that 60 per cent of clergy indicated that they had “considered at some time leaving ministry,” and most are struggling with the question of “Who am I – as a person – as a minister – as a religious leader in a culture in transition?”

The study was conducted by Rev. Andrew Irvine, chair of the university’s Centre for Clergy Care and Congregational Health.

While most clergy indicated that their contracts allowed them to take two days off each week, most do not utilize it, the survey showed. The average work week for participants was 50 hours; a quarter of the respondents worked in excess of 55 hours a week.

“Death, illness and crisis among parishioners can create havoc with the weekly schedule,” the survey said. “It was also pointed out that it was not always possible to simply ‘take another day off’ when a funeral or emergency interfered with scheduled time off.”

Not taking time off is also an issue related to the minister’s “sense of self-worth and personal value,” subsequent interviews with clergy showed. “Some felt it had to do with a feeling of indispensability or the sense that the church would fail without their presence. Others related this to the high levels of competition among clergy and the feeling that to take time off may risk giving an edge to the competitor.”

From a cumulative perspective, the study said, close to 49 per cent of clergy identified two or fewer friends; most cited close friendships as “an unmet dynamic” of their lives. Clergy cited busyness, avoiding perceptions of favouritism in the congregation, confidentiality and the transitory nature of ministry as reasons they had few friends.

Close friendships between people in ministry, “a likely source of relational support,” were also not evident, the study said. “There appeared to be considerable levels of distrust between ministers and their colleagues in ministry. This was attributed to the high level of competition between ministers.” Some 80 per cent of respondents “agreed to varying degrees that they were sometimes jealous of the success of other ministers.”

Clergy said that a majority of their relationships were “work-based not social” and that most “social” events in their lives centered around church and were, therefore, “work not social.”

The study also found a “high” level of depression among clergy – double the rate found in the general population – and “a considerable amount of grief” among clergy because “the calling of ministry had become, in many cases, the task of administration.” The survey results noted, “In the North American context especially, the role of the minister has become that of an activist busy with such matters as budgets, buildings, membership size and growth. These are the measures of success imposed by the culture.”

The survey was mailed to a sample group of 1,252 clergy representing 30 per cent of clergy from the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. The questionnaire received 338 responses; 99 returned surveys were from women clergy.

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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