Wycliffe team develops wellness assessment tool for people in ministry

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The team’s research revealed five most common “core” (i.e., both highly positive and highly frequent) satisfiers among participants, and four most common core stressors. Source: wellnessproject@wycliffe. Adapted graphic: Oppona and Cosmaaw/Shutterstock

A research project at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College has resulted in the development of a wellness self-assessment tool for people involved in ministry.

Participants in the Wellness Project @ Wycliffe—who can be lay or ordained, as long as they are involved in ministry—answer a set of online questionnaires; their responses are then turned into a summary report that they can use as a guide to making changes in their lives to prevent burnout and improve their well-being.

The tool, says project head Wanda Malcolm, a professor of pastoral psychology at Wycliffe, incorporates an important innovation: unlike other ways of evaluating on-the-job wellness, it takes into account the causes of satisfaction as well as stress.

“Ours is the first measure that I’m aware of that actually looks at them together and can provide a stress-and-satisfaction index,” Malcolm says.

“It’s like zooming in on the specifics about ‘what I find satisfying and stressful, so that I can get a handle on where I might want to put some of my energy, to see if I can make some positive changes’.”

The project began in 2014 out of a desire only to gather and study data, but its focus shifted when Malcolm and her team discovered they could use the information from the questionnaires to create actionable reports for people. These reports, she says, can help guide participants’ life decisions by raising their awareness of how they’re being affected by various aspects of ministry life.

“We’ve had people take their report to their spiritual director and use it as a resource in the work they’re doing,” she says. “I know at least one participant who looked at their report and said, “It’s time for me to retire. I’ve known that I wasn’t enjoying ministry life, but now that I see it here in black and white, I realize that.”

In a forthcoming paper, to be published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, Malcolm and her two co-researchers, Karen Coetzee and Elizabeth Fisher, report on their findings. They conclude that the questionnaires they’ve developed are valid and reliable ways of measuring the core stressors and satisfiers of ministry life, and that they could therefore potentially benefit people researching clergy wellness.

“We put more of ourselves into the things we deem sacred, and that means we hold back less of ourselves,” Malcolm says. “It’s part of what makes people in ministry vulnerable to the effects of stress.” Photo: Contributed

The team’s research has convinced them that people in ministry life need to take into account the things they find satisfying—not just the things that stress them out—as well as how these things interact with one another, if they want a true picture of how they’re doing.

“The biggest thing that came out of our research, that I really think is important, is that it is not stress alone that is going to erode the goodness of ministry life” or build it up, she says. “It’s the relationship between stress and satisfaction.”

If satisfaction is low, there’s less to counteract the stressors. On the other hand, Malcolm says, “When satisfaction outweighs stress, there’s a lot of resources that are at work offsetting the effects of the stress…We will willingly take up the task of doing something that carries a fair bit of stress for us if we know that the ultimate outcome is going to be really satisfying.”

It’s an important distinction to make, she says, because it can be easy for people in ministry to forget how important these sources of pleasure are to their well-being.

“We naturally get caught up in the task of trying to eliminate unnecessary stress, but sometimes we do that forgetting that there are good things that we should also be guarding and protecting,” she says.

Sometimes the same thing can be a cause of both satisfaction and stress; for example, having a sense that one is living out a vocation can be life-giving because of the great significance that someone called to ministry life might attach to their work—but that very sense of the work’s importance could make the possibility of failure at it seem all the more threatening.

“We put more of ourselves into the things we deem sacred, and that means we hold back less of ourselves,” she says. “It’s part of what makes people in ministry vulnerable to the effects of stress.”

Similarly, of the 194 people Malcolm and her team surveyed for the research paper, 71% found personal prayer was a “core” or important satisfier, but 45% also found that barriers to personal prayer—not having enough time to pray, not feeling motivated to pray or doubting that God was hearing their prayers—were a core stressor. For many respondents, the time considerations around ministry life were important causes of both stress and satisfaction.

The team’s research revealed five most common “core” (i.e., both highly positive and highly frequent) satisfiers among participants: their sense of having a calling; their work relationships; cultivating their personal spiritual depth; ongoing learning; and being free to choose how to use their time while having a diversity of tasks. Participants reported four core stressors: deciding how to use their time while having many tasks and responsibilities; barriers to personal prayer; personal spiritual struggles; and having to lead through change and controversy. Of participants in the study summarized by the research paper, 56% were ordained. Twenty-nine per cent were Anglican or Episcopalian, 21% were Salvation Army and 8% were Baptist; the rest included people from other denominations and people who identified as non-denominational or did not indicate their denomination.

Malcolm and her team are continuing their research, and invite people who are active in churches or community ministry, including chaplains, to take part in the project. Participation is free of charge.

More information on the project can be found at: wycliffewellnessproject.com.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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