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Photo credit: “What is Caregiver Burnout, and What Can I Do About It?” @ Hub Pages

The Religion News Service released a report today of a new Duke University study that revealed an occupational hazard for clergy. All Christians are taught via Scripture to place the needs of others before their own (cf. Romans 15:1-2). But pastors and religious professionals take this lesson to a higher level per their vocational calling. This, says the Duke study, is likely harming the health of these spiritual caregivers themselves. Obesity, hypertension, depression, and chronic disease and exhaustion are the most common ill-health manifestations.

I can relate…both to carrying a congregation’s load and to resulting physical, spiritual and emotional malaise.

Throughout my almost six-year tenure as solo pastor, my schedule was, as the article describes, unpredictable and filled with diverse activities. At least twice a week (usually more) I would work a full business day, and then have an evening church obligation. Saturdays were supposed to be my family day. These often got hijacked, though, for a variety of reasons — workshops, pre-marital counseling, weddings, meetings, visitation, sermon writing, fund-raisers, etc. Sundays, of course, were work days. And then the whole process would begin again on Monday morning.

A small percentage of folk (usually church leaders) would get it when I shared my exhaustion with them. The pastoral vocation is quite unlike any other. Outside of religious professionals’ family and close friends, few grasp this fully. I was graciously allowed one day each month for retreat. I would be out of the office and unavailable for an entire day, even for emergencies. I chose to do whatever the Holy Spirit led me to do. These days were invaluable.

And yet I often heard reports of grumbling from congregation members about my retreat days, as well as the reading weeks that I took, and even about pastoral workshops that were a part of my job. Professionals in the secular world don’t get the plush days away that I got, some argued. Why does she need so much time out of the office? others asked. What is she doing that she can’t do on church grounds? Some comments simply lacked grace. “She knew what she was getting into when she answered the call to ministry,” at least one person said. Insert here the insinuation that I wasn’t fulfilling my duties as well as I should.

I certainly claim not to speak for all clergy everywhere. I was exhausted, sacked with a chronic trigger point in my left rhomboid, and eventually depressed because my mind and heart were perpetually engaged. I carried my congregation and their cares with me everywhere, all the time. Even my sleep was restless. My unpredictable days drained more energy than had my days that were more steady in my previous profession. The congregation’s expectation that I would be there when they called (at the office or on my cell) kept me alert. Down times, family time, and sabbath could be disturbed at any time because one never knows what life will bring; and people want their pastor with them when times are stressful. I had a congregation of only 150 members. God bless pastors with more than that!

Granted, it was my responsibility for caring for myself, and like many religious professionals I failed miserably at that. “Clergy recognize the importance of caring for themselves, but doing so takes a back seat to fulfilling their vocational responsibilities, which are tantamount to caring for an entire community,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the initiative’s research director and assistant research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute.

Something’s gotta give. I don’t portend to know all of the answers, but things simply cannot continue the way that they are. Note to pastors and congregations: both parties shoulder blame here.  Pastors (and I would add non-ordained religious professionals) are effectively killing themselves to feed their sheep by caring poorly for themselves (if at all). Congregations are running their pastoral leaders into the ground when they begrudge them spiritual and soul care and (sometimes mercilessly) proclaim pastors’ exhaustion an “occupational hazard” that the pastor must “suck up” and “deal with”.

Ministry is not a religious professional’s cross to bear. (Only one cross was borne for the sake of others, and that was once and for all.) It is a calling and a gift to communities from God that should not be abused or taken for granted. Perhaps if we begin from this place of understanding we all might at least be more graceful to our pastor-congregant counterparts and ourselves.