If Norbert Maduzia had been a long-haul trucker, federal rules would have forced him to pull over for a good night’s sleep. But for the suburban Houston Roman Catholic priest — one of two in a parish of more than 4,000 families — the hours just kept on coming.
After a day in church, the priest attended a night meeting ending at 10:15. Then he got an emergency hospital call, finally getting home minutes before 3 a.m. At 5:30, the alarm clock jangled him awake for another day of doing God’s work.
Such a schedule, said Maduzia, a priest for more than three decades, is not uncommon. Typically, even part of his day off is spent on church work. He loves being a priest, but, he said, “Sometimes I laughingly say I want to get in my car and drive until I run out of gas.”
In the United States, the road to glory is lined with priests, preachers, and rabbis who have run out of spiritual gas — victims of overwork, low pay, isolation, contentious congregations, and the rigors of life in a “fish bowl.”
Forty-five percent of Chicago Catholic priests in a Georgetown University study cited overwork as a severe problem in their ministries; an additional 44 percent reported they were “somewhat” overworked. The same study found that more than seven of 10 priests were at least “somewhat” burned out and dissatisfied. Among Protestant clergy, a Duke University study found, 40 percent felt worn out or depressed most of the time. More than 75 percent were overweight or obese.
At a time of declining membership in Christian denominations, churches and seminaries increasingly are struggling to define and remedy the factors leading to clergy burnout. In December, Houston’s First Baptist Church launched a yearlong study of pastors — 500 Southern Baptists, 1,000 conservative non-Baptist evangelicals — to reliably quantify the nature of the problem.
“We see the church as one of the primary agencies for socialization of the family,” said the Rev. Adam Mason, First Baptist’s minister of counseling services. “There’s a direct connection between the health of a congregation and the health of society.” While his church is active in addressing needs of distressed clergy, recently beginning a national counseling program for pastors suffering burnout or moral failures, Mason said it prefers to “focus on the prevention side.”
Bishop Michael Reinhart of the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Gulf Coast Synod described his calling as “a wonderfully diverse job” that nonetheless was potentially stressful.
“On any given week you’re baptizing a baby, marrying a young couple, running to the hospital, performing funerals — I have two tomorrow,” he said. “You bear the scars of those who are hurting — the family whose son has descended into addiction or whose child has committed suicide. On top of that, you are expected to produce a speech on a weekly basis. It should be profound, funny, insightful, and inspiring. … You’re on call 24/7.”
Reinhart, whose pastoral career spans 20 years, said his synod has lost eight pastors to burnout-related issues in the past eight years.
“We live in a relentless-type existence,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. “The same stress that beset non-Jewish clergy certainly affects rabbis.”
Even if a rabbi is lucky enough to leave his workspace, cellphones, emails, and texts ensure that “you never really leave the office,” he said.
Aside from the travails of overwork, a host of other issues can bedevil the clergy, pastors said.
“I believe that one of the reasons there’s burnout is that a pastor lives in a fish bowl,” said the Rev. Huston McComb, director of First Baptist’s Joshua 20, a national program to counsel pastors who have left the pulpit through burnout or serious personal failings. “The pastor is held to high expectations. The congregation almost sees them as superhuman; they don’t have any human failings.”
While pastors are expected to counsel and comfort parishioners and honor their confidences, many find difficulty establishing friendships within the congregation, McComb said.
“He’s isolated,” he said. “There’s no one for him to talk to. The majority of ministers I’ve talked to have limited personal friends, maybe it’s only one or two.”
Baring one’s soul to the wrong person conceivably can cost a minister his job — especially in an era sensitive to clergy scandals.
“The very boundaries that are important for protecting parishioners and clergy also magnify the likelihood of isolation,” added the Rev. Kathryn Ryan, Episcopal canon to the ordinary of the bishop of Texas. “That’s especially the case among single clergy and those serving in rural churches.”
‘Familial’ to ‘corporate’
The Rev. Mike Cole, presbyter of Presbytery of New Covenant in Houston, part of the Presbyterian Church US, noted that while congregations expect pastors to care for their needs, they don’t always reciprocate.
“It’s not exactly a two-way street,” he said. “Some ministers expect that when they experience heartbreak and discouragement that the church will rally around them,” he said. “More often than not, that does not happen.”
Changes within the structure of churches also can contribute to stress. Since 1965, the number of US Catholics grew from 46 million to 67 million while the number of priests dropped from 59,000 to 38,000.
Maduzia noted that the church of his boyhood consisted of three priests and 600 families. Now he and a second priest shepherd more than 4,000 families at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Spring. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, trained lay people increasingly have assumed roles formerly filled by priests and nuns.
“Before the council, the church was familial,” he said. “Afterward, it became more corporate.”
Some congregants, though, yearn for the old way of doing things and are dismayed when a priest refers them to someone else.
“When we tell someone, ‘You really need to talk to so and so,’ you can see their face,” he said of church members’ disappointment. “It hurts our hearts.”
J. Russell Crabtree, founder of Holy Cow Consulting, an Ohio- and South Carolina-based religious research firm, noted that financial concerns also generate stress.
One study, he said, reported that ministers in a mainstream Protestant denomination typically leave seminary with $50,000 in student debt. A US Bureau of Labor Statistics report, he said, found ministers’ beginning salaries average only $44,000 a year. In some cases, salaries are supplemented with free housing.
Church members sometimes foment stressful situations that set up pastors for failure, he said.
“If you ask congregations in the United States about their priorities, what they want is growing the church, making changes to reach other people, especially families,” Crabtree said. “But when you look at the changes necessary to achieve that goal, most churches don’t want to do it. They sabotage their pastoral leadership and ultimately sabotage themselves.”
He said an example might be a pastor who, to reach out to unchurched families, conducts his Easter service in a high school auditorium only to anger congregants who can’t fathom why the traditional event wasn’t held in their beautiful sanctuary.
“We see a low level of flexibility in congregations,” he said, “and that is the death knell of churches.”
The clergy’s pitfalls
American religious leaders long have been aware of the clergy’s pitfalls.
“I think the problem has grown every single year I’ve been in the ministry,” said the Rev. Bruce Fong, dean of the Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston campus. Fong has been in the ministry for three decades. Some of the answers to the quandary are institutional and some are personal, he said.
For Fong’s students, he said, “One of the key ingredients is to put students through an internship program, so that they are living religion with seasoned veterans.” At the Catholic St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, students are required to spend a year living and working in a parish community.
Such real-world exposure to ministry, said the Rev. John Rooney, the seminary’s director of spiritual formation, is an important complement to what for many students is more than five years spent in the classroom.
At the end of each year, he added, students are evaluated and counseled on their strengths and weaknesses. Workshops are held on stress management and other life skills.
“When you are hungry, angry, or tired, you’ve got to be in touch with that,” Rooney said. “You have to take care of yourself in order to serve your community.”
Once priests are ordained, special consideration is given to ensuring they are assigned to compatible parishes, said Monsignor Frank Rossi of St. Michael Catholic Church.
“If we assign a priest to a megaparish and he has health issues, or, say, low energy, then we actually put him in a position of harm,” Rossi said. “If we assign a priest to a parish where he doesn’t have needed language or administrative skills, we put him in peril. One of our important factors is trying to place these men, who are devoting their lives to the Church, in assignments with the least amount of burdens.”
To battle isolation, clergy are encouraged to join informal peer groups where they have access to a sympathetic ear.
“We find that pastors in small groups … have a much better chance of surviving burnout, discouragement, and depression,” Presbyterian Cole said. To battle fatigue, they are encouraged to take vacations and days off. Lutherans and Presbyterians periodically are offered 12-week sabbaticals.
Given their high self-expectations and deep sense of duties, pastors sometimes have difficulty letting go.
Ministers, Ryan said, would do well to empower lay people to “engage with the ministry of the world.”
“We are called to love one another, not hire priests. We need to move back to a healthier theology, to engage others in the ministry,” she said. “A priest cannot do it all. We need to take care of ourselves. We are the only asset we have.”
Story via the New York Times News Service.