The problem of clergy burnout

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Vitello surveys the landscape of clergy life and finds that it is not a pretty picture:

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University who directs one of the studies. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

One initiative that seems to have borne some fruit in combatting burnout is the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program sponsored by the Lilly Foundation. The program aims to improve clergy health through participation in peer-tp-peer support groups. Seabury Western and Bexley Hall Seminaries are sponsoring an examination of the program’s successes this fall.

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