*** DEBUG END ***

Clergy well-being: the smoke before the burnout

06 October 2023

Huw Spanner looks at the danger signs for clergy who are running on empty

Sarah Horsman

The chapel of Christ the Servant, at Sheldon retreat centre

The chapel of Christ the Servant, at Sheldon retreat centre

THE social psychologist Christina Maslach has described burnout as “an erosion of the soul caused by a deterioration of one’s values, dignity, spirit, and will”.

The chief executive of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, the Revd Dr Gillian Straine, lists its symptoms: “Emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy. You want to be alone. You fantasise that you’re somewhere else. You feel unwell, pessimistic, irritable, overwhelmed. You don’t care any more.”

Burnout is common in the caring professions. But, she says, “there are certain things in the Church that make clergy more susceptible — and increase their suffering.”

The Revd Dr Gillian Straine

She recalls a day on healing ministry organised by a diocese when five clergymen approached her to talk about depression. Two had imagined taking their own life, she says, and a third had made plans to do so.

The Warden of the Sheldon retreat centre in Devon, Dr Sarah Horsman, says that many of the factors affecting clergy are “not necessarily well understood” by secular therapists. Some things that help to make the ministry immensely creative and satisfying can also make it immensely challenging. For example, clergy often find themselves playing many different parts in the course of one day, “or even in one exchange”.

Also, a lack of boundaries is an issue for anybody who lives in the community that they serve, she says. “It requires a level of [self-protection] that in itself takes time and energy and focus.”

Often, clergy have to put on a mask, not admitting even to themselves how they are really feeling, Dr Straine suggests. “You have to put a good face on because you represent Jesus: you represent hope in the face of suffering. That kind of disconnect between what you’re saying and who you are can cause emotional exhaustion.”


ONE of the commonest causes of burnout is a workplace made toxic by criticism, gossip, suspicion, lack of support, or micro-management, Dr Straine says. The private and public lives of the clergy are “much more mixed up” than most other people’s.

When your livelihood, your social life, and your housing are all intertwined, she continues, “things can go wrong quite badly, quite quickly, if your teenage child has a breakdown, or your partner gets sick, or you don’t manage a holiday because you got Covid that week and you spend three weeks recovering, and somebody’s made a complaint about you in your absence.

“When your workforce is largely volunteers, and your own role is not well defined, you can be very open to people taking a pop, thinking that they can do your job better than you, even if they haven’t had the training, because it’s subtle and nuanced; it’s not an expertise or a set of skills like a solicitor or a doctor has.”


MESSAGES that the clergy receive from senior management — about how to “be church”, with “endless schemes and initiatives to attract people in” — are putting huge pressure on priests engaged in parish ministry, Dr Straine suggests. The Church’s managerialism and bureaucracy are at risk of taking clergy away from what they believe God is calling them to do in the community.

“I spend much of my time in large gatherings of clergy,” she explains. “When I tell them that their pastoral visiting, their baptisms, weddings, and funerals, is a core ministry of the Church, which is changing the world person by person, I can feel the relief in the room, and sometimes the anger that it isn’t recognised as such.”

Over the past five years, Dr Horsman says, new factors have made the ministry especially challenging. “The three big issues of our time are: Covid, climate, and Brexit in terms of the social upheaval caused, and their continuing impact.

“When you have community-level leadership responsibilities, you need to respond to these challenges in creative and prophetic ways. Many clergy find that what the national and diocesan leadership are asking for, instead, is that they keep the institution afloat.

“If meaning, and purpose, and achievement are what keep our hearts beating, that’s really hard.”

Dr Horsman finds the church hierarchy guilty of doublespeak. “They tell clergy that self-care is really important, and these are the things you should be doing for yourself, and if you’re not doing them it’s your fault if you’re stressed; but, on the other hand, they’re piling potentially impossible demands on clergy.”

She has long been part of a campaign to persuade the Church that the way in which it handles complaints against the clergy is “not fit for purpose. . . It doesn’t feel as if the organisation has your back if you’re trying to make a meaningful and creative response to the scale of what we’re facing as a society; rather, it feels like the organisation might come down on you like a ton of bricks if you get it wrong.”


MANY clergy make unrealistic demands of themselves, Dr Horsman observes. “It is right and proper that we go into new things with a shiny idealism, particularly if God is doing the calling; but training and formation should school people in sustainable ways of doing ministry.”

Poor theology is another factor, Dr Straine says. “At the more Protestant end of things, we may feel that we’re acceptable to God only if we work really hard. There is also a theology of martyrdom: the idea that, in following Jesus, we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves. You hear that time and time again in clergy meetings.

“You measure your success in ministry by how tired you are, or how many funerals you’ve taken. It’s like a badge of honour. If I talk to clergy about the merits of a four-day working week, they laugh.”

Men and women in ordained ministry can experience burnout for different reasons, Dr Straine believes. “There is still a huge prejudice against female clergy. They have to meet a higher standard than men, in how they look and how they perform. And then there is the pressure women put on themselves. For men, I think there are bigger taboos around mental health and honesty.”

It is not only older clergy who are vulnerable. She is critical of the training that ordinands receive. “We build these people up; we tell them: ‘This is your vocation, and here’s some theology,’ and then they hit the ground, and it’s nothing like they’ve been trained for. They’ve not learnt about budgeting or fund-raising; they’re often expected to lead complex organisations, and it quickly overwhelms them.”


WHAT should clergy do to avoid, or recover from, burnout? Dr Straine offers a threefold prescription: “The first element is what every book says: sleep, eat well, and exercise. Both male and female clergy are more likely to be overweight than their peers. Look after your physical and mental health, maintain a good work-life balance, have a hobby, work on your close personal relationships, seek meaning.

“The second is: spend time working out your theology of work. What’s your model of ministry? If it involves martyrdom, there are other theologies that take our well-being much more seriously. Jesus said: ‘I came that you might have life, and life in all its abundance.’ Addiction is really common among clergy, particularly to alcohol and pornography.

“In a culture where you are your achievements, it can be a powerful witness to the world, that we are not working ourselves to death, because God wants us to flourish.

“Third, you are going to need courage to say: ‘I can’t do everything. I’m going to take some time off. I’m going to sit and read. I’m going to pray.’”

The Guild of Health and St Raphael has gathered an online community that, until this Advent, is exploring burnout and how to avoid it, or recover from it. “It’s a journey, but people can join at any time, and it’s free,” Dr Straine says. “We begin with the idea that we all have the potential to find healing in our own lives in the name of Christ.”

The programme is called Burn like Stars. “In Philippians,” Dr Straine explains, “Paul says that we should shine like stars. The output of a star depends on what is happening deep inside it; so we are using that metaphor to say, ‘How do we, as clergy and Christians, burn like stars without burning out?’”

Sheldon, too, has an online community, about 2000-strong, which provides a confidential space for people in ministry. “It meets some of these needs for connection, for reassurance, for information, for mutual support with other people who ‘get it’,” Dr Horsman says. “When someone posts: ‘I haven’t found anyone who’s willing to be treasurer. What do I do?’, a dozen other people who have experienced the same problem can say: ‘It’s stressful, isn’t it? This is what I did.”

For access to the “Burn Like Stars” series, visit: gohealth.org.uk/burnlikestars or sheldonretreat.com


Having flourished in the civil service, Katie de Bourcier was almost broken by the pressures of parochial ministry

THE Revd Katie de Bourcier was in her early forties when she was ordained in 2012, after a 17-year career working in management and leadership positions in the Ministry of Defence.

The Revd Katie de Bourcier

In 2019, less than four years into her present post as Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s, Halstead, in Essex, where she has oversight also of nine neighbouring village parishes, she knew she was struggling, but “soldiered on”.

“I was doing all the things you are told to to look after your well-being: I almost always took my day off; I took most of my annual leave; I had a spiritual director.

“But the combination of a strong sense of vocation, and my own internal drivers towards high standards and people-pleasing, plus the particular pressures that come with parochial ministry, made it very hard to set boundaries, or step away from things.

“Your brain never stops and unwinds when you live among the people you minister with. You never really ‘leave work’. [Being a vicar] includes almost anything that relates to church, or community, or people, and everybody has different expectations. And when ‘the fields are white unto harvest,’ it’s very hard to stop and say: ‘I’ve done as much as I can.’”

Eventually, she realised that she simply felt numb. While telling a colleague how she felt “about life, ministry, myself”, it struck her: “If anyone else was saying this to me, I’d be saying, ‘Go to the doctor!’”

She found it “incredibly hard” to admit that she needed help, but she saw her local mental-health nurse, who concluded that she was suffering from severe depression. “Actually, she told me: ‘You’re a few points off when we consider hospitalisation.’”

Her doctor advised time off work. “I thought: ‘It’s four weeks to Christmas. I’m a vicar. I can’t stop.’ I can look back and laugh now, but it was grim at the time.”

Miss de Bourcier ended up having four months off, beginning on Boxing Day. For the first few weeks, she lay low in the vicarage. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. My curate and my parish administrator were the only people from the parish who were allowed to contact me.

“My anxiety was high. My depression was awful. I couldn’t do anything. It got worse before it got better.”

Her team showed her “unconditional love”, and told her not to come back to work until she was “properly” well. Her area bishop and archdeacon were “amazingly supportive”, and some money from a discretionary fund enabled her to spend ten days or so at the Sheldon retreat centre.

“I had been there before, and I knew it was one of my safe places. I holed up there for a while, sleeping and walking, and I had two sessions talking to the warden. She helped me to acknowledge and accept how I was feeling, and pointed me towards some reading and reflection around different contributory factors. I liked to think I was very self-aware, but I discovered that there were whole layers of self-awareness to develop still.”

On her doctor’s advice, she returned to work very gradually, over four to six months. She has now been back in full-time ministry for three years, still in the same position but also now as area dean.

“I still experience a degree of fatigue and brain fog,” she says, “and I have to watch my energy levels. I can’t just push on when I need to.” She has had Covid three times; “so there are a load of factors in there”.

She is still on antidepressants, and has counselling occasionally. While she thinks she will always have a tendency to depression, she says that “there has been a lot of inner healing, as I’ve dealt with some of the underlying issues.

”I am keeping an eye on my own, and others’, expectations of me. I am learning to say ‘no’ to things as well as ‘yes’. And I am being very honest with PCCs, and others, about my limitations.”


David Coleman, a minister in the United Reformed Church, never reached the final stages of burnout, but believes that he stared it in the face

IN 2014, the Revd David Coleman recalls that he was in local ministry, job-sharing with his wife, when she developed what turned out to be terminal cancer. Her way of dealing with that was to attempt to remain active as a minister for as long as she possibly could, and so he was in the position of being both her prime carer and her partner at work — besides looking after their children.

The Revd David Coleman

“As a minister, you spend your time thinking about how you rely on grace, but sometimes you feel so pressured that you put that on one side, and you think that more is up to you than actually is. Sometimes, you can be your own worst enemy. For me, it was like hitting a brick wall.”

A friend who managed a retreat centre urged him to go there for a week’s respite. “In retrospect, I think that was at that point utterly vital for me. [That retreat] was close to being a pulling-back from the brink — but I needed somebody else to point it out.

“I was able to take notice of somebody else, to let go, hand things over — and then go back, obviously, into the end of that situation. Being able to accept more of my limits freed me, I think, to go the rest of the journey with my late wife. It was not an awful lot longer, but there is only so much you can give.”

Does he still feel vulnerable to burnout? “You probably don’t find out these things until you’re tested by circumstance,” he says. “I’m now in probably the most rewarding position I’ve had in 28 years of ministry, as environmental chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland.

“In this climate emergency, my job is very worthwhile, but also entails a lot of frustration, a lot of good reasons for despair. I’m very isolated, because I’m not with a local church all the time, and I’m sharing with churches this constant barrage of very bad news about the state of the planet.

“Of course, churches move slowly. In a way, it would be easier if I were doing something more combative with obvious enemies rather than working with good, faithful people I love and respect.”

He still has the potential to try to take everything on himself. “I think there’s a pretty slippery slope” to burnout, he admits. “If I hadn’t learnt from my experience, and didn’t have the support of the Iona Community, which I have been a member of for almost 30 years, I think I would be in danger.

“When hundreds of churches expect you to be available to them, because it’s a special decision on their part to reach out to the movement that you’re part of, it’s easy to say: ‘Well, maybe I’ll dig into my day off.’ I do have to keep reminding myself, and be reminded by others, of that slippery slope. I try not to be complacent.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)