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Sidebar: Responding to clergy burnout

By Denise Davy

Being asked to say grace when you’re out having a leisurely lunch is hardly a monumental job. But these types of small requests can constantly remind clergy that they are never truly away from their work.

“What happens in the ministry is that you live it 24 hours a day,” says Rev. Andrew Irvine, founder of the Toronto-based Centre for Clergy Care and Congregational Health.

That 24-7 aspect of being a minister is a key reason why the rates of depression are so high among clergy members. According to Irvine’s 2004 survey of clergy from six major Protestant denominations in Ontario, including the United Church, ministers were twice as likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression as the average Canadian, and more than half suffered from stress-related physical health problems.

The majority — 83 percent — saw ministry as a calling, but in practice, 91 percent said it felt more like a job.

The survey cited loneliness as a common problem, which comes as no surprise to Irvine. He watched his father, who was a minister, struggle with burnout. Seeing what his dad went through helped Irvine feel better prepared when he became a Presbyterian minister himself in the 1980s. But he says he hadn’t realized how widespread depression was among other clergy.

Rev. Andrew Irvine. Photo courtesy of Andrew Irvine
Rev. Andrew Irvine. Photo courtesy of Andrew Irvine

In 2006, Irvine launched the Centre for Clergy Care at Emmanuel College and Knox College (United Church and Presbyterian colleges, respectively, at the University of Toronto) to support the well-being of clergy. The centre offers retreats and workshops for ministers at different stages of their careers.

Many in the survey confessed they were often reluctant to reach out for help for fear of looking weak. Indeed, 80 percent said they felt guilty if people saw them taking time off.

Irvine believes recovery starts with moving past the old-school attitude that stress is all part of the job. “It’s a process of breaking down our own inner perspective of who we are and recognizing that to experience periods of loneliness and isolation and depression is not unique but very common because of the nature of the job.”

The United Church of Canada has been paying close attention to the well-being of ministry personnel for more than a decade. It’s currently introducing a program called United Fresh Start, designed to build stronger pastoral relationships between ministers and the congregation as a whole.

Rev. Alan Hall, the United Church’s executive officer for ministry and employment, says many workplace tools for addressing stress are not applicable to ministry personnel, who often work in isolation from colleagues. 

The United Fresh Start curriculum, which was adapted from a program developed by the Episcopal Church in the United States, includes more than 20 modules teaching various strategies for ministers and congregational leaders to work together effectively. Hall says Presbyteries in southern Alberta have been piloting the program with “very positive results” and that training is now being rolled out for interested Conferences.

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