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    United Methodists of Upper New YorkLiving the Gospel. Being God's Love.

    news article

    Evidence of clergy’s declining wellness

    January 4, 2023 / By The Rev. Drew Sperry, UNY Conference Leadership Team, UNY Clergy Wellness Team

    Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2022 Issue II of the Advocate, which focused on spiritual wellness. Click here to access the full issue. 

    I’m overweight, on blood pressure medication, a workaholic—and a pastor. For most of my career, my personal wellness has come second to my call as a servant leader in the church. The result has been a decrease not only in my physical and mental health but also in my ministry satisfaction and joy for living out God’s call. This impact became even clearer over the past two years as I worked tirelessly to try to lead my congregation through a global pandemic, international war, racial division, and the schism of our denomination. Through it all I could only watch from afar, almost an out-of-body experience, as my physical, mental, relational, and spiritual health declined. I buried myself in work; gained more weight, and closed myself off to others. There were days I felt ready to quit—ready to walk away from my call all together.

    But as you might suspect, I’m not alone. Many other clergy, both in Upper New York and across our denomination, have been struggling with similar strains on their hearts, minds, and bodies. Recent studies have revealed a true health epidemic among our clergy. In several recent surveys, Mya Jaradat reports, clergy are reporting record rates of burnout and serious health impacts. In a March 2022 survey conducted by spiritual research firm Barna,1 “42% of pastors considered resigning — up from the 29% who did the same in January 2021.” The three biggest reasons clergy cited were “‘immense stress, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and political division.” Another study from Duke Divinity School’s Clergy Health Initiative revealed that clergy see increased rates of depression, weight gain, and chronic illness than their lay counterparts.

    The bad news, then, is clear: clergy are suffering more than ever before. Ministry can be a struggle that significantly impacts a clergy person’s emotional and physical wellness. But the good news is that we don’t have to suffer alone. The Upper New York Conference is investing in helping clergy make their health and wellbeing a priority. In 2020, the Conference Leadership Team created a team to begin researching issues facing clergy wellness and to make actionable recommendations that the Conference could use to help prioritize clergy wellness.

    The team began its work by looking at existing national research on the topic. Using a compilation of recent studies, including (but not limited to) those conducted by the Barna Institute, Duke Divinity Clergy Health Initiative, Wespath, and several UMC Annual Conferences, the team was able to discern five primary dimensions of clergy health; spiritual, relational, financial, educational, and work-life balance. A surprising discovery was a consistent struggle for spiritual wellness, and particularly the lack of ability to practice Sabbath. Sabbath can be hard to define, and for many theologians it means different things. In this context, one working definition is; intentional time set aside to be in communion with God through rest.

    Could Sabbath really be part of the answer? To be honest, it felt almost too simple of a solution, even a bit of an over-spiritualization of a larger systemic issue of health justice facing our clergy. Sabbath seems to come up as a constant suggestion being offered by leadership when discussing clergy wellness, and it’s true that Sabbath cannot be a cure-all for the major health challenges facing clergy. However, there is an impressive amount of evidence to support it as a major factor in improving holistic health and wellbeing. According to the Duke Clergy Health Initiative 2016 Sabbath Report, clergy who maintain a regular Sabbath express greater spiritual wellbeing, positive mental health, ministry satisfaction, and higher quality of life. They also report lower experiences of depression and anxiety.2

    With this information, the Conference Leadership Team enlisted the help of several sociologists from Skidmore College to help draft a survey to learn more about UNY’s culture of Sabbath and our clergy’s wellness, in order to learn how the conference could offer support and help. The team was incredibly pleased with clergy participation in the survey, having received 301 responses out of a possible 507. The results revealed several important trends in UNY clergy Sabbath practices. Among those who responded,

    56% find it difficult in most weeks of the year to take one day of Sabbath for rest and spiritual rejuvenation

    The three most significant barriers to Sabbath included:

    personal resistance to detaching from pastoral work

    needs of the members of the congregation

    obligations and expectations of family 

    Clergy most frequently identified congregational/SPRC support and encouragement as what would be most helpful in taking a weekly day of Sabbath.

    Visit to view the UNY wellness survey results.

    Visit to view the UNY wellness survey report on the response.

    Armed with this information, we can begin to shift the culture in our Conference to encourage and support the regular practice of Sabbath among clergy. The Bishop and Superintendents are already working to encourage and educate pastors and congregations about spiritual renewal opportunities and the importance of Sabbath. It is the Conference Leadership Team’s hope in the coming months to provide other opportunities for learning and growing in conference-wide understanding and practicing of Sabbath.

    Sabbath is not the only answer to a clergy person’s holistic wellness, but it is a bigger factor than we may initially think. In recent months, as a result of my work on this team, I’ve begun to work toward maintaining a regular weekly Sabbath. While it hasn’t solved all my health and wellness issues, I have discovered that my Sabbath time helps me feel more hopeful about the future. I feel rejuvenated not only for my ministry but also for taking better care of myself. There’s a long road to better clergy wellness ahead— we’re going to need to rest up if we’re going to be able to walk it together.

    TAGGED / Connectional Ministries

    With more than 100,000 members, United Methodists of Upper New York comprises of more than 675 local churches and New Faith Communities in 12 districts, covering 48,000 square miles in 49 of the 62 counties in New York state. Our vision is to “live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places."