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Clergy Morale: The Ups and Downs

by Susan Harrington DeVogel

Ms. DeVogel, an ordained United Methodist minister, conducted the research on which this article is based for the United Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry in Minnesota. She is a Ph.D. candidate in training and development at the University of Minnesota. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 17, 1986, p. 1149. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Ministry is a people-intensive profession. But ironically, a large number of professional ministers appear to be rather lonely people. A recent study of morale among United Methodist ministers in Minnesota indicates that while almost all enjoy their work and feel satisfied with their professional performance, they are also afflicted with self-doubts and loneliness. Experiencing the same personal crises faced by professionals in all fields, clergy often find themselves with very few shoulders to cry on. The joys go uncelebrated, the pains go unsoothed, the stresses go unresolved. Ultimately, the minister, his or her family, and the congregation probably all suffer.

In the spring of 1985, the Board of Ordained Ministry decided that it was time to "take the temperature" of Minnesota United Methodist clergy and conduct an informal survey of the 400 pastors under appointment within the state. A simple questionnaire was designed, covering a variety of issues dealing with lifestyles and job satisfaction. Within three weeks, 300 questionnaires had been returned. After analysis of the results, it was decided to hold 13 focus groups around the state, for the purpose of exploring some of the issues in depth.

These conversations revealed additional factors which affect clergy morale, and added depth to the original study. Though some of the findings are disturbing, it is important to remember that over 90 per cent of the questionnaire respondents claimed that they feel "positive" and "enthusiastic" about the quality of their lives and work. Thus, their dissatisfaction must be understood in that context. Further, in addition to their own feelings of satisfaction, 96 per cent indicated that they perceived their congregations to be supportive of them.

Among the ministers’ complaints, there is a group of factors having to do with the environment in which ministry is conducted, including painful economic circumstances (due largely, in this part of the country, to the farm crisis). Broader social changes take their toll on the morale of ministers; for example, as more women have entered the labor force, reduced numbers of daytime volunteers are available. There are also growing demands on the time of all parishioners, leading them to be more selective about their activities and commitments. In a profession where salaries are not high and praise is not often forthcoming, rewards are frequently intangible or absent. Further, while in earlier times pastors enjoyed a relatively high degree of prestige and authority, that is no longer universally the case.

One of the clearest findings of the study was that person-centered, one-to-one ministries are the most important source of professional satisfaction to pastors. Two-thirds of the clergy reported these pastoral and counseling relationships as the most gratifying aspect of their professional lives. Many feel deeply fulfilled at helping others grow in their faith, and are moved at the opportunity to be a significant channel for God’s grace in the life of another person. One minister described the experience as "touching people at a level most others never see and are perhaps unaware exists."

Program and liturgical functions such as preaching were cited by the remaining third as providing the greatest satisfaction. For many there is considerable enrichment in watching local churches grow in their commitment and sense of mission. The responses of laity to preaching and teaching and other pastoral leadership activities are extremely important; pastors referred to "feeling that preaching and teaching are falling on enthusiastic ears," "the recommitment of the faith by members who had fallen away," or "helping the laity to use their gifts."

The two most significant strains mentioned were time management -- a problem for many -- and feelings of self-doubt and struggle about one’s worthiness for ministry. Even persons who claimed to feel satisfied with their work and to enjoy the support of their congregations seem to wrestle with low self-esteem. And they seem unable to reach out to friends or professionals for help. Feelings of inadequacy, performance doubts, worries about under-appreciation, and concern over whether their efforts are actually accomplishing anything meaningful were all noted by participants as significant issues.

Skilled at meeting the needs of others, clergy seem to be far less able to take care of themselves. In the midst of a crowd of parishioners, clergy often find themselves to be lonely. The ministers studied seem to have difficulty in sharing their deepest needs, joys, concerns and sorrows with others, including clergy peers. Those who can listen to their parishioners unburdening their souls are often unable to do so themselves. Respondents reported a great reluctance to share deeply and openly with peers (despite frequent associations through meetings and nominal support groups), citing a lack of trust and feelings of competition. "What if I reveal my true self to a colleague, and then he or she becomes my next district superintendent?" was a question asked a number of times. Confidentiality is also a crucial issue; there was some feeling that news travels fast and far on the clerical grapevine.

Intimacy and emotional isolation seem to be problems that go beyond the issue of trust. Many clergy are fearful of becoming "too involved" in friendships with either laity or other clergy, one reason being the possibility of having to move away from these relationships. Both clergy and spouses said they have experienced too many losses to want to invest themselves in new friendships and run the risk of more pain. The ethic of not returning to the former parish exacerbates this pain (although the group was divided on the question of whether or not this ethic should be abandoned).

Spiritual concerns also emerged, particularly in the focus groups. Who cares for the pastoral needs of parish clergy? Who ministers to them and their families? Ministers do not seem to be very successful at either ministering to themselves or finding other spiritual resources for their own growth. Spiritual hunger seems to run deep, and many expressed a need for pastoral care for themselves and their families. But they also described an inability to seek out such help, sometimes due simply to time pressures. The comfort and counsel of a pastor is needed as much by clergy families as by lay families, but clergy are reluctant to consult their peers or judicatory officials whom they perceive to have power over them. Some do expect the bishop or district superintendent to provide this pastoral care, despite the personnel role in which these persons also function and their sometimes great physical distances from the clergy in the field.

The church itself was also seen by many as producing stress. The ministers’ perceptions of their parishioners’ expectations include the burdensome feeling that the minister is supposed to be all things to all people; that he or she will be available 24 hours per day, including days off and vacation times; that the spouse will be a willing volunteer; that the family will love the parsonage, whatever its condition; and that the ideal minister is a young but vastly experienced white male with a homemaker spouse and two or three lovely and well-behaved children. Conflict management, volunteer recruitment and administrative requirements also seemed to create distress for many.

Some stress comes from within. Participants expressed very high expectations of themselves: many believe that (in good United Methodist tradition) they can indeed achieve perfection if only they try hard enough. Most put in more than 55 hours per week on parish work, and many feel guilty about taking time off. Most are convinced that they must be good spouses and parents, competent administrators and skilled pastoral counselors. They must also maintain a positive image with their peers, while handling all problems themselves and never seeking help.

Marital and family relationships seem to provide difficulties as well as solace; ministers feel keenly the unsatisfied needs of the spouse for time, intimacy and privacy; and there is never enough time for the children. The spouse often feels powerless in the face of congregational expectations. A fair number of parsonages still have leaky roofs and appliances that don’t always work. Salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living, and in rural environments there are not always opportunities for the spouse to work, thus adding to financial and marital tensions.

There is also considerable anxiety about how one will fare in the United Methodist appointive system. There is often a tendency, accompanied by a great deal of anger, to blame one’s ills on the "system." Douglas McGregor, in his 1960 landmark book The Human Side of Enterprise, suggested that systems which by their very nature foster dependency (such as the guaranteed appointment system of the United Methodist Church) tend to produce a sense of powerlessness in those who work within them, and that this powerlessness is often converted into hostility toward the system or its management. This is certainly one plausible explanation for the clergy anger expressed in our study. While pastors blamed the "system" (either the denomination or the local church) , there seemed to be a general inability to take responsibility for one’s self and one’s own happiness. Participants expressed anxiety about appointments and the relationship of clergy evaluation to the appointment system, even though in the mail survey most indicated that they felt it was more important to serve where they were needed rather than follow their own personal preferences.

The frustrations of career expectations -- a common midlife phenomenon -- seems to be aggravated by the belief that achievement (poorly defined) will be rewarded by upward mobility -- presumably, appointments to churches with larger memberships and higher salaries. These values, which were articulated in the focus groups, are in direct contradiction to the findings of the initial survey, in which "serving a larger church" was rated as very important to only 6 per cent, and an increase in salary was rated as very important to only 9 per cent. Obviously, clergy seem to be fairly ambivalent about these issues. The belief in upward mobility also represents a seeming denial of the demographic facts; in Minnesota, there are a great many rural churches that pay low salaries, and only a few urban and suburban churches that pay notably high ones.

Despite the stresses which clergy feel, a wholesale exodus from parish ministry does not seem likely; while 13 per cent said they would consider leaving the ministry if they were equipped to do well in another profession, almost everyone else said they would probably stay in the field anyway.

The real question, then, may be how to empower clergy to take steps to improve their own morale and break through the passivity that sometimes cripples their emotional lives and occasionally their work. Naming the issues can perhaps provide some power over them and begin a discussion about developing strategies for defeating or working through them.

Also, friendships and support groups can be useful if only clergy can learn the same self-disclosing and risk-taking behaviors which they encourage in laity. Clergy have to accept the fact that they are human beings with the same basic social needs as other people, and to take those needs seriously. Friendships require an investment of time as well as energy, and clergy should claim that time and energy as important, valuable and legitimate. There is never time "left over" in ministry; it must consciously be set aside for social activities and developing close mutual relationships with others. Mutuality may, in itself, be a new and strange experience for clergy who have become accustomed to relating to other people only through their clerical roles.

Career development workshops and counseling can help ministers realize that they may need to develop realistic professional goals and satisfactions. Energy that often goes into fantasizing about how much better the next assignment will be could probably be better used by making the most of life in the present time and place. Job enrichment is a resource used widely in business and industry; for ministers, it could mean deepening skills one uses all the time, such as preaching. It could also mean developing new competencies, such as pastoral counseling, a biblical language, or mastering the accounting principles or computer software used in managing the church’s financial affairs.

Once one has mastered the basic tasks of ministry, there are other ways to develop beyond the limits of the local church. One can seek out opportunities to serve on district and other judicatory committees. Younger clergy often welcome the interest of an older, more experienced mentor who can share with them the ups and downs of career progression, providing the perspectives of wisdom and experience. Continuing education opportunities offer enrichment, and there are also community-based educational experiences that could help ministers to expand their horizons. Clergy could think about teaching in these programs as well as being students.

Time management is widely discussed, though apparently seldom practiced, by clergy. They often rationalize about why it can’t be done: "After all, it’s part of the job to be on call 24 hours per day." . . . "It’s the minister’s job to be available to anybody who drops in at the church wanting to talk.". . . "My family has to understand that the church comes first." . . . "I always intend to spend more time on sermon preparation, but somehow these emergencies always come up." Clergy need to learn skills of setting priorities and protecting one’s time. This usually means educating the church secretary to handle interruptions diplomatically, as well as informing the laity about the importance of time off (many clergy still are unable to give themselves even one 24-hour period per week of time away from parish responsibilities). The time and energy for one’s family, friendships, and one’s own inner life occur only when one is deliberate about them.

This study of Minnesota United Methodist clergy demonstrates that while morale is generally good, there are patterns that deserve attention. Not the least of these is that clergy need to be aware that they are not as powerless as they often perceive themselves to be -- victims of the ecclesiastical system and the whimsy of the local church. By taking responsibility for their own psychological well-being, social needs, spiritual growth and professional development, clergy can do a great deal toward creating a more positive professional experience, and a happier personal life for themselves and their families.


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