Those who flourish in ministry are intentional about their well-being

Challenges are part of any ministry, yet some clergy thrive despite the inevitable setbacks. New research shows that their keys to success can be boiled down to a few simple strategies available to anyone.

Some clergy seem to rise above the fray.

They face the same sorts of challenges that are present in any church: critical congregants, hectic schedules, pressure to devote more time to others and thus minimal time to caring for themselves. They don’t always get it right; in fact, they’ll say they are far from having it all figured out. Yet they’re flourishing in ministry.

What sets them apart?

In a recent study, researchers at the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School interviewed 52 church-appointed pastors about their daily lives and how they approach challenges, and invited them to complete a series of surveys and maintain a daily activity log for one week.

The participants were selected based on their responses to an earlier study of the predictors of positive and negative mental health in clergy, through which they had answered questions about components of positive mental health. Among the participants were clergy who had been identified as flourishing, with positive mental health scores at the highest levels, and those identified as languishing, with scores in the bottom third of the continuum.

When the researchers compared the new data from these two sets of pastors, they noticed important differences in how the two groups take care of themselves and orient their work. One factor stood out above the rest, however: flourishers attend to their well-being. In fact, the researchers found that 94 percent of clergy with flourishing mental health are intentional about spending time on personal care such as exercise, prayer, family relationships and hobbies.

The good news: the strategies they employ to achieve this balance are available to everyone, clergy and laity alike. These strategies can form a playbook of sorts for how to attain positive mental health.

“Some people, including some clergy, still feel that the very nature of clergy work sets pastors apart -- that above all else, pastors are called to serve, so the human need to attend to oneself shouldn’t apply,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the research director for the Clergy Health Initiative. “But this just doesn’t hold up. The flourishing pastors’ beliefs and actions show that applying intentionality and nurturing relationships with friends and family actually make all the difference.”

Flourishing clergy focus on working in alignment with God.

Strategy 1: Remember who it is that you serve.

Rather than looking for praise from the pews, aim to derive your sense of success from knowing you’re doing your all to enact the work God has called you to. Also, keep in mind that you are participating in a process -- you are working with God, and God alone sees the full picture.

Strategy 2: Discern, discern, discern.

Create time for spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study to understand the work God is calling you to do.

Flourishing clergy are proactive and flexible in taking care of their physical and mental health.

Strategy 3: Prioritize healthy behaviors.

There is tremendous pressure to eat what is offered to you at church gatherings. Remind yourself that your congregants don’t want to make you unhealthy. Take smaller portions, and don’t feel awkward about it. Go to the doctor regularly; get annual checkups. Get outside. Ride bikes, play golf, or go for a walk every day and set a goal for the number of steps you want to log. Make healthy activities a priority, but also be flexible about how you incorporate those health behaviors into your daily routine. Pastors’ lives are too unpredictable to keep to the same habits all the time, but that doesn’t mean you have to dismiss your health goals.

Strategy 4: Invest in spiritual care.

Start each day by reading the Bible. If you’re traveling and can’t read along the way, listen to a devotion on an MP3 player or mobile device. Set aside time for prayer and one-on-one communion with God. Keep a regular Sabbath.

Strategy 5: Make time for personal interests.

In addition to pursuing the activities you care about, look for opportunities to incorporate them into your ministry.

Flourishing clergy are intentional about setting boundaries around their work and personal lives.

Strategy 6: Pick the time that works for you.

Schedule activities in functional blocks. Pick one night of the week when you will attend nighttime church meetings, and urge others to use this as a basis for scheduling. Set “office hours” for when you will be available at the church each week.

Strategy 7: Use space creatively.

One pastor described taking regular “office hours” in a local McDonald’s. This allows him to have space outside the church to connect with church members, as well as the broader community. To create distance from their work on an afternoon off, some pastors recommend going out of town -- even if it’s only as far as the next town.

Strategy 8: Communicate clearly and regularly.

If you keep a Sabbath, include that information in the signature of your emails. If you have to say no to a request on your day off, offer an alternate time to help. Ask your congregants, staff and other key people about their top priorities for you, and share your own. Then discuss where your expectations diverge. Being honest about your gifts and limitations as a leader is important.

Strategy 9: Manage your technology.

Some pastors set a stop time every evening, after which they do not pick up incoming calls. These clergy say they check their voicemail and will respond if there’s an emergency, but by waiting for a message, they can determine whether a request needs to be addressed during off hours. Work with another pastor or spiritual leader who can be “on call” when you are off or away. Include that person’s contact information in your automatic email reply and your outgoing voicemail message.

Flourishing clergy nourish friendships and mutual relationships.

Strategy 10: Find support from other clergy.

Identify another pastor who can serve as a mentor. Form or join a peer or covenant group. Find at least one person in whom you can confide and from whom you can draw support in the face of ministerial and personal challenges.

Strategy 11: Seek out emotional support from family and friends.

Meet a friend for lunch, especially if you feel yourself getting down or low on energy. Create an annual ritual, such as a retreat with friends, to maintain important connections. Make yourself accountable to a close friend or spouse who knows the day-to-day stresses you’re facing; help each other maintain boundaries and healthy practices.

Those who set priorities and adjust their plans to attend to those priorities on a near-daily basis aren’t undone when difficult circumstances arise; they find their way through. They embrace challenges. They avoid symptoms of depression, anxiety and burnout. They flourish.

“If you’re wondering whether these basic strategies make a difference, they do,” Proeschold-Bell said. “Even though they sound like good common sense, they are hard to enact -- but worth it. They are what differentiated flourishing pastors.”

Questions to consider

  • What activities and values are meaningful to you? How do you make time for them? Are there ways to incorporate them naturally into your other responsibilities?
  • None of the flourishing clergy who participated in the study named all of these strategies as critical parts of their ministry, but they all said they employ a number of them. You likely already do, too. Which new ones will you try?
  • Positive emotions have been shown to promote broad-minded coping and openness to new ideas -- important traits for effective leadership. How might you foster positive emotions in yourself and others?