A clergy renewal experiment
While clergy fairly consistently report being fulfilled and satisfied by their work, it’s no surprise that the work of ministry can really wear on a person. The constant wear can lead to burnout or dropout from ministry. I was excited to hear about a proposal developed a few years ago by the clergy of one United Methodist annual conference to help curb clergy burnout and dropout. The proposal offered each clergyperson serving a parish within the conference a three-month sabbatical leave every six years if he or she were willing to participate in certain life-shaping, ministry-changing assessments.
First, each clergyperson would undergo a 360° evaluation, that familiar tool that includes feedback from supervisors, colleagues, direct reports and church members alongside one’s own self-review. By participating in a 360° evaluation, clergy get understandable and applicable feedback on their practice of leadership — the kind of feedback that can help people develop, grow and change in ways that sustain ministry over time.
Second, in order to receive a renewal leave, clergy must visit their doctor for a comprehensive physical. As the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke has found, United Methodist clergy in North Carolina are considerably less healthy than their non-clergy counterparts in the state; it is believed that this pattern is true across the country and across denominations. The designers of the proposal believe that, by encouraging clergy to see their physicians, clergy might be more aware of their health challenges. As a result, they might make better lifestyle decisions by incorporating more exercise into their daily routines, quitting smoking or choosing healthier food options.
Third, clergy would meet with a financial planner and go through a thorough financial review. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that a significant number of clergypersons are financially unprepared or under-prepared for retirement, despite the retirement planning of their denominations. By meeting with a financial planner — something they may never have done — clergy can set goals and chart a path toward a sustainable and livable retirement.
Fourth, the granting of a renewal leave would be contingent on a theological review by the same body that reviews candidates at the beginning of their ministries for ordination. In this way, clergy would be asked to revisit their theological commitments and discern if ongoing participation in the ordained life is the proper expression of their Christian vocation. There is a kind of inertia in ministry that can keep one in a pulpit for too long; by interrogating one’s call and commitments, clergy can lean into the vocation more fully or exit gracefully.
The proposal has much to commend it. It is a kind of thorough-going review of many of the most important aspects of one’s life in ministry coupled with the kind of space and time required to develop new habits and practices. It represents a kind of a balance between accountability and grace, between responsibility and renewal. Sure, there are some elements missing from the proposal (a visit to a therapist or spiritual director and a significant provision for clergy families would be nice), but it isn’t a bad place to begin.
While the renewal of the church may not depend upon the renewal of the clergy, it is hard to imagine how clergy worn down by the pressures and demands of ministry can lead parishes into vitality.