JOPLIN, Mo. —
A little-noted victim of the current economic recession was the nonprofit College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. For nearly 80 years it had served the continuing-education needs of clergy of all faiths, but ceased operations in 2008.
Nearly every week through the years, the college had attracted a fresh group of clergymen and clergywomen, equipping them to return to their congregations with more compelling preaching and teaching.
It proved to be a significant mission. Over time, churchgoers exhaust their clergy's repertoire of Bible commentary and inspirational stories. A typical Protestant congregation in America has but a single pastor exclusively engaged in preaching to his or her flock. He or she seldom finds the occasion to hear a new sermon or share the wisdom of other preachers.
Years ago, I had been invited to join the governing board of the college, which today stands empty in the shadow of the Washington National Cathedral. By the time I was elected chairman a few years later, I had discovered that the critical mission of the college was something even greater than improving preaching. It was to renew the ministries of burned-out clergy, exhausted by the daily demands of shepherding their flocks.
The college offered the occasion to meet and share with fellow clergy and learn from their experiences. More recent statistics on clergy burnout are elusive, but in 2010 The New York Times reported that "members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans É Their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could."
Clergy across the denominations are further pressed to raise funds to keep their own parishes afloat. Daniel Sherman, regional director of the Pastor Care Network, a support group for clergy and their families, reports that 1,500 pastors leave their ministry each month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure.
Sherman adds that nearly one-fourth of clergy have been fired or pressured to resign at least once in their careers. One-third feel burned out within the first five years after ordination. Close to half of pastors say that they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from the ministry. Over half of pastors' wives and 7 of 10 pastors acknowledge that they have no close friends.
Sherman concludes that these numbers tell only half of the story. "The other half is that congregations don't know or understand the nature of pastoral stress." Clearly, their ability to convey the wisdom of their faiths to parishioners does not guarantee that ministers take sufficient care of themselves.
The denominations themselves attempt to minimize clergy burnout. The United Methodist Church urges its ministers to take annual vacations. The Episcopal, Baptist and Lutheran churches advise their clergy to take a day off each week to compensate for workings Sundays. The Rabbinical Assembly urges rabbis to take sabbatical leaves every few years. Catholic priests are required to make a retreat every year.
David Yount is the author of 14 books on faith, spirituality and confident living. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22193 and firstname.lastname@example.org.