Wednesday, January 17, 2024

VIDEO: Clergy Health & Well Being Webinar

In its first webinar series of the year, Hartford Institute for Religion Research faculty addressed the pressing issue of clergy wellness. The webinar was based on EPIC’s most recent study, “I’m Exhausted All the Time”: Exploring the Factors Contributing to Growing Clergy Discontentment,” which examined both what contributes and diminishes stress.

This webinar is part of an ongoing webinar series. Each week the institute will offer a lunchtime webinar and Q&A period to explore the latest church research and insights for beginning the ministry year full of optimism and direction. Thursdays 12:15-1:30 p.m. EST.

Register for our webinar series here: www.covidreligionresearch.org 

Below is a Q&A transcript from the webinar:

Do you have the opportunity to parse the types of conflicts related to clergy wanting to leave the congregation or leave pastoral ministry altogether?

Brittany Watts: Sure, some of the examples would be different political meanings, different understandings or opinions. Right? Of how the church should move forward, denominational ties as well. Whether or not churches are going to continue with traditions. Or move forward or be more progressive. 

Charissa Mikoski: In this survey we ask if there was serious conflict, and if there were, if it led to people leaving people withholding donations or if they were just minor things. So unfortunately, we don’t have specifics in the quantitative part about what the topic of the fight is over. But we can look at it by that way of what is the fallout on the other end?

Have you noticed a shift in congregations, sense of optimism for their future?

Scott Thumma: Well, clearly we noticed, as the graphic showed, that the optimism for the future has a has a pretty profound effect on the clergy’s thoughts of leaving either that congregation or the ministry altogether. In previous research we were looking more at, not so much at the clergy’s optimism of sorts, but the the general optimism of the congregation. And I think much like the willingness to change. We saw, and I don’t have the data in front of me, but my sense was that we saw optimism rise when they were adapting to the pandemic, and things were going well, and change was happening, and since then it has diminished off a little bit. But in every one of our surveys the relationship between those that were optimistic about the future, about their ability to to use what was ha to take what was happening in the pandemic and and make something good out of it always corresponded with vitality and hopefulness. And unfortunately, I think it’s it has diminished some.

I realize you do not have a crystal ball, but from your understanding of perspective, what would you imagine and project about the future for clergy, health, and wellbeing?

Scott Thumma: Thoughts of leaving, are not the same as actually leaving, and everything that we’ve looked at so far in a number of different denominations. Clergy, there’s not a spike in clergy retiring early, or in their departure at least through 2022 data from some of the denominations. So I mean, I think. We saw relatively few clergy having thoughts that they had been mistaken about their calling from God. Right? They weren’t actually giving up their calling. So I think in many ways what we’re seeing with the discontentment is is how we described it. Discontentment, right? It’s a challenging time. Both clergy and the congregation have suffered this trauma. Together they haven’t really resolved a lot of that feeling. And so these sort of thoughts of desperation I just need to leave here, or it would be so much better if I was a chaplain and not have to deal with these folks. I think that’s kind of out of desperation.

Is it possible that those who want to leave have an unhealthy relationship with the congregation?

Allison Norton: I’ve been surprised by what I’ve heard from some multi-vocational clergy around the joy that it comes in in having both work in a congregation, but also work outside. And I think partly to reduce some of those expectations. And I think some of the ways that we think about vocation right, are sort of changing in our society as a whole as well.

Scott Thumma: Oftentimes in this dynamic there are, unhealthy expectations, both from the side of the clergy in some cases, and also from the side of the congregation and we spoke a little bit about the congregation, but I think it works both ways in some cases. At the same time in relation to outside work, I was really surprised in our survey that so many full time clergy also had work outside of the congregation, and I don’t remember exactly what the percentage was. About half the part time clergy also worked outside of the congregation, I think it was also like 25 or 30% of full time clergy who had jobs outside. And one of the things that we’ve seen both in our pastoral innovation network. Work with thriving in ministry, but also in in some of our comments. A lot of clergy are beginning to look elsewhere for ways to find meaning in their lives. They’re not just finding, assuming that they’re going to find their spiritual meaning and purpose also. In leading the congregation that that that’s somewhat disconnecting a little bit. So it’s it’s an interesting dynamic. That’s going on. You know we thought that because the pandemics over, and not many congregations closed that long. And and we see hybrid worship, but not much else that there haven’t been that many effects of the pandemic. But but I think what we’re starting to see is that there are repercussions there. There are underlying dynamics under the surface that are bubbling up. And you heard it in a few comments, right? That this unresolved things that that the clergy are having put on them from the congregation, and this discontentment is, is, I think, a symptom of that, too, just like being less flexible. Right? That kind of digging in this is this is a response to trauma as much as it is. You know. Blank congregational members that we often hear about. It’s a it’s a really fascinating and also challenging dynamic that that we’re living through right now.

What can clergy do? What tools are available that can help sort of resolve, conflict, congregational conflict, or bring congregations together, and vision planning and then related to that questions around just clergy training in general, like, what kind of education do we have in our seminaries? And are these places where clergy find resources and tools and training preparing them? Or how could they better prepare them for this reality?

Scott Thumma: You know one of one of the things that surprised us about The various questions we asked in the survey, and what relationship they had to fewer thoughts of this, of leaving, or more thoughts of leaving. We assume things like clergy, sabbaticals, and peer peer groups, and therapists and and coaches, and all of that sort of thing would mitigate some of this, and and in fact that was the exact opposite of what we found, and now, causally there, this is probably not the case. I mean, it’s probably likely that if someone is struggling with their vocation they’re more likely to go to a therapist or to reach out for support, or and there, but there was. There was no relation to Sabbaticals. There was really no relation to days off. So it was a little challenging to figure out and and consequently what I said is that there’s no silver bullet here, right? There’s no easy answer. This is a complex, especially when you move into thinking about leaving the ministry? It it really is a multi faceted thing. So it’s challenging. People are being taught to handle this. And I hope seminaries include some kind of conflict, mediation or discussion thing.

Brittany Watts: I think the first thing I think about is partnerships. I think one of the things that clergy are lamenting about is being alone in trying to address the their congregants needs. So whether that’s congregants actually stepping up right those who can or have whatever skill sets needed to fill in whatever gaps that the clergy is trying to do, but also partnerships outside of of the institution. Right? So what other organizations or agencies, or how can the seminary maybe be a resource after graduation. Once you leave those grounds, how can they turn around and maybe help with mediation strategies? Or being a part of those kinds of small group discussions or figuring out, you know, who is going to keep up with the grounds now that most of our members, you know, are 80 plus old and can’t do that or other things that with the denominations marriage of quality issues with, you know, division with who is? On what side of the discussion. Right? These kind of things having the seminaries provide tools right? Or be a resource in it of itself. Or like, I said other agencies in the communities. That already have that kind of a connection to the culture and society. That specific culture context, could really be helpful for pastors. So that again, it’s not only on that one person or one entity, but it’s everyone collectively coming together to serve the community.

What are your thoughts on the kinds of questions that clergy can be asking? 

Scott Thumma: It is clear that both in our data, but also in our experience with congregations and in the open-ended comments having a positive approach to that future. Right? There’s a scenario that a lot of pastors and churches like repeat to themselves a mantra. You know we’re, we know, decline. We’ve declined. We’re not what we once were, and that’s a kind of defeatist attitude, even if and that that’s why I say, I’m I’m a optimistic realist, right? Sure that that’s the realism. But you have to still have hope. And if Christians don’t have hope given that our religion is based on resurrection and renewal, and then our congregations have to be based on that. And so I think that’s the primary thing you have to do. Whatever the questions are we have to ask ourselves, we have to do it with the sense that we are going to survive right? We are going to come out of this in a in a new way. So we have to be flexible, right? We have to be open to change and continue to evolve. But we also have to think about, as Alison said, new models and new ways of doing these things, and new approaches.

Allison Norton: I’m thinking, too, about just the kind of assumptions that we carry right into this this season. And maybe it’s a time to ask that question, what assumptions do we have about ministry, about its future, about our congregation’s legacy. At my own congregation. I was just struck by an astute observation by one of our long term members who participates exclusively, virtually right now. And she was talking about how she can’t understand or couldn’t understand, why people and among her friends set were so resistant to virtual engagement in church until she kind of stepped back and realized that for some it was a trauma response, because, although in her life she had a sort of significant virtual engagement through work before the pandemic for many people, their introduction to virtual Zoom, anything happened because of the pandemic. And so I think, just unpacking some of these sort of assumptions that people might bring, whether it’s related to some trauma responses collective trauma, or just assumptions around the questions we’ve seen here on. What’s the future of of the church in in terms of the next generation. So I think this is a really good time just to lean in on into asking questions. I think that’s just the right orientation. It might, and that might be more important than the particular question you asked than that you are approaching with a kind of openness towards seeking kind of deeper and newer understanding. And we hope you know some of these findings will prompt for you many of your own questions that you wanna bring back to your congregations and your settings?