By Dr Maureen Miner MAPS, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Western Sydney, Professor Martin Dowson, Director of Higher Education, Australian College of Ministries and Sam Sterland, National Church Life Survey Research

Although the importance of mental health amongst human-service professionals is of strong current interest, little attention has been paid to the mental health and wellbeing of religious leaders. However, psychologists can contribute significantly to the prevention and treatment of stress-related symptoms amongst religious leaders, and assist in maximising their job satisfaction. A growing body of Australian research (e.g., Miner, Sterland, & Dowson, 2006; Miner, Dowson, & Sterland, 2008) is helping psychologists understand the particular pressures experienced by church leaders, and is providing tools for sensitive interventions. This article reviews the research findings and discusses some of the implications for prevention of burnout and counselling for church leaders.

The stress of church leadership

Church leaders incur some stress that is shared with other occupations, and some stress that is particular to their calling. Shared stressors include excessive job demands, role conflict and lack of work autonomy. Unique stressors arise from the open-ended and intangible nature of ministry, coupled with high congregational expectations of ministers and increasing congregational mobility. Obvious causes of stress relate to the observable demands of ministry as a human service occupation. However, some of the less evident causes of stress arise from the changing nature and status of ministry in secularised societies.

In secularised societies, the authority of religion (and, hence, the authority of religious leaders and religious organisations) declines, while the accessibility of religious alternatives increases - leading to religious pluralism (even within specific religious traditions) and religious privatisation (as people increasingly make individual choices of religious belief and affiliation). In the face of declining religious authority, ministers may seek the external (social) support of others to legitimate and validate their ministry. Congregational sources of support, however, are precarious because church attendees in a secularised context hold diverse beliefs and expectations, and are willing to exercise their ‘private' option to leave a church if necessary. Conversely, a more stable source of legitimation and validation can be found in internal (psychological) supports, such as a sense of professional competence, or an empowering sense of connection with God.

The risk of burnout

Burnout is a work-related condition comprising three symptom clusters - emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. In Australia, around one quarter of church leaders are experiencing burnout as an extreme or significant issue, whilst around half are potential candidates for burnout (Kaldor & Bullpitt, 2001). The consequences of burnout can be devastating, and include poor physical health, reduced job performance, higher turnover intentions, conflicts with colleagues, declining professional commitment, reduced self esteem, and poorer overall life satisfaction (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Although work stress is a major contributor to burnout, the interaction between work stress and psychological factors is critical.

In our research into ministers' burnout and job satisfaction, we examined the internal resources available to church leaders to help them deal with the demands of ministry in a secularised social context. Specifically, we defined an internal orientation to the demands of ministry as a preference for deriving authority and legitimacy for ministry from a sense of personal autonomy (the scope and capacity to make choices independently of local and denominational support), spiritual relatedness (connection to God), and competence in ministry (a sense of possessing the requisite professional skills for ministry). Our core hypothesis was that ministers who display a weak internal orientation to ministry will exhibit higher levels of burnout than those with a strong internal orientation to ministry.

Research findings

Over the last decade we have conducted several studies to test our core hypothesis, using different measures, samples and statistical techniques in order to validate our findings. A measure of internal orientation to ministry (the Orientation to the Demands of Ministry Scale - ODM-S) was developed to reflect the dimensions of spiritual relatedness, sense of competence and sense of autonomy.

The ODM-S measure was first applied to a group of Presbyterian theological students upon graduation, and again after 12 months in ministry. Moderate levels of burnout were reported on exit from theological college, but an internal orientation to ministry was associated with a higher sense of personal accomplishment. After 12 months in ministry, burnout scores across the sample had increased significantly, but an internal orientation to ministry was nevertheless associated with lower burnout scores.

Next, we conducted a study of 262 ministers in NSW, from four denominations: 31 Anglican, 49 Church of Christ, 58 Presbyterian and 124 Uniting Church ministers. We found a weak internal orientation to ministry was associated with burnout, anxiety and depression over and above the effects of the minister's age, number of hours worked, religious self esteem and religious problem solving. Thus, internal orientation to ministry acted as a predictor of burnout and psychological symptoms over and above the effects of other recognised predictors.

Finally, we conducted a large study with 4,324 Australian church leaders using National Church Life Survey (2001) data. In this study we found that emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation were associated with low levels of spirituality and autonomy. Conversely, personal accomplishment and satisfaction in ministry were associated with high levels of autonomy and competence. Again, we concluded that an internal orientation to ministry acted as a substantial protective factor against burnout, and a significant contributor to perceptions of accomplishment and satisfaction, amongst Australian church leaders.

Taken as whole, our studies demonstrate that, in the context of a secularised society that reduces both the authority and legitimacy of ministry, an internal orientation to ministry increases ministers' job satisfaction and renders them less vulnerable to symptoms of burnout.

Key features of internal orientation to ministry

Deriving authority for ministry from:

  • Personal autonomy (capacity to make independent choices)
  • Spiritual relatedness (connection to God)
  • Professional skills (competence in ministry)  

Implications for prevention

Our research indicates that students entering ministry on completion of theological studies may already be experiencing moderate levels of burnout. Hence, strategies to select suitable ministry candidates and prevent burnout during theological college studies and early ministry experiences are important. Specifically, theological colleges should:

  1. Screen ministry candidates for current levels of psychological symptoms and burnout. If necessary, colleges should provide counselling for either an alternative career choice, or for resolution of psychological difficulties in the context of ministry.
  2. Initiate programs that assist students and church leaders to develop strong internal sources of support (autonomy, competence and spirituality), rather than seeking or developing a reliance upon congregational approval and support (e.g., Kaldor & McLean, 2009). 
  3. Structure ministry placements and workplaces in such a way that ministers and ministers-in-training have scope to:
    - Experience decision making with and without immediate support
    - Develop key skills and competencies
    - Model and practice authentic spirituality.

Implications for counselling church leaders

In the past, counselling for burnout in church leaders has emphasised rest and relaxation, social support, a balanced life, and a positive attitude. However, the internal ODM model indicates counselling should seek more specifically to facilitate internal sources of support as a basis for ministry recovery. For example, the minister's own spirituality can be used to help overcome the negative symptoms of burnout, moving the emphasis in counselling from more generalised social support to direct spiritual relatedness as a key resource. Specialist help from a spiritual director may be appropriate in this phase of treatment.

In addition, the counsellor can assist the church leader to obtain an accurate perception of his or her competence by appreciatively acknowledging current skills, and bolstering critical competencies in areas of relative deficiency. Autonomy can be supported once the church leader has achieved a healthy sense of spiritual relatedness and competency. In the autonomy-support phase, the counsellor would use cognitive, behavioural and experiential techniques to make ministry strengths salient in stress-inducing situations, whilst discouraging reliance on congregational feedback alone for self-appraisals.

Conclusion

Psychologists informed by recent research on the importance of an internal orientation to ministry can play an important role in providing targeted assistance to church leaders, helping these leaders prevent or overcome psychological conditions that may threaten their continuation in ministry. Specifically, psychologists can (a) help screen and prepare candidates for sustainable ministry, and (b) support ministers in ministry, despite critical social changes that increase ministry stress by threatening the authority of the minister and the legitimacy of ministry as an occupation. Psychologists can also provide counselling and treatment for church leaders who are suffering burnout by assisting these ministers to develop (or redevelop) a strong internal orientation to the demands of ministry.

The principal author can be contacted at m.miner@uws.edu.au.

References

Kaldor, P., & Bullpitt, R. (2001). Burnout in church leaders. Adelaide, S.A.: Openbook.

Kaldor, P., & McLean, J. (2009). Lead with your strengths: Making a difference wherever you are. Sydney: NCLS Research.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W., B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Miner, M., Dowson, M., & Sterland, S. (2008) The plight of the Australian clergy revisited: Orientation to ministry, burnout and ministry satisfaction. In M. Dowson, M. Miner, & S. Devenish (Eds), Spirituality in Australia: Resurgence and Divergence. Centre for Human Interaction, Learning and Development (CHILD)/Australasian Centre for Studies in Spirituality.

Miner, M.H., Sterland, S., & Dowson, M. (2006). Coping with Ministry: Development of a multidimensional measure of internal orientation to the demands of ministry. Review of Religious Research, 48(2), 212-230.

InPsych August 2009