Pandemic-Related Stress Makes Clergy Self-Care Even More Important

Pandemic-Related Stress Makes Clergy Self-Care Even More Important


By: NYAC Communications

Statistics say that one out of every five people in the general population will experience a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, during their lifetime. Unfortunately, comparable statistics for clergy aren’t much different. And new data confirms what we all know — the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. 

According to the new 2021 Clergy Well-Being Survey  conducted by Wespath
"there has been a steady decline across almost all dimensions of well-being of UMC clergy. The 2021 survey continues this negative trend with an even steeper decline compared to 2019, showing the dramatic impact COVID-19, social/racial injustice and the ongoing uncertainty within the UMC has had on clergy well-being."

The data outlines a stark reality for UMC clergy: 

  • Obesity, diabetes and hypertension on the rise; 
  • Increase in depression and stress; 
  • Depressive symptoms (fatigue, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, etc.) continue to worsen for respondents;
  • Work/life balance and social stressors are increasing; and
  • Spiritual vitality and well-being are diminishing.

Dorothea (Thea) Crites, an ordained United Methodist minister and pastoral psychotherapist with more than 30 years of experience explains that "we all need serious self-care, especially being in the helping profession. But helpers tend to not see that they need help.” 

“There has been so much change and disruption in our culture,” Crites emphasizes. “We have been through multiple traumas. There is a lot of PTSD. The climate. The political environment. And then COVID. And COVID has been over such a long time. So it is very, very important to feed the individual soul. To take care of yourself in your own unique way. You can’t be in that high level of trauma constantly.” 
 When was the last time that you took a check-up from the neck up or paused long enough to take inventory of how you’re really feeling? For instance, are you exhausted but can’t sleep? Do the things that gave you joy yesterday feel flat and unfulfilling today? Have you lost your appetite or, conversely, are you eating everything in sight? The questions in this Burnout Inventory may shed light on whether you should make a change or seek outside help. It would come as no surprise if you did. 

Crites notes that for many clergy, the COVID pandemic has only exacerbated an already shaky situation. Church members are sick or dying. Families are in need of comfort. And sometimes, all clergy can do is pray or call or Zoom from afar.  

“We’ve got to recognize that we’re being impacted by our own stuff,” Crites says. “We all are feeling a lot of grief because of the deaths, but also because of all the losses of our usual freedom and ways we connect to other people.” Crites admits that she’s been impacted. When the pandemic began, in addition to working in her own practice Crites was a volunteer who traveled with doctors to COVID floors.  
It wasn’t long before all the sickness and death that she saw began stirring something up inside of her and she began to feel worn. Crites recognized that she was overloaded and hadn’t given herself a chance to recover. So she cut back, amending her schedule to assure that at least two days a week were totally clear for just herself and her family. 

But there are times when more intensive intervention is needed. Another part of recovery involves setting limits. Key is to put strict boundaries on time and engagements, refuse to allow yourself to get run down and burnt out.

Many clergy are overachievers, but it is essential to learn to let go of control and approach self-care in order to be a better leader, person, and pastor.

Seven Easy Ways to Focus on Self-Care

1) Cut yourself some slack.  “People lay a lot on the pastor, that’s part of the job,” Crites says. “In therapy we have a term called transference—people see you as the answer to all of the problems and they’re furious when you’re not perfect and can’t fix everything,” Take note:  You can’t fix everything. Don’t try. 
2) Find Your Tribe.  One NYAC pastor confides that reading about others who faced similar struggles made her feel less alone; one book she highly recommends is Rest In the Storm, by Rev. Kirk Byron Jones.
3) Slow Your Roll.  Despite what you think, every issue doesn’t have to be addressed immediately. Prioritize and pace yourself.  Don’t have the urgency of the now, have the urgency of care.  
4) Accentuate the Positive. Crites notes that we are really affected by what we focus on. “So when you focus on someone who helps you feel safe and loved, your whole system can change….your body/mind/spirit can be in a totally different space, if you let it.”
5) Pursue Peer Support. Just having another person listen to you is so important. Call a friend, call someone else in the clergy. If you don’t have someone to talk to about how you're feeling. 
6) Know Your Role. Never feel like you have to be savior of everyone in your church—we already have the Savior. Make sure that you’re their pastor instead.
7) Get Your Life Back. “If you’re looking to get your personal needs met in your parish, that’s a mistake,” Crites says.  “It’s wonderful to have good relationships in a parish, but you have to have your own life. invest time, money and energy in getting healthy. Exercise, meet with friends and have a good time—so that your parish isn’t your whole life.”
“A lot of clergy today are really, really struggling and extremely stressed,” Crites reflects. The level of death since COVID, the enormity of grief that has surrounded us. A constant barrage. So self care is really, really important. And it is so very individual. What can help your soul. Maybe it’s music. I saw one person who found comfort dancing to a favorite song. Whatever it is, in times like these, you must find it.”