The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy. But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

As cellphones and social media expose the clergy to new dimensions of stress, and as health care costs soar, some of the country’s largest religious denominations have begun wellness campaigns that preach the virtues of getting away. It has been described by some health experts as a sort of slow-food movement for the clerical soul. In the United Methodist Church in recent months, some church administrators have been contacting ministers known to skip vacation to make sure they have scheduled their time.

The church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, led the way with a 2006 directive that strongly urged ministers to take all the vacation they were entitled to — a practice then almost unheard of in some busy congregations.

“Time away can bring renewal,” the directive said, “and help prevent burnout.”

COMMENT: Of course, clergy should take regular vacations and, no doubt, doing so brings refreshment. However, such reinvigoration will not last long as the real problem is the amount of time clergy spend working each and every week that they are not on vacation.

In the Church of England the clergy are expected to work for 60 hours a week over 6 days. But most conscientious clergy will put in far more hours. For this they are paid about £23000 ($36000). Employed persons, in other occupations, would expect to work no more than between 35 and 40 hours a week for such a wage and, importantly, this would be over a 5 day week, giving them 2 full days off to recuperate and give time to their own concerns. Clergy have to shop, paint the spare room and take their kids to football practice like everyone else. Cramming such mundane things into just one day off a week leaves you permanently knackered and the lack of time available to spend with ones partner can lead to all sorts of relationship stress.

Basically, nobody else would accept such working conditions. Such long hours for such low wages have been regarded as unjust in England for well over 50 years.

Most congregations in England are made up of people who work between 35 and 40 hours a week, or who have retired from such jobs. Most congregation members, still at work, would strike if their employers insisted on paying them £23000 for a compulsory 60+ hours a week (with no overtime payments). Yet these people are the ones who sit on the PCCs and vestries of their churches and complain if the vicar takes the odd hour off to take his kids to school or similar. They are also the ones who donate a pittance each week to the church collection which is one of the main reasons clergy work conditions are so poor.

At almost every interview I have attended in my search for another post I have been grilled about how much time I spend on my blog. The answer is about 3 hours a day. When I am working I tend to spend about an hour on it before morning prayer and then more time in the evening and late at night (I'm not one for watching much TV and I don't have any other hobbies). In any other line of work you would not expect to be interrogated about the amount of time you spend on your hobbies during your own spare time.

The truth is that congregations do not allow their clergy any spare time. They expect them to devote every spare moment of their waking lives to them and assume the right to wake them up if they are sleeping. Of course, there are other occupations where this is also true to some extent, certain parts of the medical profession for example. But such jobs tend to be financially rewarded at a far higher level than clergy pay and usually last for a relatively short amount of time during the person's career.

Although clergy in the Church of England have always been poorly paid (at times, in the past, far more poorly paid than they are today), previously their ministry was not viewed by the congregations as a job, but as a way of life. Clergy would work their own land, study, pursue other interests, do academic work alongside their parish commitments, and in a relaxed manner. Unfortunately, the people of the church have now bought into the capitalist ethic and see their clergy as their employees whilst at the same time not buying into the fair wage for a fair day's work ethic. In this they are like the unenlightened mill owners of the early industrial revolution or Nike today.

Unless clergy hours are reduced to no more than 8 a day and their working week reduced to 5 days, clergy working in modern, Western, capitalist countries will continue to burn out, no matter if they take regular holidays or not. At the moment most congregations are killing their clergy and they don't appear to give a damn about that.

Thanks to Skittles for bringing the
NY Times article to my attention.



  1. Most sensible thing I have ever read about clergy terms and conditions. Sadly there is little chance of such common sense being taken notice of. If it were we would doubtless see happier and therefore better priests.

    From a burned out priest

  2. In any other line of work you would not expect to be interrogated about the amount of time you spend on your hobbies during your own spare time.

    No indeed, particularly given that your hobby is also a form of ministry … not that they might necessarily have worked that out.

    It must actually be very difficult for clergy to say no to demands on their time (just as it must be hard for vets, in a sense), but that’s where congregations should be extra sensitive to the issue and make it a priority to ensure they’re not asking too much.

  3. I read that article, and it spoke right to me… Both of the dioceses I’ve been in have a standard ‘letter agreement’ between parish and clergy, and they both demand two full days off/week and a goal of 40 hrs/wk. We all know that can come and go. TEC has been worried about ‘burnout’ for a long time and I think the word has gotten through to most parishes. I went through ‘burnout’ in my business life and have simply made it clear to everyone I interviewed with that I would be very jealous of my time. Non-clergy can never, I think, come to grips with the true nature of the demands on clergy, few of which have to do with time in the office! My current Sr. Warden is beginning to grumble at me, so the honeymoon appears to be over, sigh.

  4. “Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?” (TEC BCP pg 531, Examination of the Candidate for Ordination to the Priesthood)

    To which vow I replied, “I will.”

    In the U.S. we live in a culture that glorifies workaholism. To keep that vow, I have to be constantly countercultural. It means I am vigilant about how much I’m expecting of the congregation, and of how much they are expecting of themselves and one another. Taking care of myself, taking days off, vacation, retreats (which are in my letter of agreement) means I try to model a more balanced life of work, prayer, silence and study, and try to make sure I am not visiting on the people I serve the very lifestyle I am trying not to model in my own life.

    Oddly, when people drop by or phone me they invariably begin by apologizing for interrupting me because “I know you are very busy”, which puzzles me. So now I am pondering how to appear not busy, or at least not so busy that the real reason I became a priest is lost – people dropping in to chat me up at any time during the day.

  5. In my first parish, my predecessor had some serious medical issues, and because of that was very firm on taking days off and vacation, as well as limiting his hours. Judging from some parish council minutes, it was not an easy task. But eventually it sank in with people, and when I came the parish leadership was very good about honouring my day off, and making sure I wasn’t too overworked. After dealing with a particularly difficult murder-suicide, I told the wardens I needed to take several unscheduled days off, and was met with nothing but support and encouragement.

    My current parish is a world apart, and I’m still trying to educate people as to how I spend my time, and how much time I spend. It doesn’t help that there are some who expect me to be involved in every single detail of parish life. We’ll see how my proposal to attend finance committee meetings only every other month goes over.