By Dr. Ann A. Michel
Religious communities through history have always found ways to care for and support clergy. And this need is arguably greater than ever in an era when increasing numbers of pastors feel overwhelmed by the demands of ministry. What systems are in place to address their needs?
While the most meaningful support for clergy often comes from their local congregations, other entities play significant roles in caring for clergy and sustaining their capacity for effective ministry. Caring for Clergy: Understanding a Disconnected Network of Providers (Cascade Books: 2022) by Thad S. Austin and Katie R. Comeau presents the findings of the first-ever comprehensive study of Protestant clergy care providers and the work they do. The work examines five different sectors that serve the needs of clergy:
- Denominations, networks, and associations. This broad category includes individuals and organizations who support clergy as part of denominational, non-denominational, and parachurch entities.
- Granting organizations and funders. This sector includes organizations that provide funding for clergy support, primarily private and denominational foundations.
- Pension, benefit, and insurance organizations. These organizations offer health insurance and retirement programs. Many are denominationally affiliated, but others are non-profit or for-profit entities.
- Frontline providers. This sector includes those who offer one-on-one care, such as spiritual directors, counselors, coaches, and therapists.
- Continuing education providers. This sector provides ongoing education to clergy after they complete seminary through informal workshops or seminars or more formal certificate or degree programs, such as Doctor of Ministry programs.
The Caring for Clergy research studied individuals and institutions within the U.S. and parts of Canada. The research model included assembling a database of Protestant care providers in these five sectors and surveying 740 senior-level individuals. It also involved in-depth interviews, focus groups, and site visits aimed at understanding how these providers worked.
A disconnected network
A major conclusion of this research is that the five sectors operate independently with little coordination and few common standards or goals. Each has different stakeholders, institutional prerogatives, and priorities. And this fragmented reality gives rise to disparities and gaps in the services provided to different populations of clergy, with particular consequences for bi-vocational clergy, women clergy, and clergy of color.
What constitutes clergy-well-being?
Another significant finding is that while each sector of providers is motivated by a deep concern for the well-being of clergy, there is no clear consensus of what clergy well-being means or what factors contribute to it. “Fewer that half of the providers with whom we engaged have a formal definition of clergy well-being,” write Austin and Comeau. “And even when they do have a definition, many do not know what that definition is, the definition is outdated, or the definition is inaccessible.”
The research also sought to discover how the care providers understood the needs of clergy. The largest basket of needs are professional needs including dealing conflict, pastoral transitions, political polarization, congregational financing, and so on. The second category of needs are health-related including challenges to mental, spiritual, and financial well-being. And the third is relational needs including issues related to family and marriage. And yet, it is also clear that these needs and concerns are closely interrelated and often have a cumulative impact on one’s overall sense of personal and professional well-being.
Additionally, the research looked at how the different sectors of care providers prioritize four different dimensions of clergy well-being – financial, spiritual, physical, and emotional. Not surprisingly, perhaps, a greater focus on financial well-being was reflected in the priorities of pension, benefits and insurance providers and granting and funding organizations. Denominations, continuing educators, and frontline providers focus more on spiritual well-being.
Toward a more systematic approach
Despite overlapping mandates and institutional allegiances, the existing system of clergy care is a patchwork quilt, with the various players operating from deep siloes in an uncoordinated manner. How can this be improved? These disparate organizations are unlikely to become more unified institutionally, but the authors see hope for strengthening the system through increased mutual awareness, enhanced self-assessment, greater reliance on existing scholarship and academic research, and enhanced collaboration.
While each of these sectors has a unique function and purpose, they can be stronger and more effective if they coordinate wherever possible. “If we want our leaders to be healthy and supported,” the authors conclude, “the existing network of clergy care providers needs to be strengthened, revitalized, and grown.”
Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017).