Study: Self-compassion significant to clergy health

Pastor, love thyself.

In a demanding profession where one study found nearly two in five clergy were experiencing significant levels of emotional exhaustion, your local pastoral leaders may help themselves by applying a little self-kindness.

A recent study found that having a gentle attitude of self-regard may help clergy have greater life satisfaction and be more likely to be inspired and enthusiastic, rather than upset and guilty, about their ministry.

Where ministers appear to threaten their well-being is when they become overly self-critical and isolated from others, researchers from Fuller Theological Seminary reported in the Journal of Psychology and Theology.

Clergy are often taught to focus on the suffering of others.

But, the researchers noted, “To have self-compassion … is to take the same compassionate stance toward oneself.”

The anxious pulpit

The stresses of a clerical life are many.

Fuller researchers Cameron Lee and Aaron Rosales noted past studies have found the ill effects include social isolation and financial pressures, personal criticism, congregational intrusiveness, high work demands and frequent relocations.

Some congregations are known as “clergy killers.”

In exploring self-regard in ministry among 200 United Methodist pastors in Indiana, Fuller researchers analyzed data collected for the Flourishing in Ministry Project at the University of Notre Dame. The Fuller study measured several factors, from self-compassion and social support to clergy demands and burnout.

Self-compassion, the authors said, involves “a gentle attitude of self-kindness,” a recognition that suffering and fallibility are part of the human condition and being mindful of adopting an accepting and non-judgmental awareness of all our feelings and mental states.

Some of the key study findings include:

• Self-regard matters: Self-compassion was significantly related to greater life satisfaction and feeling inspired about their ministry. Pastors who scored higher on levels of self-criticism were more likely to feel anxious or guilty and consumed by feelings of inadequacy when they fail at something.
• So do loved ones: Social support from family and friends were important in both helping clergy feel better about themselves and their ministry and was negatively related to burnout.
• It is not necessarily the demands themselves: Self-compassion, social support and self-criticism were more salient in influencing both positive and negative outcomes.

But how clergy handle those demands can make a big difference.

Overcoming struggles

The study authors noted several limitations, including that the sample was limited to United Methodist pastors who were predominantly married, white males.

But the findings also are consistent with other research on self-compassion.

One review of more than a dozen studies found a robust association of increased self-compassion with lower levels of mental health symptoms. At the same time, lower levels of self-compassion were linked with higher levels of psychological disorders.

A 2012 study looking specifically at clergy self-compassion among 75 pastors found clergy who were higher in self-compassion experienced higher levels of satisfaction in ministry and lower levels of emotional exhaustion,

The Fuller researchers said their findings indicate some practical approaches that may help clergy practice greater self-compassion, and manage unhealthy self-criticism.

“While little can be done directly to change the expectations congregations place on their pastors, pastors can be coached on how to cultivate supportive relationships, be more compassionate toward themselves, and challenge cognitive distortions associated with inappropriate self-criticism,” the researchers said.

Seminary students in particular can be counseled to be proactive in building supportive friendship networks prior to facing the demands of congregations and denominations.

Along with mental health support, Lee and Rosales also note there is an important theological dimension.

Some churches may need to cultivate a “more gracious” theology of ministry than one that emphasizes clergy self-denial, that pastors must take up their crosses without regard for themselves.

“It is one thing to repent of our self-centered tendencies,” the researchers said, “and it is another to deny ourselves the grace we would readily extend to others.”
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Image by Scott Griessel, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by Leszek Kozlowski, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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