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Who cares for the shepherds? The secondary trauma of faith leaders must be addressed

I call a pastor friend to ask him for a favor, and we’re engaging in pleasantries.

“How are you?” I ask.

He pauses and then says, “I’m good. Well, yeah, I’m good.”

I pause. I have a decision to make. Do I stick with my mission and move on about my day? The truth is, I can’t.

So many times in the past few months, I’ve had this conversation — the pastor calling to ask for a mental health referral for a member, the executive minister calling to schedule a Zoom-based session on mental health during the pandemic, the clergy member arranging a panel on responding to race-based violence in the U.S.

The purpose of the conversation is service to the people we all care about, but when do faith leaders make time to attend to themselves?

“I don’t believe you,” I say to my friend. He just responds, “I know.”

“I’m here,” I say. “You know I’m here.” He replies to my invitation with three simple words: “It’s just everything!”

Immediately, I get it. He doesn’t need to explain. The past six months have been a whirlwind for all of us. In March, the arrival of a pandemic that stopped us in our tracks. What we thought would be a few weeks has turned into a half-year-long saga of reinventing the ministry wheel and responding to emotional, financial and programmatic needs.

In May and the months after, the ubiquitous reminders of the racialized violence that is embedded in the bones of this country, reinforcing how perilous the very concept of “safety” is. Add to that a contentious political battle in which it seems that we are fighting for our very souls. Ministering has never, ever been an easy job, but this year has made it even harder.

Ministry as a profession trains people to orient themselves outward and upward; less often are they encouraged to orient inward. For clergy, this season has been a call to action.

In heroic efforts for which they have not always gotten appropriate credit, clergy have worked to transition churches to online formats, shift their pastoral care strategies, manage financial concerns, and respond to the fears and anxiety of congregations who are wondering what to do in moments like these.

While the buildings have been closed, the phone calls and requests for help have not stopped. In fact, the work has somehow increased! Parishioners have needs, and they call clergy first.

Clergy have had front-row seats to the pain: the COVID-19 deaths, the isolation from family and friends, the despair about how long this period will last, the racial unrest and calls to protest, the mental health consequences that come along with this turmoil. They see and feel and hold it all.

Our trauma is their trauma, on top of their own. The simple definition of trauma I give to clients who have experienced it is this: something happened that shouldn’t have happened, or something didn’t happen that should have happened.

Isn’t that this year in a nutshell?

Secondary trauma is bearing witness to these happenings (and not-happenings) for others. For clergy, it’s bearing witness for lots of others — and in times like these, there is often a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness that simply overwhelms. Clergy are doing what they can, but many simultaneously have the sense that it is not enough.

As this internal and external war rages on, the things that can serve as little reminders that their labor is good and their efforts are appreciated have faded away: no hugs or high fives, fewer smiles from people who can see how hard they are working, no faces in the sanctuary reacting to the sermons, no real-time responses to the proverbial sermonic call.

A funeral, which at one time was a balm for collective grief, suddenly turns into a graveside service with many left watching at home. A wedding or baby dedication to celebrate the cyclical nature of life is either canceled or transformed into something nearly unrecognizable.

The anxiety and angst of this time in our collective history means that people need more. And clergy, being who they are, have responded.

But who takes care of the shepherds? While they have the responsibility of leading churches during these tumultuous times, they are still whole people with their own anxiety about COVID-19, maybe their own financial issues, their own angst about the state of the world. Still, their churches might be needing more and more.

It is a precarious place to be, and the reality is that when people are used to being in the role of caretaker, it can be hard for others to see them (and for them to see themselves) as needing love, care, support and encouragement. The shepherds need this care and support more than ever. Theirs can be a thankless job, and we are in a particularly unforgiving season.

Add to that the uncertainty. When will the church building open back up? When can we return to “normal” life? What’s our responsibility in response to social unrest? Where is God in all of this?

I imagine that some clergy are tackling another uncertainty in addition to this list: How can I go on like this?

I have said over these past few months that I firmly believe we are all doing the best we can. What is the best we can do in this moment? What is the best we can do for the shepherds?

One place we can start is simply giving clergy places to name their struggles. Many of us know the isolation that can come with this profession. What clergy need now, more than ever, is connection — even if that connection is not through the traditional methods. This can be personal and emotional, but it can also be professional.

Clergy can benefit from spaces to share best practices, technology hacks and helpful resources. They also need spaces to cry, scream and lament.

Now is the time for denominations to rethink and rework renewal leaves, sabbaticals and time away.

Now is the time for churches to evaluate their benefits packages to make sure they include comprehensive medical and mental health care, paid leave, and professional funds. For many churches, this means getting creative, collaborating with fellow churches and capitalizing on the strengths of the leaders in each congregation.

The clarion call of rising clergy burnout rates has been ringing for quite some time, and for us to be the church, we must equip the clergy. They have risen to the occasion, and now it’s our turn.

A part of this equipping work ideally happens before a crisis occurs. In most traditional seminary training, there is at least a cursory discussion of self-care as a part of pastoral care or some other foundational class. But what we are learning in this time is that ministry during a crisis requires something different as clergy attempt to care for congregations and to care for themselves.

Seminaries can be a part of the solution by helping seminarians build crisis-specific skills: collaboration, understanding and responding to personal needs, setting appropriate boundaries. The strategies might be similar to those of general self-care, but they are executed differently in times of crisis.

It will take all of us to come together and envision processes for being well and even thriving as these challenges continue.

I spent my summer away from the thick of all things COVID-19. I was at our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which means I was outside every day, could easily spend time with our wonderful neighbors and still maintain appropriate social distancing, and had ready access to fresh food from small local providers. No visits to crowded grocery stores, no trying to walk on busy sidewalks. As a professor, I had no work responsibilities that required me to adapt.

Pastors are at the other end of the pandemic impact spectrum with no clear relief in sight. They are trying to preach effectively with empty church pews as their audience. They are suddenly required to be technology experts — available 24/7 to handle computer problems — and still carry out their usual responsibilities.

They feel the intensity of working from home in new ways. They struggle to create appropriate space for pastoral care in the middle of a now-packed and privacy-strained home. They wrestle with the terrible reality that they cannot make hospital visits or, even more wrenching, officiate in traditional ways at funerals. Life for pastors has become immensely harder.

My colleagues and I at the Flourishing in Ministry project have developed some practices based upon our research that I think will help pastors, especially those who are bearing significant burdens from the pandemic. We call these “wise well-being practices” — in part because they are based on solid scientific evidence, and also because they can be tailored to fit into a pastor’s unique ministry and personal situation.

A basic triad of wise well-being practices can help us build solid ground from which to move forward.

First is acknowledging that anxiety is a natural response. We are hard-wired to experience anxiety in times like these, followed by fatigue, frustration and fear when challenges persist. The key goal is to be able to acknowledge that these responses are normal and not somehow evidence of personal “weakness.”

One simple but effective strategy is to explicitly name the troubling thoughts and feelings and then to recognize that they are natural and understandable — that they are OK. Certain kinds of prayer can help with this. The shift in thinking and feeling will probably not be immediate or comprehensive, but research shows that this simple practice, repeated over time, is very likely to help.

The responses may recur, and if they do, that is normal as well. Again, building solid ground starts with accepting that these times are very difficult and quite naturally will evoke anxious, worried thoughts and feelings.

Building solid ground continues by engaging in at least one joyful practice on a regular basis. Joyful practices foster positive, peaceful, hopeful thoughts and feelings. Examples include centering prayer, lectio divina, hymn singing, the reading of beautiful poems, walking meditation, listening to hopeful music and jubilant dance.

I have several joyful practices I turn to, including reading positive nonfiction like Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World” and listening to podcasts like “The Slowdown.” More recently, I have been listening to music that inspires me, like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Even five minutes of a joyful practice each day will produce meaningful benefits over time.

A final way to build solid ground is to get enough rest. Even in good times, we hear a lot about how important getting sufficient sleep is for our health and well-being. During challenging times, it is especially important to ensure that our minds and bodies are rested and restored.

Short catnaps can be very effective. Even if sleep is difficult, finding ways to physically relax can help. And yes, being a couch potato for short periods can be beneficial if that brings rest. But worrying about getting enough rest is counterproductive, so if sleep becomes an ongoing challenge, getting assistance from a physician or heath care professional may be in order.

In times like these, it is important to affirm our core life values and beliefs. Researchers consistently find that when we feel uncertain or threatened, returning to our core values is a balm.

Consider an exercise such as this: Dwell on at least one value. Think about what that value means to you, why your living out that value matters so much. Next, acknowledge the ways you are living it out — you need to be able to embrace concrete things you are doing that represent that value. Then imagine new ways you can live in consonance with that value in several aspects of your life: work, home, civic activities, etc.

Try to be vivid and specific in what you imagine. Make it real for yourself. Finally, create some reminder of the value: an icon, a quotation, an objective that represents it, a song that reflects it. When practiced over time, such affirmations can be powerful antidotes to life’s most challenging experiences.

We invite pastors and other ministry workers and leaders to visit our website to find more resources, including our WorkWell mobile app. WorkWell offers users an opportunity to build their own personal well-being profiles, as well as access to more wise well-being practices by experts including Barbara Brown Taylor, Parker Palmer and James Martin, with new practices from Robert Franklin and others coming soon.

Simple practices that require small amounts of time really do create benefits, as long as we make them rituals, activities that we engage in regularly. My colleagues and I sometimes say “five for flourishing,” which is meant to remind us that we can all find five minutes to help ourselves.

My vocation is not at all what I would have answered had people asked the 12-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Rather, my vocation is a lifelong journey that has been unfolding for longer than I can remember.

I identify as a clinical psychologist who stands at the intersection of faith and mental health. For me, this started as a teenager. I watched my father, a lifelong pastor, battle depression that seemed to be the result of doing the thing that he was undeniably called to do, something that he wholeheartedly loved.

At the time, we didn’t talk about what was going on with him or why. We all knew something was wrong. He took a sabbatical, went to therapy and seemed to recover, but no one ever sat me down and said, “This is depression that is the result of burnout.”

Perhaps even he could not articulate or understand how it was possible to be totally sure of your vocation (and he was) but still need to reckon with what seemed to be consequences of choosing that vocation. Perhaps what none of us could see in the moment is that God does not just call us to a vocational position.

God also calls us to a vocational process that allows us to bring the fullness of our personhood into the way that we do ministry.

When we focus only on position, allowing our jobs to rule us rather than integrating our jobs with the other pieces of our lives, we suffer, just as my dad did. Unfortunately, some of our doctrinal frameworks and theological arguments work against doing ministry from a whole-person perspective.

Parker Palmer, in “Let Your Life Speak,” writes:

“As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

Too often, we fall into this dangerous trap of believing that the position runs the show. There are templates for doing ministry that don’t account for the individualities of personality, mental health needs and the reality of time constraints.

Some of us have taken too literally the apostle Paul’s description of his ministry — “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31 NASB) — and end up sacrificing ourselves for people Jesus already saved.

Maybe we do things the traditional way, the path of least resistance, rather than recognizing that changing times call for changing methods.

Thriving in ministry requires reflection, creativity and adaptability. It requires that we honor the wholeness of who we are by recognizing that our physical health, mental wellness, relational stability and vocational clarity all serve and support our call. When we over-attend to one element to the detriment of the others, it is difficult to thrive.

Valuing process over position means that being fully engaged in ministry does not require us to leave any part of ourselves out. God does not call us to neglect our physical health for the sake of being available whenever a parishioner calls. God does not call us to forsake family for the ecclesiastical commitment.

God is not interested in a hustle mentality that leaves no space for reflection or Sabbath.

Moreover, valuing process means reckoning with the realities of poverty, injustice, oppression and discrimination as they affect us as individuals and the communities we serve. This framework calls us to be whole, real people serving whole, real people and leading them to see and understand God in new and liberative ways.

Valuing process over position cannot be divorced from who we are as cultural beings. There is something in us, as Howard Thurman famously said, that “waits and listens for the sound of the genuine” in ourselves. It is easy to get distracted by things that are not really us — things that are external rather than internal.

“There is so much traffic going on in your minds,” Thurman said, “… and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is.”

What is your name? Who does God say you are? How is God calling you to serve?

To truly know our names, we must connect with God and God’s intentions for us. Even in the face of a hectic reality with multiple demands at play, we cannot do this work without Sabbath, reflection and restoration. We in ministry can no longer view these moments of reflection and restoration as expendable.

I urge clergy to rework and reframe this belief as an everyday practice. Reflection and restoration are not bonuses when we get a break; they are necessities for doing effective ministry.

This work demands that we make time to move toward balance — to evaluate and reevaluate our priorities and boundaries, and to take care of our emotional health. It is not a luxury; it is an act of stewardship that honors what God has given us.

When we truly connect with how God is calling us (not just where God is calling us), our sense of discernment about our yeses and our nos becomes clearer and our decisions easier to execute.

In this particular moment, when we are called to re-envision church and community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand to get clear about God’s intentions for us becomes even more urgent.

As we seek to be the church and to be in community in the absence of proximity, we need to know both our personal gifts and the particular space God is calling us and our communities to fill in this new iteration of church.

More than ever, we must know our names. To know our names, the focus must be on the being — being with God, being with each other and being with ourselves. In our moments of stillness and reflection, God speaks and God directs.


Reading the Bible in the early morning quiet. Taking a walk along a greenway. Accepting a congregant’s offer of help. According to research conducted at Duke University, these practices, done with intention, can help pastors flourish in their ministry.

In 2015, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative learned from 52 church-appointed pastors in North Carolina about their daily lives and how they approach challenges. From this data, gathered through interviews, activity logs and surveys, the researchers identified four practical, “real world” strategies crucial to clergy’s flourishing.

Flourishing pastors are intentional about taking care of their physical and mental health, setting boundaries around their work and personal lives, nourishing friendships and mutual relationships, and working in alignment with God.

“Pastors’ schedules are constantly being revised as needs arise during the day,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, co-principal investigator at the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. “Flourishing clergy proactively make backup plans A, B and C, and are flexible in taking care of their physical and mental health.”

Some of the study’s participants were found to be practicing all four strategies in their lives, leading the researchers to nickname them “superflourishers.” Two superflourishers, David Woodhouse and Eric Reece, agreed to share their experiences.

Taking care of body and spirit

Woodhouse, the pastor of Smyrna United Methodist Church in Robbins, North Carolina, is very intentional about exercise, he said. He walks every day, sometimes twice.

“I’ve always either run or walked, throughout my life,” he said. “My grandfather was a United Methodist pastor, and taking a daily walk, sometimes two, was part of his ministry and a way to interact with people in the neighborhood. Walking has always been a character of our family life.”

Woodhouse called exercise, which also includes lifting weights three times a week, “one of the things that has kept me sane.”

Depression runs in his family, Woodhouse said. “There is a genetic component to it, and I’m aware that it is a possibility for me, so I prioritize the exercise.”

Walking on a greenway near his house allows him to refresh his body and his spirit.

“[The greenway is] a good trek, with hills and dips, and a lot of trees. It has birds, squirrels and snakes, so it’s almost like walking through a little nature preserve,” he said. “The interaction with nature is refreshing to my soul.”

If exercise and activity are essential to flourishing, so is the practice of rest. Reece, pastor of Robbinsville United Methodist Church in Robbinsville, North Carolina, said he had to learn that truth the hard way. After years of regularly working himself to exhaustion, a bout with pneumonia landed him in the emergency room, and “I just couldn’t go anymore,” he said.

A pastor’s hectic schedule can lend itself to exhaustion, which is where the importance of intention comes in, Reece said.

“Pastors put in long hours,” he said. “If you’re not rested on Sunday morning, if you’ve put in double shifts all week long and drag in on Sunday morning, that’s going to reflect on your ministry.”

Reece has gradually taught himself to keep a Sabbath — an intentional day of rest.

His Sabbath starts with not setting an alarm to wake him. Even if he wakes up before the alarm would have gone off, he still finds it mentally restful to know that he doesn’t have any meetings scheduled or any reasons to rush out the door.

“On some of my Sabbaths, I like to volunteer. That’s not resting, exactly,” he said, but it’s a break from his usual routine, and it’s optional. “There’s a Christian ministry thrift store in town,” he said. “I carry the trash out or sweep the floor.”

Setting boundaries

Of course, much of ministry means being available to other people, which brings up another strategy important to flourishing: boundaries. Setting boundaries and keeping them allows time and space for the other practices.

“I did have to learn how to set boundaries, and that’s real hard for a clergyperson,” Reece said. “I wish I had known and done so sooner. Setting boundaries is very important. To have others respect those is a good thing.”

Woodhouse said he tells his staff-parish relations committee of his self-care practices so they can support him and help him be accountable.

“I’ve learned that I am responsible for myself,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I try to keep myself ready to be a faithful pastor, and I need your support in maintaining these practices. I’m trying to do what is right and best.’”

Embracing social support

Both pastors, veterans of at least 30 years in ministry, say that letting others help them can feel awkward at first but eventually rewarding.

“Like a lot of people, I feel more comfortable serving than being served,” Woodhouse said. “Even accepting gifts from my congregation, like the offer of using someone’s beach house — just to receive a gift [they’ve offered] means a lot to people.”

In recent years, Reece has worked with a coach, who has helped him identify and build on his strengths.

“I serve on a lot of committees,” Reece said, adding that his coach has helped him enjoy committee work more by choosing a task that he likes.

“I love to do research, so that’s what I volunteer to do [on committees],” he said. “That’s my strength.”

Remembering the higher purpose

Perhaps the most important aspect of flourishing is aligning oneself with the greater purpose. Both Woodhouse and Reece say they work to feel the presence of God on a daily basis. Both take time to read the Bible.

“We found that flourishing pastors — and not pastors with burnout — reminded themselves often of where God was leading them,” Proeschold-Bell said. “It seemed that pastors experiencing burnout were too much in the thick of distress to focus on the larger goals.”

Woodhouse said he reads through the Bible every year, tracking his progress on a sheet of paper or on an app on his phone. He does this reading every morning, first thing.

“For me, it’s just being present to God and allowing God’s word to wash over me,” he said. “The reason I’m doing this is to spend time with God, and it reminds me to be more attentive to God throughout the day.”

Both pastors said that the path to flourishing has been full of trial and error. What works for one person might not work for another.

“We are all constantly navigating change in our lives,” Proeschold-Bell said. “Small practices make a difference. The challenge is to enact them regularly in the midst of unpredictable work, but we’ve seen that it is possible, and valuable. Pastors are a part of the body of Christ, too.”

Woodhouse said he tries to remember something his grandfather, the pastor, told him: “Wherever you go, God is already there working.” That goes a long way toward relieving any personal pressure to succeed. “Flourishing, for me,” he said, “has been accepting the things that are out of my control.”