Clergy Are Exemplars of Resilience

Interview with Dr. Eric Brown on resilience and strength among the clergy.

Posted Jun 04, 2020

Eric Brown, used with permission
Source: Eric Brown, used with permission

Clergypeople face many challenges every day, even more so now with COVID-19. Between caring for congregations, delivering weekly sermons, and balancing work and life, these people handle a lot. We can learn immensely from their example but also support them in their often busy lives.

Eric M. Brown, Ph.D., M.Div. is LPC Program Director/Assistant Professor M.A. Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Wheaton College, Part-Time Clinical Practice at Alliance Clinical Associates. His research focuses on issues of multiculturalism and the resilience of helping professionals.

JA: How would you personally define resilience among clergy?

EB: Clergy live out their lives and profession at the intersection of the expectations of their congregation, their view of God, and their own beliefs about how they should function. It is not uncommon for the clergy I see in my counseling office to feel as if they have failed their parishioners, God, or their own ideals.

Therefore, I define clergy resilience as having the ability to not only cope and adapt to the inescapable stressors of ministry but to also be able to thrive in one’s sense of calling and purpose despite the disappointments that inevitably occur.

Some of the clergy I see in my practice feel as if their profession is viewed increasingly as being irrelevant in the broader society. For example, it has been said that psychologists and therapists now play the role that priests and religious healers played in times past. Because of this, I would add that clergy resilience also includes having a strong professional identity or as some would prefer to label it, a robust sense of calling, despite feeling a sense of professional marginalization.   

JA: What are some ways understanding the clergy can help us live more resiliently?

EB: Clergy are persons who live their lives on public display. Where many parishioners find their community of faith a place of reprieve, a communal oasis, from their world of work, clergy enjoy no such respite when going to church.

There are few careers with so few professional boundaries. Doctors do not perform surgery on their spouses, public school teachers avoid having their own children in their class if possible, and the ethics codes of psychologists and counselors prohibit therapy with one’s relatives; yet the family of clergy are expected to be in the congregation every week. This is just one example of why clergy are not able to neatly compartmentalize their lives and separate work from home.

As a result of such blurred boundaries, clergy have the ability to model for us what it means to live integrated lives. Lives that are marked by a congruence between one’s identity as a member of one’s family and community, and one’s values and profession. Clergy abuse of power is so damaging precisely due to the betrayal of the community, the profession, and one’s proposed values that converge in this unique role. Yet, clergy who live with integrity can model for us what it means to live healthy and holistic lives.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
Source: Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

JA: What are some ways people can learn more about the clergy?

EB: I would recommend three ways to learn about the experiences of clergy. First, one can get connected with organizations that specialize in research on clergy and provide programming for the needs of this profession. In 2017 the BARNA group, in partnership with Pepperdine University, published a comprehensive report entitled The State of Pastors which involved interviews with 900 protestant pastors. The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests is a great resource to learn about clergy within the Catholic tradition. Another resource is The Women in Ministry Initiative, housed in Princeton Theological Seminary, which provides both resources and stories of the experiences of female clergy from diverse ethnic and theological backgrounds.

Second, I would suggest reading one or two books by clergy describing their own lives, sense of calling, and struggles. Memoirs such as Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith and D.A. Carson’s Memoir of an Ordinary Pastor as well as Howard Thurman’s autobiography With Head and Heart, provide wonderful glimpses into the lives of a few pastors.

Finally, after looking at these resources on the experiences of clergy, one can always invite a clergy member out to eat, share with them what you have read, and ask them questions about what they believe are the unique challenges that clergy face today.

JA: Any advice for how we might use an understanding of clergy resilience to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

EB: Clergy need places to simply be human outside of the public gaze. Like the psalmists and the prophets (see Psalm 13 & Jeremiah 20) they need opportunities to lament, express anger, bitterness, fear, and hopelessness without being judged. They, too, need places of safety where they can share what has been kept hidden in the corners of their hearts. In my clinical work with pastors, I have found that some need permission to express negative emotion about and to God as well as a place to give voice to the anger they sometimes feel toward the people they serve.

Research shows that providing such social-emotional support greatly aids in promoting resilience in persons who are struggling with difficult life circumstances. One does not need a psychology or counseling degree in order to provide this type of support to a friend or loved one, but simply a nonjudgmental posture and an empathic ear.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

EB: Currently my research team is examining the rates of adverse childhood experiences of about 200 clergy and what relationship, if any, these childhood events have with rates of clergy burnout. We also are looking for factors that may help promote clergy resiliency such as mentoring or mental health-seeking behaviors. Finally, we asked clergy open-ended questions such as what has contributed the most to their mental and emotional well-being and what practices they engage in that are life-giving. We’re in the preliminary stages of analyzing this data and we are greatly anticipating using these results to create programs for clergy resilience.