Perceptions of Ministry, and Facilitators and Barriers of Self-Care, Amongst Roman Catholics and Anglicans in Full-Time Ministry

The priest or minister can suffer from high levels of emotional fatigue.

The work of clergy and others serving in full-time Christian ministry is unique. They are often intimately involved in important life transitions and events, such as births, baptisms, weddings, serious illnesses, deaths, and the grieving process. Individuals often turn to members of the clergy and others involved in ministry first, in search of support and help during crises.

The perceived pressure to fulfill multiple roles, some of which include religious and liturgical leader, sacramental minister, pastoral counselor, spiritual director, helping professional, prayer partner, pastor, administrator, conflict mediator, visitor of the sick and dying, comforter of the afflicted, and many others—that, is the work of a priest, pastor, minister, or other person involved in full-time ministry—can be stressful. In a Dutch study, Evers and Tomick (2003) found that clergy displayed significantly higher levels of emotional fatigue than other helping professionals.

The population of Catholics in the U.S. was over 74.2 million in 2016, which is an increase of at least 20 million individuals since 1975. Unlike the increase in Catholic population, the number of Catholic priests has decreased during this same time period from 58,398 to about 37,192. US parishes without a priest as pastor or administrator increased from 702 in 1975 to 3,499 in 2016 (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 2016). These trends have led to parish closures and mergers in most dioceses in the US. Catholic priests are fulfilling more roles and doing more work than ever before. Some dioceses, such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston, have increased their retirement age. Permanent deacons and non-ordained lay pastoral associates, religious, and lay consecrated individuals have stepped in to bear some of this workload. Many of these individuals are now in full-time ministry.

An Anglican ecclesial community, the ACNA, launched in 2009 and has since then grown by 13% to 112,504 members and from 700 to 983 congregations (Walton, 2014). Much of this growth has occurred through the establishment of new parishes. Thus, many ACNA Anglican ministers are caring for younger, smaller congregations in which they fulfill most or all of the pastoral roles needed in their congregations. Even though their situation is quite different from that of Catholic priests, it is easy to imagine how both groups of clergy would be exposed to numerous stressors and be vulnerable to burn-out.

Rossetti and Rhoades (2013), however, found that Catholic priests were less burned out than individuals in other occupational groups, including males who worked in medicine or social services. Variables significantly negatively or positively correlated with burn-out included job satisfaction, sense of inner peace, amount of psychological problems in childhood, and good relationships with God and friends. From these findings, it stands to reason that engaging in self-care is likely to help individuals in full-time ministry to maintain positive friendships, a closer relationship with God, and inner peace, and therefore enable them to function better and longer in ministry.

To date, very little qualitative research has been done to aid the understanding of what clergy, and others engaged in full-time ministry, perceive as the joys and difficulties of their work. Similarly, themes regarding facilitators and barriers of self-care have rarely been described for people in full-time ministry, including priests and consecrated individuals. The goal of this qualitative pilot study was to gain a better understanding of perceived stressors and benefits of full-time ministry, as well as barriers and facilitators of self-care among Roman Catholic priests, male religious, and consecrated individuals (all unmarried), and Anglican clergy (all married).

This allowed for a detailed description of themes related to ministry experiences, as well as best practices and barriers to self-care for those who have devoted their life solely to the ministry of the Church, versus those who are devoted to this ministry as well as their marriage and family. All clergy (Roman Catholic and ACNA Anglican) were male, and the three, consecrated Roman Catholic individuals were female. The average age across both groups was 42.39(SD=25) years.

Two focus groups of individuals in full-time ministry were conducted, one with Roman Catholics (four priests, one male religious, and three consecrated women), the second one with eight Anglican clergy (all male and married). Focus group questions included perceived best aspects of ministry, hardest aspects of ministry, and facilitators and barriers regarding self-care. The study was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of Divine Mercy University. All participants completed an informed consent process and were assigned an ID number in order to ensure confidentiality. Focus groups were audio recorded and transcribed by a research assistant. The authors used grounded theory to content analyze the transcripts for themes in regards to the stressors and benefits of ministry, as well as facilitators and barriers to self-care. They created a merged codebook, after coming to agreement on the themes, and the data were re-analyzed (Strauss and Corbin, 1994).

Results of the Study Best Aspects of Ministry
For all participants, the sense of being involved in people’s lives at major life events was perceived as a major benefit of being in ministry. Furthermore, the sense of being a part of transformation in an individual’s life towards flourishing and embracing the Gospel was found to be a theme for both. Spreading the faith was also mentioned as a benefit of working in ministry by Catholics, while Anglicans discussed the personal rewards of unexpected spiritual blessings, and interactions with other believers. The following quotes illustrate some of the perceived benefits of ministry:

“Seeing people grow in their faith” – Catholic priest

“Seeing the Gospel transform people’s lives” – Anglican clergy

“Ability to be involved in people’s lives in important moments of their lives” – Anglican clergy

“Seeing human formation and flourishing because of Christ” – Catholic priest

Hardest Aspects of Ministry
For both Anglicans and Catholics, themes focusing on the unpredictability and lack of structure in ministry were mentioned. Anglican clergy especially expressed concerns about boundary infringement and the lack of separation of ministry from private/family life as difficult aspects of ministry. The following quotes illustrate some of the perceived difficulties.

“It can be difficult to know where to give your time. We find it difficult to come up against our own limitations” – Catholic priest

“Oftentimes there aren’t structures or necessarily job descriptions” – Catholic priest

“I would say the unexpected; you never know exactly what’s going to come” – Anglican clergy

“One thing I find especially hard is that there is no separation between work life, family life, and normal life. Everything overlaps” – Anglican clergy

Furthermore, both groups mentioned conflict with others as something perceived to be difficult; as well as dealing with the disappointment of individuals who were ministered to but did not seem to grow in their faith as difficult aspects of ministry. They also described a sense of external pressure from the expectations of individuals in their parishes. Catholic priests mentioned teamwork as a potential difficulty, as well as the struggle of engaging in the work with a mission mindset rather than a “maintenance” mindset.

“…there’s a level of emotional investment that people give to you that just, um, it’s hard to bear” – Anglican clergy

“It’s very draining. It drains your energy when you feel like you have to do something at every moment” – Catholic priest

When asked about their workload, Anglican clergy indicated an amount of work between 50-55 hours per week with a maximum of 60 hours, but a sense of being “on call” all of the time. Several Catholic priests listed actually being “on call” 24/7, living at their place of ministry, and working 60-72 hours per week.

Self-Care Practices
Both Catholics and Anglicans mentioned spiritual disciplines like prayer, and spending time with God, as an approach to self-care, as well as recreational activities, such as time outdoors, or exercise. Individuals in both groups mentioned the importance of emotionally intimate and open, honest relationships as facilitators of self-care. Being involved in ministry itself was mentioned by one of the Catholic priests as a “life-giving activity,” facilitating self-care. The importance of having a confessor and spiritual mentor was a theme mentioned by one Anglican clergyman. Multiple Anglican clergy mentioned that their wives play a significant role in their self-care. However, they also mentioned the importance of investing in their marriage relationships in order to maintain emotional well-being.

“Getting away and spending time in my own thoughts and prayer tends to be very helpful” – Anglican clergy

“Priests should have friends outside the church… pastors of other denominations, other people, to whom they can turn, for counsel, support, and prayer.” – Anglican clergy

“We all need friendships” – Catholic priest

Priests are often very good at what they do. For example, they are often very good with ritual, but they erode from the inside out because they stop relating to people in a human way, and that is essential.” – Catholic priest

Barriers to Self-Care
The theme of logistical difficulties in taking time for self-care was predominant for all participants. The unpredictability of ministry commitments was a strong theme, as well as the need for intentionality in order to take any time off for self-care. Themes of high self-expectations and perceived expectations of the group, or parish, being ministered to, were additional barriers.

“Your schedule is not your own; planning is hard” – Catholic priest

“The incredible flexibility of time and the uncertainty of rhythms… You don’t know what to expect week to week.” – Anglican clergy

Conclusions and Summary
This pilot qualitative study demonstrated that Catholics in full-time ministry (priests, religious, and consecrated women), and Anglican clergy, have similar thoughts about positive and negative aspects of full-time ministry, and experience similar barriers to, and facilitators of, self-care. Being a part of individuals’ spiritual journeys was mentioned as one of the joys of ministry, as well as the privilege of being part of people’s lives in general. Intense demands on time and emotional resources were described as difficulties and barriers to self-care. When asked, participants suggested that if self-care seminars were to be offered, that they be offered as part of a retreat, so that the time to attend them could be assured, and augmented with protected time to reflect on and share about things learned.

Limitations of this study include a small sample size and non-equivalent groups. Future studies might feature similar focus groups with more participants, as well as separate groups for consecrated women, and/or male or female religious, which may yield unique information about these groups. A retreat experience, or workshop in a retreat context that is specifically designed to educate those in full-time ministry on burnout and self-care, empower them to take time for themselves, and implement coping strategies, would likely be helpful. The idea of intentionally taking time off to attend to one’s spiritual and other personal needs might help those in full-time ministry to serve better and, therefore, might be featured. However, developing a potentially evidence-based tool such as this will require additional empirical research, ultimately including placebo-group, controlled-outcome studies utilizing validated pre-post measures of general psychological functioning, perceived stress levels, burn-out, and staying, or not staying, in full-time ministry.


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Julia Klausli, PhD About Julia Klausli, PhD

Julia Klausli, PhD, is a research psychologist and an Assistant Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS), Divine Mercy University, in Arlington, VA, where she teaches in the Masters in Psychology program and serves as a Capstone advisor. After completing her masters in Counseling Psychology and doctorate in Developmental Psychology at Columbia International University, she worked as a research associate at the University of Texas at Dallas. After completing her postdoctoral fellowship, she lived with her husband and four daughters in Stuttgart, Germany for several years, teaching research methods and cross-cultural counseling at the European School of Culture and Theology.

Anna Pecoraro, PsyD, BCB About Anna Pecoraro, PsyD, BCB

Anna Pecoraro, PsyD, BCB, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, Associate Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS), Divine Mercy University, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. At IPS, she teaches in the APA-accredited Doctorate in Clinical Psychology program, teaches in and directs the Masters in Psychology program, and is a clinical supervisor at the IPS Center. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at Widener University, trained in Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at the Albert Ellis Institute, and completed a NRSA postdoctoral fellowship in addictions research and treatment at the Perelman School of Medicine, where she later worked as a research and clinical psychologist to improve the treatment of medically ill people with addictions.


  1. Avatar James Martello Jr says:

    Excellent! That’s really all that needs to be said. These distinctions and differences are important. Thank you.