May 2009
Vestry 101

Clergy Wellness: The role of vestries

In 2006, a major study of the state of wellness of Episcopal clergy was conducted by CREDO Institute. Through that research, key facts emerged:
  • Episcopal clergy experience a very high level of meaningfulness in their work, with an average score of 6.5 on a 7-point scale. Some 99 percent respond with a 5 or higher.
  • The only major lifestyle factor for which clergy are at greater risk than the larger population is stress, posing an emotional health risk for 72.9 percent of the clergy sample (16.7 percent higher for males and 13.3 percent higher for females than the Mayo Clinic benchmark for each gender).
  • Depression is the medical condition for which clergy exceed the benchmark population by the highest percentage difference (12.4 percent) and is reported more often by females (27 percent) than males (15 percent).
  • 92 percent of clergy experience high levels of religious well-being, 90 percent experience high levels of existential well-being, and 79 percent report high levels of career-vocation satisfaction.
  • Episcopal clergy generally have very high levels of all kinds of self-efficacy (an attitude of confidence that one is capable of successfully accomplishing various sorts of tasks). An average of 86 percent of clergy scored in the high range of financial, physical, vocational, spiritual, and support self-efficacy (the lowest rated was financial self-efficacy and the highest rated was physical self-efficacy).
In short, we are presented with a picture of clergy with higher than average levels of stress and depression yet who love their work and demonstrate a very high level of vocational satisfaction and self-efficacy.

For clergy to serve as spiritual leaders of congregations — to be “wholesome examples” to the People of God — their own wellness must be cared for and cultivated. While clergy are ultimately responsible for their own health and well-being, vestries have an important role in encouraging and supporting clergy who serve in their midst.

Here are some questions a vestry could profitably ask:
  • Do vestry and rector engage in annual mutual ministry review? Mutual ministry review means just that — a mutual review of the ministry shared by the rector, vestry and congregation. Mutual ministry reviews most beneficially are intentional, regularly scheduled, aligned with the mission and goals of the congregation, include a third- party facilitator, and not used as a means to address conflict.
  • When was the Letter of Agreement with your rector last reviewed? The Letter of Agreement is a covenant between the vestry and rector. Every cleric in a compensated position should have such a letter, reviewed annually, and amended as needed.
  • Review the compensation and benefits paid to the rector and other clergy. Is the compensation and benefit package comparable to clergy in similar positions serving in similar size congregations? Is an annual cost-of-living increase offered? Have there been merit increases when appropriate? While tempting during difficult financial times, budgets should not be balanced on the backs of clergy.
  • If any clergy live in church-owned housing, make sure it is an attractive place to live. Complete needed repairs, update painting and carpeting as necessary, check the landscaping, replace old major appliances.
  • Does the vestry provide reasonable health insurance including family coverage? Does that health insurance policy include dental, vision, and mental health coverage?
  • Is there provision for annual continuing education and a sabbatical at regular intervals? If the rector is not engaging annually in continuing education, both rector and congregation suffer. The vestry should insist upon two weeks of continuing education per year with an annual allowance of at least $750. Study and reflection will renew your rector and the congregation will benefit. All clergy on staff should engage in continuing education.
  • If there are no provisions in the Letter of Agreement for a sabbatical, amend the agreement. Begin now to plan for the related costs (full compensation and benefits for the rector, supply clergy, sabbatical allowance for a trip or educational program that is part of the sabbatical) by starting a sabbatical fund that can be funded in the annual budget. Long-time assistants should also be eligible.
  • Encourage clergy to go on annual retreats to be spiritually uplifted and refreshed. Jesus went to quiet places to pray, and so should your clergy. Vestries may rightfully expect their clergy to be persons of prayer, attentive to their spiritual growth and development.
  • If the clergy are not taking regular days off and never seem to take all their vacation time, the vestry should be concerned. Everyone needs time away for renewal and relaxation. Burnout is a disease of the overcommitted and overextended.
  • Does the vestry understand that clergy are called to both a diocese and a congregation? Clergy don’t transfer their membership to a congregation – letters of transfer are sent from one bishop to another. It is a gift when vestries understand and appreciate that clergy are called to participate in diocesan ministries. If the clergy are not involved or overly involved in diocesan activities, it would be appropriate to explore the reasons why.
  • If there is conflict with the rector, do something constructive about it. Bad news does not improve with age. Get help. Make use of the bishop and diocesan resources. Do everything you can to effect reconciliation.
  • Find ways to show gratitude to the clergy who have joined their lives to yours. Vestries might ask “wellness for what purpose?” Especially during turbulent times, the Church needs strengthened and empowered laity and clergy, working together for the cause of Christ. Healthy, strong clergy are better equipped to share ministry with lay leaders to further God’s mission in the world and to serve as bold and confident witnesses to the Risen Lord.
The Rev. Gay C. Jennings is the Associate Director for CREDO. Sponsored by the Church Pension Group, CREDO works to ensure the continued growth and vitality of God’s people by promoting the welfare and leadership of the clergy and congregations of the Episcopal Church.

This article is part of the May 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry 101