Call for Clergy Renewal in 2023
In late 2022, the Council of Conference Ministers (CCM) and the Alliance of Associate Conference Ministers (AACM) of the United Church of Christ wrote a pastoral letter in which they urged every ministry setting to consider the following:
- “First, we urge you to intentionally pray for your leaders and the renewal they may need.
- Second, we encourage you to give permission and blessing for two consecutive weeks away for renewal leave, not counted as vacation time. This time alone will not be enough to process all that has happened or continues to happen in the life of the church but it will offer space for a new ground to be cultivated to engage in ongoing practices of self-care, necessary for sustained and life-giving ministry.
- Third, we encourage you to trust that your setting of ministry will not be diminished by this time away but rather strengthened by it.”
SNEUCC wrote its own pastoral letter when we shared this in December, 2022, and fully supports this recommendation.
The pandemic was a collective experience of stress and trauma for everyone. While clergy had varying experiences based on their ministry setting and personal lives, as a whole, they experienced increased compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout, leading to an increase in clergy illness, diminished boundary keeping, early retirement or career shifts. Clergy were frontline workers in the sense that they worked directly with patients and congregants who were sick, and their loved ones who could not tend to them. They led organizations that had to continually adjust to shifting safety guidelines, which were often politicized, leading to community conflict. They had to become technology experts overnight. The pandemic accelerated many trends of local church decline or changing patterns and pastors have had to help their leaders face this new reality. These articles explore these and other topics more.
- Why Pastors Are Burning Out
- The Pastors Are Not Alright
- Whose Problem is Clergy Burnout?
- A Clergy Mental Health Crisis
Why Time Away
Throughout the Bible, spiritual renewal is lifted up again and again as essential to human wellbeing. Keeping the sabbath holy is one of the ten commandments. The 50-year Jubilee of rest is even extended to the earth. Jesus routinely stepped away from the demands of his ministry to pray alone. Self-care is not selfish; it is faithful.
Rev. Dr. Jerry Streets, Senior Pastor of Dixwell Congregational Church, UCC in New Haven, and an acclaimed professor of theology and social work, conducted a clergy wellness survey in 2022. His findings confirm the need for increased focus on clergy wellness. It also showed that “clergy who engaged in multiple and frequent self-care strategies experienced higher well-being than that clergy who did not engage in multiple and frequent self-care strategies.” Two consecutive weeks away from work will offer authorized ministers a “booster” of sabbath, rest and self-care.
Some churches have already done this. In one SNEUCC church, the pastor had not been able to take all their vacation from 2020. The church allowed them to take it in 2021, and in 2022 added 2 weeks renewal. That was key to have pastor in preventing burnout. The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts urged all churches in 2022 to suspend all meetings, office hours and non-essential activities for two weeks so that clergy and church staff could rest.
Renewal Resources for Authorized Ministers
Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, Minister and Team Leader for the UCC MESA Team, recently shared this well-being assessment. Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed of Searching for the Called developed it based on Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (positive emotions, sense of engagement, health of relationships, overarching sense of meaning, and feelings of accomplishment). MESA was given permission to share it broadly. We invite you to take the assessment and consider what steps you might take to increase your well-being. Dilley writes, “we know many of the things that help advance well-being (rest and sabbath, communities of practice, spiritual direction, coaching, therapy, art/music/sports/nature, more rest and sabbath, prayer).
Individuals enrolled in the UCC Pension Boards Health Care Plan have access to the Member Assistance Program + Work/Life Program, or MAP+Work/Life, offered through West Health Advocate Solutions. This is a no-cost benefit that provides confidential access to a Licensed Professional Counselor or Work/Life Specialist. Through in-person visits, and unlimited, confidential phone consultations, these specialists can walk members through life’s temporary setbacks.
Through the generosity of our covenantal partners, every Authorized Minister in SNEUCC has access to three free counseling sessions. You can read more here, or talk with your ACM.
Frequently Asked Questions from Church Leaders
Q: Is this in addition to regular vacation & study leave?
A: Yes, this is in addition to all regular vacation and study leave. Time is the least expensive benefit a ministry setting can offer its employees and we encourage you to be generous with it.
Q: Our pastor is part-time or just started their call with us; do they still get two extra weeks of leave?
A: This is an intentionally broad recommendation because it is offered to a diversity of ministry settings and experiences. We encourage ministry setting leaders and clergy to have open conversation about the level of burnout/need for renewal and how to make that work given the specifics of your setting. For part-time pastors, one week of renewal may be sufficient. On the other hand, if they haven’t been able to take a vacation in three years because of the demands on your setting, two weeks will be appropriate. Newly called pastors may not have gone through the pandemic with your setting, but they went through it in another one.
Q: The pandemic wasn’t that stressful for our ministry setting/we adjusted easily. Does our pastor really need this?
A: This is an excellent invitation to process together the last few years and the impact of the pandemics, on not only your clergy but the whole congregation. Listen deeply to each other about the compounded grief and trauma, about the many blessings, about the ambivalence and uncertainty that remain. Extend grace.
Q: How are we going to pay for this?
A: There may not necessarily be financial costs associated with this gift of time. The local church does not need to hire someone for pulpit supply; see the many other ideas below under “worship resources”. We understand that this may be more complicated for hospital, hospice, nursing home settings and urge those institutions to honor this as well.
For the local church, covering Sunday worship responsibilities is perhaps the most complicated part of this invitation. SNEUCC has a Worship Resources webpage, with a variety of resources, including video sermons that can be played during worship. In addition, we encourage you to consider one of these other approaches:
- Partner with a neighboring UCC church and attend each other’s worship services while your pastor is away.
- Livestream another church’s service during your regularly schedule worship time.
- Have lay leaders lead worship, including preach. If no one in your church is comfortable preaching, get creative! Read a children’s book, read previous sermons from your pastor, have a hymn sing.
It is not just clergy who need renewal time. We encourage you to think about how your congregation might find renewal. Perhaps you take a month to have no meetings; maybe you pause or let go of some non-essential activity for a season or the year; maybe you close the church office on Fridays during the summer. Whatever it is, we hope and pray every member of the Body of Christ finds the renewal they need.