The May/Jun Faith Today featured The Wycliffe Wellness Project, a research project to discover what brings wellness to clergy and others engaged in ministry. You can read the article here. We decided to have an update from Wanda Malcolm (WM) lead researcher and professor of pastoral psychology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. We asked her what she has been learning so far.
FT: What has surprised you the most so far in your wellness project findings?
WM: I am most surprised that what started out to be a research project has become a self-assessment tool. This is because we have developed a confidential Feedback Summary which shows them, from a fresh perspective, what they personally find most satisfying and most stressful about ministry life from a fresh perspective. The feedback conversations we are having with participants are very rich, both in giving them insights into potential changes they might want to make, and in helping us to understand what we are learning about the ups and downs of ministry life from the perspective of those in ministry.
FT: What is the one thing you wish churches did better in terms of actively caring for their clergy?
WM: Remember that far more of what our pastors do is invisible than visible to the average church-goer. Because of this invisibility, we may not realize that they often have to juggle competing demands on their time; many of which are important but unpredictable (like funerals and hospitalizations). If we can support them to get regular Sabbath rest and opportunities for refreshment and re-creation, they will enjoy their ministry more, and in turn be better enabled to minister to us.
FT: What kind of folks are you looking for to participate in the study?
WM: We are interested in speaking to people who are engaged in ministry life; those who are at the beginning of their ministry life right on through to those who are semi-retired or retired but still actively involved in supportive roles within the ministries they gave themselves to vocationally. While this started out as a study exclusively about clergy life, we have broadened our interest to include those who are engaged in the kinds of ministries that take place outside the church walls or that run alongside formal clergy roles within the walls of the church; youth ministers, family life ministers, chaplains and spiritual care providers, parish nurses, and those who work with the homeless or near homeless or are involved in not-for-profit ministries outside the church walls.
FT: What are the top four things those in ministry could do, right now, to better care for themselves?
WM: If I were sitting with an individual who asked me this question, I would tell them…
- Participate in the study! We are confident that doing so will be an affirmation of what you already know – that ministry life has ups and downs – and both joy and stress are bound up in those ups and down. Beyond the affirmation, participating in the study will help you gain clarity about your own experience, and may well help you identify some potential avenues of change.
- Pay attention to those things (in and outside of ministry) that replenish your energy and enthusiasm, and make sure you are engaging in them on a regular basis. Cultivate the understanding that you aren’t just doing this for your own wellbeing, but also for the sake of your family, friends, and those you minister to. This is because we can give of ourselves more wholeheartedly and wisely when we are drawing from a plentiful reserve than when we are trying to give from an empty reservoir!
- Establish and maintain friendships with trustworthy colleagues (even if you can only get together infrequently) who know you and have earned the privilege of speaking into your life when they see signs that you might be getting derailed by stress. The same would go for listening to your spouse when he or she says that you are showing signs of being stressed. Do this even if you don’t like the way they tell you! Consider the possibility that because they know you well, they will see early warning signs long before your parishioners or colleagues will.
- Cultivate prayerful attention to the way you go about the activities of ministry life, and the way you engage with those you minister to. Learn to notice how your task focus and interpersonal style shift when the balance tilts, and the inevitable pressures of ministry life exceed its life-giving capacity for you.
FT: Thank you Wanda!