Four key strategies that help pastors flourish

Composite illustration by Jessamyn Rubio. Unsplash / Photos by Victor Freitas, Sylwia Bartyzel, Anthony Tran and Gift Habeshaw.

Pastors who implement practices like prioritizing their mental health or nourishing friendships flourish in their careers, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative found.

Reading the Bible in the early morning quiet. Taking a walk along a greenway. Accepting a congregant’s offer of help. According to research conducted at Duke University, these practices, done with intention, can help pastors flourish in their ministry.

In 2015, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative learned from 52 church-appointed pastors in North Carolina about their daily lives and how they approach challenges. From this data, gathered through interviews, activity logs and surveys, the researchers identified four practical, “real world” strategies crucial to clergy’s flourishing.

Flourishing pastors are intentional about taking care of their physical and mental health, setting boundaries around their work and personal lives, nourishing friendships and mutual relationships, and working in alignment with God.

“Pastors’ schedules are constantly being revised as needs arise during the day,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, co-principal investigator at the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. “Flourishing clergy proactively make backup plans A, B and C, and are flexible in taking care of their physical and mental health.”

Some of the study’s participants were found to be practicing all four strategies in their lives, leading the researchers to nickname them “superflourishers.” Two superflourishers, David Woodhouse and Eric Reece, agreed to share their experiences.

Taking care of body and spirit

Woodhouse, the pastor of Smyrna United Methodist Church in Robbins, North Carolina, is very intentional about exercise, he said. He walks every day, sometimes twice.

“I’ve always either run or walked, throughout my life,” he said. “My grandfather was a United Methodist pastor, and taking a daily walk, sometimes two, was part of his ministry and a way to interact with people in the neighborhood. Walking has always been a character of our family life.”

Woodhouse called exercise, which also includes lifting weights three times a week, “one of the things that has kept me sane.”

Depression runs in his family, Woodhouse said. “There is a genetic component to it, and I’m aware that it is a possibility for me, so I prioritize the exercise.”

Walking on a greenway near his house allows him to refresh his body and his spirit.

“[The greenway is] a good trek, with hills and dips, and a lot of trees. It has birds, squirrels and snakes, so it’s almost like walking through a little nature preserve,” he said. “The interaction with nature is refreshing to my soul.”

If exercise and activity are essential to flourishing, so is the practice of rest. Reece, pastor of Robbinsville United Methodist Church in Robbinsville, North Carolina, said he had to learn that truth the hard way. After years of regularly working himself to exhaustion, a bout with pneumonia landed him in the emergency room, and “I just couldn’t go anymore,” he said.

A pastor’s hectic schedule can lend itself to exhaustion, which is where the importance of intention comes in, Reece said.

“Pastors put in long hours,” he said. “If you’re not rested on Sunday morning, if you’ve put in double shifts all week long and drag in on Sunday morning, that’s going to reflect on your ministry.”

Reece has gradually taught himself to keep a Sabbath -- an intentional day of rest.

His Sabbath starts with not setting an alarm to wake him. Even if he wakes up before the alarm would have gone off, he still finds it mentally restful to know that he doesn’t have any meetings scheduled or any reasons to rush out the door.

“On some of my Sabbaths, I like to volunteer. That’s not resting, exactly,” he said, but it’s a break from his usual routine, and it’s optional. “There’s a Christian ministry thrift store in town,” he said. “I carry the trash out or sweep the floor.”

Setting boundaries

Of course, much of ministry means being available to other people, which brings up another strategy important to flourishing: boundaries. Setting boundaries and keeping them allows time and space for the other practices.

“I did have to learn how to set boundaries, and that’s real hard for a clergyperson,” Reece said. “I wish I had known and done so sooner. Setting boundaries is very important. To have others respect those is a good thing.”

Woodhouse said he tells his staff-parish relations committee of his self-care practices so they can support him and help him be accountable.

“I’ve learned that I am responsible for myself,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I try to keep myself ready to be a faithful pastor, and I need your support in maintaining these practices. I’m trying to do what is right and best.’”

Embracing social support

Both pastors, veterans of at least 30 years in ministry, say that letting others help them can feel awkward at first but eventually rewarding.

“Like a lot of people, I feel more comfortable serving than being served,” Woodhouse said. “Even accepting gifts from my congregation, like the offer of using someone’s beach house -- just to receive a gift [they’ve offered] means a lot to people.”

In recent years, Reece has worked with a coach, who has helped him identify and build on his strengths.

“I serve on a lot of committees,” Reece said, adding that his coach has helped him enjoy committee work more by choosing a task that he likes.

“I love to do research, so that’s what I volunteer to do [on committees],” he said. “That’s my strength.”

Remembering the higher purpose

Perhaps the most important aspect of flourishing is aligning oneself with the greater purpose. Both Woodhouse and Reece say they work to feel the presence of God on a daily basis. Both take time to read the Bible.

“We found that flourishing pastors -- and not pastors with burnout -- reminded themselves often of where God was leading them,” Proeschold-Bell said. “It seemed that pastors experiencing burnout were too much in the thick of distress to focus on the larger goals.”

Woodhouse said he reads through the Bible every year, tracking his progress on a sheet of paper or on an app on his phone. He does this reading every morning, first thing.

“For me, it’s just being present to God and allowing God’s word to wash over me,” he said. “The reason I’m doing this is to spend time with God, and it reminds me to be more attentive to God throughout the day.”

Both pastors said that the path to flourishing has been full of trial and error. What works for one person might not work for another.

“We are all constantly navigating change in our lives,” Proeschold-Bell said. “Small practices make a difference. The challenge is to enact them regularly in the midst of unpredictable work, but we’ve seen that it is possible, and valuable. Pastors are a part of the body of Christ, too.”

Woodhouse said he tries to remember something his grandfather, the pastor, told him: “Wherever you go, God is already there working.” That goes a long way toward relieving any personal pressure to succeed. “Flourishing, for me,” he said, “has been accepting the things that are out of my control.”