Episode 63: “What Promotes Clergy Wellbeing and Why it Matters” featuring Matt Bloom
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How can clergy thrive in ministry? In this episode we speak with Dr. Matt Bloom, Research Professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and Principal Investigator for the Wellbeing at Work program, about how clergy can thrive and better cope with the many challenges to their wellbeing.
Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Matt Bloom associate professor at the University of Notre Dame and principal investigator for the Wellbeing Project. He’s the author of Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing. And our focus for this podcast is clergy wellbeing. I’m excited to have Matt joining us. And I have followed his work for a while and really appreciate what he’s doing. Welcome Matt.
Matt Bloom: Thank you. Doug. It’s really great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Douglas Powe: And Matt I want it began, and I’ve never actually asked you this question since I’ve known you, how did you become interested in studying clergy wellbeing.
Matt Bloom: It was really because I became the husband of a clergy person. I had already been studying wellbeing of other helping professionals like international aid workers and global health workers. Then when my wife answered her call to ministry and I got to see, if you will, the backstage of clergy life, I realized just how challenging and difficult it could be, but of course it can also be rewarding. And so I wanted to see it from a scientific perspective. We couldn’t gain some insights into what helps clergy flourish over long periods of time. And also what are maybe some of the things that challenge their wellbeing.
Douglas Powe: I appreciate you taking a scientific perspective and I don’t want to get off topic, but I am curious that you find similarities between global health workers and clergy or the international aid workers and clergy. Or, Is the clergy profession really very unique and different?
Matt Bloom. There were certainly and certainly are parallels. One of them what you would anticipate is that these are all people who feel a sense of calling to their work, a sense that this work is something that they are supposed to do, either because God has ordained it or because of some way they were created to do the work. So there is this common sense of a deep passion, commitment to work and a sense of this is what I was made to do. I think what was really different for clergy is the context in which their work, their ministry unfolds and this takes a number of shapes. But just for example, the fact that the people that they’re trying to lead and minister to are in some ways their bosses. That’s a very different experience. Aid workers, global health workers, they aren’t employed, if you will, by the people they’re trying to serve. So that has a wrinkle. Clergy tend to stay in their ministry contexts for more than a few months and so they live with their work more intimately than other helping professions. And lastly, I think for clergy, because they feel that God has called them, that this is the work that God wants them to do, there’s both an added layer of joy and fulfillment. “Wow! God wants me to do this work.” And a much heavier sense of responsibility. “If I don’t do this work. God has called me to do well then the implications could be dire.”
Douglas Powe: It’s very interesting. Your responses, and particularly the one about basically all these individuals being your bosses, because it’s absolutely on target to the extent that you’re working and in some instances, some denominations of course a little bit different of course, for the congregation but that’s a that that really is very I haven’t thought about it but that is definitely very unique. And adds a layer that you don’t find in other professions. So I think that’s really helpful.
Matt Bloom: And as you know it’s that’s very significant. My students can’t fire me. You know a doctor’s patients can’t fire her. It’s a very different experience.
Douglas Powe: Yeah absolutely. I want to jump into the book more directly — Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing and start off by asking how many clergy participated in your study and do you feel that you had a wide ranging diversity both in terms of gender, ethnicity and in the work?
Matt Bloom: Yes. We’ve had slightly over 15,000 clergy that have participated in our study in one way or another. Most of those clergy do come from mainline denominations although we have a number of evangelical denominations that have participated. We have clergy across the age spectrum. We have clergy across the spectrum of years of service. We have a good balance of men and women. I still feel that we’re slightly low on pastors of color. Especially those who serve in historically Black denominations. We do have a fair number of pastors of color who are serving in a mainly white denominations. So from a research perspective we feel that we have a very good sample, a diverse sample. But you know Doug, researchers always wanting more. So we’d like to have slightly more younger pastors. We’d like to have more LGBTQ+ pastors and so forth.
Douglas Powe: Right. Yeah. That makes complete sense. With that as the backdrop — and of course you share this in the book — but I think it’s important for people understand that this really was a substantial project. How do you then define wellbeing for clergy?
Matt Bloom: Yeah. This was something that emerged really over about a decade or more. We took two approaches. One was to map all of the then existing scientific literature on wellbeing. What we’re all of the different pieces of wellbeing that researchers had studied? And we developed a conceptual model, a theoretical model of the dimensions we expected to show up when we started to study clergy. The second step was we just interviewed a number of clergy, a couple of hundred. And these interviews are more just collecting stories of their life and their ministry. And then we did a deep analysis of those interviews to see what emerged in a sense what we’re clergy telling us by virtue of their stories were the elements of their wellbeing. And then we put those two pieces together. We then developed a survey. And I’m so grateful for all the clergy who filled this out because it was over 400 questions where we were asking about I think 40 different pieces of wellbeing, if you will. And from there, after serving many, many, many clergy and doing analysis, we’re able to distill it down to what we call four main dimensions: daily wellbeing, resilience, authenticity, and thriving. Now this is certainly a shorthand way, if you will, of summarizing the underlying 30 some individual pieces. But we really wanted to be able for people to get this in their head. I can’t keep 30 some different pieces in my head. So these four really represent the big pieces and a good way we found for people to imagine and understand their wellbeing.
Douglas Powe: And I really want to focus on each one of those. Because you’re correct, this really gets to the heart of many of the insights. So let’s start with daily wellbeing and have you unpack what that means for the listeners.
Matt Bloom: Well, daily wellbeing is so important. And as the name implies, it’s just the quality of our daily lives and as they unfold day by day. It’s the place where stress shows up in our lives. If we’re experiencing stress it’s not because of any one day but it’s that we’ve accumulated a series — maybe a long series — of days in which they were challenging and difficult and perhaps worrisome. And that’s where stress begins to build. So what we hope for here is that pastors will experience more good days than bad days — days in which they feel they’re making a contribution. They feel good at their work. They feel respected by the people they’re working with. They feel that they’re making a contribution. And then fewer days that are stressful, worrisome, or difficult. It’s also the dimension of wellbeing that the clergy tend to overlook in the sense of the days accumulate and they just kind of push into the back of their minds. “Oh, you know. Tomorrow will be better.” And yet we know from research that the way our days unfold is really, really important. So because this adds up, they can go unnoticed. But it’s really important to know “Are my days mostly good?” Or, ”Are there things that I should focus on to try to turn those not so good days into better ones?”
Douglas Powe: And as clergy are thinking about that, the next one is resilience. And of course all of these are connected. But certainly resilience is connected to daily wellbeing. I’ll let you unpack it. Because, of course, resilience is what helps you bounce back. Am I correct?
Matt Bloom: That’s right. So you know you said it very well, Doug. Resilience — you could think of as both how we deal with the ups and downs of daily life and also then our capacity to adapt and to grow. So resilience is both of our experiences now and today, and can I deal with the setbacks well, and can I take advantage of all the opportunities. But then can I grow over time? Can I adapt to situations call for? So you’re right. These two — daily wellbeing and resilience — go together very, very closely.
Douglas Powe: Just a question. And I don’t remember if I’m correct in this, but I believe that women clergy actually are often more resilient than men clergy. And if that’s correct, why do you believe that is the case?
Matt Bloom: You’re right, Doug. And I think some of this we’re still trying to figure out. Because in many ways they would have a lot of reasons to be less resilient. They face many more challenges in ministry than do men. We also find that pastors of color who are serving in a predominately white denominations tend to be more resilient. So I would say there’s a couple of reasons. One is they’ve just had to deal with so many challenges and difficulties, if they have actually stayed in ministry, they have developed skills and resources — both personal and other — to help them to be more resilient. So there was a kind of necessity that created resilience. I would say for women, and this may be also true of pastors of color, women do tend to have stronger networks of social support, both with other clergy with family and friends and often with members of their congregation. And that’s hugely important for resilience. And thirdly, and I’m stretching a little bit on this, but as a scientist I think I’m right, I think women tend to be more willing to admit when they need help. And maybe I’m speaking more from the perspective of older white men, the group I’m from. But there’s a seems to be a tendency for women to say “I need help.” And they’re willing and grateful to accept it. When men may be less willing. And so we may be more inclined to just sort of overburden and grind ourselves out rather than saying raise your hand and say “I need help.”
Douglas Powe: That’s interesting. And I’m going to show my age a little bit here. But I think you’ll get this and I apologize for the younger people. So resilience is not Clint Eastwood. It’s not the person standing by themselves against everybody else. But resilience really is understanding how to connect with a network that can help you to really deal with the challenges you face.
Matt Bloom: Well, I think that’s such a good image. We do at least in some parts of the United States we really do prized this idea of rugged individualism — that I “make it or break it” all on my own, which I think is a fiction. And so yes, a key part of being resilient, is to have that network of support and help and a network that just includes people who love you for who you are and affirm you for who you are. So yeah, going it alone is almost certainly not going to last. You might be able to for a while, but I think this idea of rugged individualism is really sometimes cause to think that way. But I think that’s damaging at least for our resilience.
Douglas Powe: And you have already hinted at the next category which is authenticity. Where you truly can be who you are. So I’ll let to share about authenticity.
Matt Bloom: Yes. We often think of, we describe, authenticity as having two pieces. So I’m going to break this into two pieces. One is self-integrity — how a person thinks of herself. And dignity — how other people respond to her. So an authentic pastor has clarity around her strengths and weaknesses, knows her preferences, understands the impulses and brokenness that she needs to address, but on balance sees herself as a person of value and worth and somebody who truly can be an effective minister. Dignity then is, do other people acknowledge affirm and respect who this person truly is? So a lack of dignity would be in a situation that is constantly demanding that a pastor be different in some essential way. It might be to be a charismatic preacher when the pastor is not. It may be that this pastor is a dynamic leader when the pastor tends to be better at leading as a part of a group. Or it could be deep as denying that women can be effective and bona fide pastors. Or undermining a pastor because of his or her race or ethnicity. So authenticity is both thinking comprehensively about oneself and on balance viewing yourself as a good person, a person of worth, and a person that has talents, and also experiencing others respect and affirm that that person you know yourself to be.
Douglas Powe: And this leads to the last big characteristic — thriving. And I’m assuming that for thriving that happen the other three have to be working well. Or can someone thrive if the others are not working well?
Matt Bloom: Boy, it’s a good question, Doug. So thriving — let’s think of it as a sense of meaning in life. I know what matters. I have a clear value set. I have a clear set of core life beliefs. So meaning and then purpose. I’m able to live my life in consonance with those values and beliefs. I’m able to do things that contribute in significant ways to living out those values and beliefs. This experience of meaning and purpose is often what draws people into ministry — a call to the ministry is often explained as “I have these things that I can do in the world to help the world become better. I can help people become disciples of Christ.” But as you really importantly pointed out, if you don’t experience the other three, thriving on its own cannot continue to fuel you. In fact, you could drive yourself in to health problems or to burnout. And so these things exist in this ecosystem, if you will, of where they are mutually supportive and we need them in order to continue to have meaningful ministry and do well, you have to be authentic in that ministry. You have to be able to be resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks. And you need to feel that most days your ministry is contributing positively in the world and you’re experiencing your days as life-giving. So yes, absolutely, thriving is kind of the core of why people get into ministry. But on its own, it’s not enough. We believe our research supports this idea. You need all four.
Douglas Powe: That’s helpful. So again, daily wellbeing, resilience, authenticity, and thriving. Correct? Is there anything that clergy or pastors can do to sort of help themselves to balance and make sure they’re paying attention to these characteristics? Or is it really just something that happens subconsciously?
Matt Bloom: That’s a good question. We want it to be conscious. We want people to think about their wellbeing, and to nurture it, and to pay attention to it. So one thing is even with just these brief descriptions that you and I have discussed, to do a quick self-assessment. How am I doing on daily wellbeing? Resilience? Authenticity? And thriving? That’s a good starting place. We do have a free smartphone app both for Apple IOS phones and Android phones. And pastors can download it for free from our website workwellresearch.org or flourishinginministry.org. And that would give them a chance to take our assessment and to get scientific feedback. So the more that we’re aware of these dimensions, certainly we don’t want them to be a preoccupation. But the more we’re aware of them, the quicker we can address periods or places where we need to do improvement and the more we can be grateful for the places in which we feel that we’re doing well.
Douglas Powe: And at the end, I’ll make sure you get an opportunity to mention the website again. Because I believe it’s a wonderful resource for pastors. And I want to make sure that they are able to take advantage of it. But I want to not completely change, but put in context all that you’ve been sharing. Because of course, you wrote the book before the pandemic occurred. So now that we’re in the midst of the pandemic, how do you think the pandemic is influencing clergy wellbeing? And if you were to have clergy do this survey again, do you think the responses would be dramatically different?
Matt Bloom: Yes, I would expect there to be some changes. And unfortunately, I would expect that we would see clergy wellbeing across the board lower now. And as we see, anytime someone uses our app, it’s all protected behind blind walls. But we can see unidentified data. And we’re certainly seeing that pastors scores are lower, at least when it comes to daily wellbeing and resilience. Those seem to be places in which pastors are really facing challenges. One concern we have is that in ways that are hard to measure right now, thriving may be declining because it’s so much more difficult to do ministry of the kind pastors feel is bona fide, is genuine, is meaningful, and is actually making a difference. So we hear, for example, stories of pastors now spending so much time trying to figure out technology and not nearly enough time ministering to their congregation in the many ways that the congregation needs and the pastor wants to be involved in. So the days are harder. You know there’s a picture I have on my computer of a pastor in the middle of a Sunday morning in his church, a beautiful church. He’s preaching. And of course the church is completely empty. And what a difficult thing to do. I’ve taught a few classes and given a few presentations on Zoom. I find that difficult. But I’m not ministering to a congregation. So we think daily wellbeing is being strained and as a consequence resilience resources are being depleted. We also hear, Doug, unfortunately stories in which congregations are not offering the support they should. We’ve heard from several pastors that they weren’t going to open Sunday morning service. They wanted their congregation to worship online and to maintain appropriate physical distancing. Several these pastors were then released from their pastoral duties, fired by their congregation because they weren’t willing to open the doors of the church. So here pastors are dealing with the normal challenges they had before, and this other layer of difficulties that can threaten both their sense of doing good ministry and in some cases perhaps but their work, their job is in jeopardy.
Douglas Powe: Given everything you just said, I think of course when we first went into this, almost all of us were hoping that it would be somewhat short term. But certainly believe that we would be progressing along a continuum where things would be getting back to what folk would call “somewhat normal” sooner. The reality is, this is going to be going on for quite a while. And it may be in some cases a year before people are really able to get back into sanctuaries in some form or fashion. So given all of that, what do you think the impact is going to be long term in terms of wellbeing for pastors?
Matt Bloom: Well, I’m quite concerned Doug. As difficult as I know this could be, I wish I saw denominations moving more quickly to support clergy during this time. I know resources are scarce. And I know all of the realities. But I think this is an unprecedented time in which clergy need support from their denominations or their even looser groupings. They need support from outsiders. These ones I mentioned who got fired for doing the right thing would be an example. So I am concerned about going forward. I think one of the things, I would propose that one of the things clergy need to do is going to be very difficult for them. And that is they need to take even more responsibility for their wellbeing than perhaps is appropriate. What I mean is our wellbeing certainly is our responsibility. But other people and other organizations impact it. In other words, for clergy the support that either get or don’t from their denomination profoundly shapes their wellbeing. The support they get or don’t get from their congregation supports their wellbeing. But when those things seem to be in jeopardy, or not offered unfairly, but I think it’s going to be important that clergy try even more to engage in selfcare. You may remember, Doug, I don’t like that term because it tends to make the responsibility on the individual. But I’m afraid that’s going to be what will in many ways many of us but certainly clergy are left with. So what that means I think for clergy, some of the things that they can do, when we talk about wellbeing, one of the essentials is to take small steps. In other words, you don’t have to make huge life changes. But find one or two wellbeing practices that you can engage in regularly. Centering prayer. Lectio Divina. Finding something in your life that provide you with just simple enjoyment, making and strengthening connections with others who love you. These are what we would call small steps meaning they don’t take huge amounts of time. But they can pay off in really important ways. So I think I’ve answered probably another question. But I’m concerned that the long term impact is going to be that clergy wellbeing is going to continue to diminish and clergy are going to face even more challenges. And I do worry, left without good support from their denomination and congregation, that we may see a fairly significant number of clergy who end up leaving ministry. So I’m worried.
Douglas Powe: And I agree with you. These are definitely challenging times. But I do want to leave our listeners on a note of hope. So is there a story or some example you can share? During these chaotic times, where clergy are able to, within what’s taking place, to find spaces to thrive?
Matt Bloom: Yes. Which is one of the things that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m often surprised about. How remarkable clergy truly are. And we do hear many stories of clergy flourishing. So thank you for helping me not paint a picture that’s all about the bad and the potential for bad things happening. In spite of that, clergy are flourishing. We find clergy who are flourishing that are centering down even more into their unique giftedness as a pastor and finding even new ways of expressing that giftedness. For example, they may not have to spend time on activities that used to preoccupy them know board meetings or tending to the church itself. They found time to be able to bring new elements of ministry that allow them to express or unique giftedness. And that’s a great thing. How can I continue to learn about the unique pastor God has made me, and find new ways of expressing that. We’re finding that clergy are actually connecting in more ways because Zoom and digital connection has become so common. They’re actually using that to create meaningful connections with other clergy and with other friends and family, which is really wonderful. We’ve had these around for quite some time. But now clergy are utilizing them more. And then we had these remarkable stories of congregations that are rallying to support each other and to support their pastor. And it would be wonderful to hear more of these stories in a public forum to be encouraged. So although I do think some clergy are going to be in danger of significant declines in wellbeing, my expectation is a significant portion — I hope and think a majority — will find a way to continue to flourish even in the midst of these difficult times. Pastors are uniquely wonderful in that way.
Douglas Powe: I agree wholeheartedly. And I want to give you an opportunity again to please share your website: workwellresearch.org. Because you do have resources there for clergy in terms of their own wellbeing, and of course sharing with others the work that you’re doing.
Matt Bloom: Yes. So workwellresearch.org, or you can also, and this may be easier to remember, flourishinginministry.org. These are our websites. And clergy will start to see more and more resources and insights from our research and from other research. But on that website, you can find and get access to this app that I mentioned. It’s called WorkWell. There’s a lot of reasons, but it basically has to do with you have to have a unique and short name to go on the App Store and the Android Play. So WorkWell. It’s free to use. And they will find a growing set of wise, wellbeing practices from leading experts. We vet the practices to make sure that they comport with science. But there are people like Parker Palmer and Barbara Brown Taylor, Robert Franklin will have a practice soon. Father Greg Boyle. There’s just a number of real thought leaders who are offering practices that are tailored for specific wellbeing needs. As I mentioned, that group of experts will continue to grow. And so we hope over time the app becomes even more helpful. Clergy can get their own wellbeing profile and then they can track their wellbeing over time. Every four to six months they could update their profile and learn about where their wellbeing is growing and places in which they might want to focus more attention. Because of the Lily Endowment’s generosity, it’s all free. And we just look forward to sharing it with as many clergy as would like to take advantage of it.
Douglas Powe: Matt, thank you very much. I truly appreciate your conversation and I believe this will be helpful for clergy particularly during these chaotic times.
Matt Bloom: Doug thank you for this opportunity. It’s been a blessing and I wish you and all of our listeners very well. I hope you’re flourishing.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with journalist and pastor Jeffrey MacDonald, who asserts that a church with a part-time pastor can thrive just as well as one with a full-time pastor.
Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
- Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) by Matt Bloom
- 4 Practices to Help Prevent Clergy Burnout by Matt Bloom and Kim Bloom
- 3 Questions to Preserve Energy and Passion in Ministry by Heather Bradley and Miriam Bamberger Grogan
- The Myth of Balance by Karoline M. Lewis