“How Is It With Your Soul?” A Glimpse into the Spiritual Strengths and Weaknesses of Clergy

“How is it with your soul?” This classic question of spiritual care, attributed to John Wesley, takes no detours in getting to the heart of the matter. It is a question that contemporary clergy can find challenging to ask, and individuals in their congregations can find difficult to answer—a question that leaps directly from the core of pastoral and priestly vocation.

How would pastors and priests themselves answer this question?

Perhaps not so easily. People who think about what we mean by soul or spiritual life in vague or uncertain terms find this question especially hard to answer. There are no clearly defined mechanisms across denominations to measure spiritual maturity or vitality.

However, scripture provides some clear themes by which Christians have considered and recognized spiritual strengths and weaknesses. Matthew 5 relates the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teachings about who is blessed. Some Christians look to Proverbs and Ecclesiastes for passages that identify “the marks of wisdom.” 1 Corinthians 13, an extremely popular passage for weddings, concludes with “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1

Many pastors seeking to address the question of spiritual maturity turn to Galatians 5, in which the fruit of the spirit are described as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”2 According to a study by the Barna Group, this passage about the fruit of the spirit is one of those that pastors most frequently cite when discussing spiritual growth.3

Over the centuries, Christians also came to recognize the importance of what Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas called the “cardinal virtues.” These four are prudence (wise and clear decision-making); fortitude (moral courage); justice (safeguarding care and defense of others); and temperance (moderation).

We asked recently ordained pastors and priests how they saw their own lives and ministries reflecting the spiritual qualities listed in Galatians 5 as the fruit of the spirit, along with other qualities such as the cardinal virtues. The clergy were asked to indicate whether each virtue or spiritual fruit was, by the grace of God, “an area of strength and continuing growth,” “an area of challenge and struggle,” or neither a strength nor a struggle. The chart below shows the pattern of responses we received from clergy who had participated in Transition into Ministry (TiM) programs and those who had not.

Chart 29 - Spiritual habits and practices

Love, kindness, and faithfulness are the core spiritual qualities that the majority of clergy see as strong and growing in their lives. Few clergy see these as points of struggle or challenge in their spiritual lives. Nearly 50% of newer clergy also see in themselves a strong sense of joy, but 20% find themselves struggling with finding or expressing joy. Wisdom and generosity are also strong, vibrant parts of spiritual life for many clergy as well (just under 50%).

But recently ordained pastors and priests are less certain—or increasingly deeply uncertain—about other spiritual fruits and virtues. Fewer than one-third of clergy sense inner strength and continuing growth in peace, patience, and self-control, and over 20% of clergy find themselves struggling with finding peace and self-control. Patience is particularly challenging for clergy, with over 40% reporting that they struggle with experiencing or expressing this spiritual fruit.

In terms of the “cardinal virtues,” 40% of newer priests and pastors indicated that courage was a current and growing strength, but over 20% found this virtue a struggle and challenge. Just under 50% regarded wisdom as a spiritual strength in their lives. But clarity (a facet of prudence), moderation, and just judgment were considered as spiritual strengths only by about 30% of clergy, and were seen as points of spiritual struggle by around 20% of clergy.

Perhaps these patterns reveal how contemporary clergy think that love is expressed and experienced through other spiritual fruits and virtues. It may be easier for clergy to think of kindness and generosity as clear expressions of love, but harder for them to perceive courage, clarity, self-control, patience, or just judgment as expressions of love.

In the overall pattern of results from newer clergy, one can trace a readiness of clergy to offer themselves with beneficent care, steadfastness, and insight—but hesitancy or uncertainty in the face of oppositional or recalcitrant response from others. It is more pleasant, perhaps, and more emotionally rewarding, to focus attention on those spiritual fruits that offer an image of a steady spiritual power that covers the face of the earth and wins over opposition with grace.

The point of greatest spiritual struggle we found for contemporary clergy was in relation to anxiety. Few clergy find themselves relatively free from anxiety. Most clergy struggle with anxiety and are challenged to find freedom from anxiety in their lives and ministries.

For Your Consideration

  • What do patience, courage, self-control, and clarity have to do with anxiety?
  • How might they contribute to increasing freedom from anxiety?


TiM alumni did not differ markedly from other recently ordained clergy in their pattern of responses. However, a visibly higher percentage of TiM clergy than non-TiM clergy indicated that love, kindness, joy, generosity, courage, and just judgment were areas of spiritual strength and continuing growth for them.


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1 1 Corinthians 13:13 (New Revised Standard Version).
2 Galatians 5:22–23 (New Revised Standard Version).
3 “Many Churchgoers and Faith Leaders Struggle to Define Spiritual Maturity,” posted May 11, 2009, accessed April 28, 2014, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/264-many-churchgoers-and-faith-leaders-struggle-to-define-spiritual-maturity#.U15OBaJN3h5.