When Self-Care Becomes Crucial—and Difficult to Maintain: A Cautionary Tale

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


Clergy self-care has become a key concern for many denominations; church leaders have become more aware of how many pastors and priests struggle with weight and health issues, depression and anxiety, financial stress, and feelings of exhaustion and burnout. Many post-seminary training opportunities, such as Transition into Ministry (TiM) programs, now emphasize ways for clergy to maintain good physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Yet clergy in their first positions as ordained ministers often find it challenging to continue practices of good self-care in the face of the demands placed on them by supervisors and their congregations.

Take the Rev. Eric Murphy, for example. Following seminary, a TiM residency, and his ordination, he applied for numerous positions in churches in the Presbyterian Church USA.

He turned down the first offer he received because he didn’t believe he would be compatible with the senior pastor. Then he interviewed at Grace Presbyterian Church in a mid-sized city in the South.

“When I interviewed, they just seemed to be very interested in me and that … made me feel good about myself. I think a lot of times in that situation, residents—well, you’re just concerned no one’s going to hire you, at least I was. I mean, you know, a lot of confidence issues.”

In retrospect, Murphy now recognizes the warning signs that the role of associate pastor at Grace would be a difficult one. An acquaintance of his had worked at the church previously and had left the job in anger. One of the first comments the senior pastor made to Murphy was a disparaging remark about a mutual acquaintance, the pastor who had been Murphy’s TiM supervisor.

But Murphy quietly agreed with the assessment, and was generally impressed with Grace and the senior pastor.

“They just really tried to sell me on the situation,” he said. “And I was naive, I didn’t know exactly what to ask and maybe that’s something [Transition into Ministry programs] could work on, too—what to look for and what questions to ask versus just trying to sell yourself…. I’ve since learned that that’s the time to really set your boundaries and I didn’t do that. I wanted a job and I was just kind of nodding my head at whatever they said. But at that time I liked all that was said.”

In other words, Murphy didn’t know what to recognize as red flags or signals of potential problems—or how to be assertive enough to ask questions.

When the nominating committee offered him the position, he accepted it on the spot. He didn’t expect the next three years to be so full of conflict.

The first major conflict erupted in response to something he said. Within his first month at the church, Murphy was leading a prayer during the Sunday service and added a petition “for an end to senseless war”; numerous members of the congregation complained—not to him directly, but about him to the senior pastor. This was one of the first experiences Murphy had of a church culture in which indirect complaints and grumbling were acceptable. It was not his last. At a meeting of the church deacons, he was shocked at how the attendees badmouthed other members who weren’t present.

Murphy not only found himself increasingly anxious and vigilant about other people’s murmurings. He also discovered the challenges of dealing with a boss with a mercurial temper. Murphy had several run-ins with the senior pastor that ended in him being yelled at. Sometimes the senior pastor treated him as a trusted confidant, other times as an incompetent subordinate—and Murphy was never sure where he stood.

This uncertainty about his working relationship with his supervising pastor made it challenging for him to negotiate his weekly time off. Murphy married a graduate student living in a city a couple hours’ drive from the church, and the couple hoped some flexibility from the church would help make the arrangement work while his spouse completed her degree.

Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson MS - cropped“The drive was just killing us—it’s four hours. But [the senior pastor] insisted that he have Fridays off every week as his day off and he needed a pastor there. And so he wanted me to take Mondays off. The problem was once a month on Monday night was our session meeting, and he expected me to be there. So, I didn’t even get a full day off, once a month. And he’s like, ‘Well, you could just make it up some other time.’ There was no time to do that.

“I always had to be there on Sundays; there was no opportunity for a two-day weekend. I know pastors don’t always get a two-day weekend, but sometimes he did. And I never got that. I talked to him about it. He’s like, ‘Well, you can leave right after church on Sunday and go [home].’ And I did once or twice, but basically I had dinner with my wife—we would go to do something fun—and then … I would just turn around and go back. So, that was bad.”

Into the second year, the senior pastor took a three-month sabbatical and left Murphy in charge. The young associate pastor enjoyed the freedom he experienced in his supervisor’s absence.

“I felt like I ran the church really well, and that’s really when I began to shine,” he recalled. “What got hard was when he came back and there was just no mediation or help for that transition, it just—boom, everything—we were back … and [there was] very little appreciation for what I had done over those three months. He was wanting to talk about how his experience had been great and all this. And that’s when I began to see the writing on the wall: I just can’t do this anymore.”

Murphy had already seen the impact of the senior pastor’s volatility on other staff: during the senior pastor’s sabbatical, the church’s office administrator had quit, saying she preferred not to be there when he returned. About a month after the senior pastor’s return, Murphy submitted his resignation.

Throughout all of this, Murphy felt the need for a support system that he didn’t have anywhere nearby. Earlier in seminary and during his post-seminary TiM program, he had found support and help. His field education supervisor during seminary had become a trusted mentor who treated him as a respected colleague. During his TiM residency program, he had met monthly with other younger residency colleagues. But, after his TiM residency, in his first position as an associate pastor, he did not find a similar group for support and help—inside or outside the church.

“I think through my TIM experience I realized how important community is, and I really wanted to make some friends outside of church, which I never really did,” he said. “That was a bad thing—but my TIM experience helped me realize that. … I think I need to have someone to process things with in a confidential, safe space and that was an ongoing struggle. … It got to be at the point where I’d call my mom at home and talk about what had happened with [the senior pastor] that day, you know, trying to process that.”

The nominating committee that had brought Murphy to Grace Presbyterian had committed to providing ongoing support. “[They] told me that they would continue to meet with me and support me—they never did. A year from the day that I came, I said, ‘Well, we need to get together again.’ And so, it was all my initiative. Half of them showed up, the other half didn’t, and I never did it again.”

Murphy said that he wished that he had been better prepared for the role of associate pastor. He felt his Transition into Ministry program did more to prepare him for the role; his seminary education mostly prepared him to be a solo pastor.

“Being an associate meant I had a lot more resources at my disposal to do different projects than I would have if I had been a solo pastor. But I think decision-making is different too…. As an associate I wasn’t sure where the decision really lay. Was it with the pastor, who I was constantly trying to build a good relationship with and have the support of? Was it with the session, who was our denominational head of the church? And where do I draw the line for myself?”

At the time of his interview with us, Murphy had been unemployed for three months. He was thinking about going back to school to get a degree in social work or pursue individual counseling and maybe coming back to congregational ministry part-time.

“I’ve tried to redefine myself by being more grateful for all that I’ve received in life,” he said. “And that includes my marriage, and the ability to have this semi-sabbatical that I’m on right now—a time for reflection and discernment. I’m trying to be more grateful, because I feel like I was leaning toward being too bitter toward the end.”


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