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24 August 2021

King's research identifies ways to stop dedication from leading to burnout

Many people consider their job to be their vocation, especially in professions that exist to help others, such as teaching, medicine and religious ministry. While a sense of a calling can be an important motivator, it can also have its downside when it drives people to burnout. A seven year project by Dr Mike Clinton of King’s Business School for the Church of England set out to explore the roots of burnout, and has resulted in practical solutions that are benefiting its clergy and their parishioners.

A seven-year longitudinal survey to study clergy effectiveness

The research started in 2011 with a lead project, the Experience of Ministry Survey. This collected data on a nationally representative sample of clergy four times over the seven year period. More than 6000 clergy responded to questions about tasks and activities they were regularly engaged in, how they approached their role, and good and bad aspects of their experiences as priests. Two separate projects ran alongside this, including the collection of daily diary entries completed by over 300 priests and chaplains.

The research concluded that the four biggest predictors of how effective clergy are in their ministry were: experiencing a strong and consistent calling, receiving useful feedback, having colleague support and engaging in proactive role crafting. It also established that clergy felt they were spending too much time on administrative duties rather than on aspects of their role that formed part of their core sense of calling.

While the project contributed to the understanding of the development of clergy calling, it highlighted the downsides of work that is strongly motivated by a vocation. The intensity of a calling can motivate people to work longer hours, limiting their psychological detachment from work in the evenings. In turn, this process reduces sleep quality and ‘morning vigour’, leading to decreased effectiveness at work. Overall, the study showed how the benefits of intense callings could sometimes be outweighed by the costs.

Making a difference

“Having a Mission Partnership Development worker lift the burden of admin has enabled me to spend more time with people, in particular running groups and courses in evangelism and discipleship. These groups and courses have been hugely beneficial in the spiritual health of our church family”.

Priest with support worker,

The project’s findings gained widespread attention within the Church of England. 20 internal reports were based on it, and discussed by the Church ‘s national policy bodies. These conversations contributed to a significant organisational shift towards evidence-based policymaking within the Church.

As a result of the project, the Church committed to higher investment in clergy wellbeing and professional development, including a £1.4m Mission Partnership Development Worker project run between 2015 and 2021 in the Diocese of Sheffield. This project provides administrative support to clusters of 33 neighbouring parishes in the most deprived areas of Sheffield so that clergy can devote more time to their calling and connecting with parishioners through a range of activities.

Two years into the project, clergy with a support workers were more likely to report spending more time on mission-related activities, and performing activities that they feel competent at. Many parish level initiatives in this area owe their existence to the time and energy generated by the new partnership of clergy and clergy support worker.

"Within six months [of getting a support worker] we have got a ‘messy church’ off the ground, new Sunday morning activities, more school engagement.”

Clergy with a support worker.
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In this story

Michael  Clinton

Professor of Work Psychology