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Clergy burnout is real, but the UMC has a program to help

Clergy burnout is real, but the UMC has a program to help


Clergy burnout is real.

A Barna Group study of 320,000 Protestant church leaders in 2017 found that about 30 percent were at risk of experiencing it.

And while the study also found that pastors are more likely than the general population to rate their mental and emotional health as excellent or good, exhaustion and overload lurk in the background for those who follow a spiritual calling.

Ordained elders in The United Methodist Church are allowed to take a six-week renewal leave every seven years to alleviate that possibility. But in many cases, it’s not a paid leave, so some clergy declined to take it, missing an opportunity to renew their souls.

Knowing the importance of time away for clergy, the Florida United Methodist Foundation provides an option that reduces the financial stress and makes the leave more doable. As part of the foundation’s annual commitment to the Passing the Torch Fund, $40,000 is set aside for clergy renewal grants.

“We don’t fund vacations,” said the Rev. Sara McKinley, director of the Florida Conference Office of Clergy Excellence, which manages the process of awarding the funds. “We look for a proposal that has specific elements of renewal.”

Applicants submit an essay and budget for their proposed leave, along with letters of recommendation. The amount can’t exceed $10,000.

For the Rev. Dan Prine and his wife, Shani, it was a game-changer.

Just one week after returning from their honeymoon, the couple received devastating news. Shani had multiple sclerosis. She was just 40.

Since having two surgeries in 2017, she has suffered from balance and vision issues, memory loss and lack of energy. Most of the time, she must use an electric wheelchair.

The family had other pressures, as well. Prine’s father’s health began to decline, requiring him to make regular visits to his father’s home in Tampa. And with so much attention given to his dad and wife, Prine couldn’t spend as much time with his two children from a previous marriage.

Meanwhile, the Edgewater church was experiencing a growth spurt, adding another campus in North Port. Attendance when Prine first arrived 14 years ago was about 250 a week. Now it’s more than 750, with five weekend services at the two locations.

For the sake of his own physical and mental health, he decided to apply for a renewal grant.

“It really wasn’t just one thing. It was the combination of so many pressures,” he said. “And I know if I’m not at the top of my game, my church and congregation suffer, too.”

The $6,000 stipend he received during last year’s grant cycle, plus continuing to receive his church salary, allowed him to take time off during the summer for rest, spiritual development, house projects that had gone unattended and a seven-day cruise with Shani; her ability to travel is waning.

Prine was also able to attend a week-long retreat at a faith-based counseling center in Parker, Colorado, that focused on ways to juggle responsibilities without succumbing to depression or exhaustion.

During the three-month break, visiting pastors and congregational leaders handled most of the preaching responsibilities at the two campuses.

Prine said he returned in the fall refreshed and ready to face the challenges at home and church. With the tools he received at the counseling center, he said he has learned to set boundaries and build in “self-care” time.

The Rev. Vicki Walker also gained a new perspective — on the world and her ministry — during her time away.

2019 was a milestone year for Walker, who serves as minister of missions and outreach at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.

“Turning 60 is definitely a time to reflect in all ways — looking backward, the present and going forward,” she said.

Walker said she recently became contemplative about her calling, the turmoil within the denomination and the future God had in store for her.

“I didn’t want a vacation,” she said. “I wanted the luxury of spending time alone with God, removed from my usual responsibilities and even my friendships.”

The foundation’s $6,000 renewal leave grant gave Walker the freedom to retreat from church responsibilities and the social justice issues that consume much of her time.

The timing was particularly crucial for Walker, who had begun to question if she had a place within the church in light of actions taken at a special session of the denomination’s General Conference in St. Louis last year.

“It was soul-crushing,” she said. “I had always imagined a different future for our denomination. There was so much division, making me question if I could stay or not.”

She participated in a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Trappist, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton once lived. Then it was on to Camp Loucon in Leitchfield, Kentucky, which she visited as a child and felt the earliest stirrings of her call to discipleship and ministerial vocation.

Her leave also included a visit to the Upper Room in Nashville, a day at a farm for meditation and photography, a week at home organizing her old journals and photographs, and two weeks at the beach, where she practiced stillness, capturing images and finding God in unexpected places.

“I felt full of love and so much lighter. I wasn’t carrying the weight of the world in my heart and on my shoulders anymore,” she said. “I didn’t feel anxious and stressed. I had learned how to focus on people, and not tasks. I’ve also learned how to not say yes to every request and to be more discriminate about all the invitations that come my way.”

--Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer in Tampa.

Note: A longer version of this story appeared on the Foundation website: