Addressing clergy breakdown: self-care as preventive medicine

FOR A NUMBER of years there has been anxiety in the Church of Ireland about members of the clergy who have fallen victim to stress- related illness, whether physical, mental or emotional, and have lacked the support they needed. There have even been a number of suicides, one of them earlier this year.

As a ‘child of the rectory’ and a practising psychotherapist, I would like to offer some thoughts on dealing with stress which I hope will be helpful – both to individual clergy families and their parishes, and to those who may be able to put in place structures in the Church to help prevent further clergy breakdown or distress. I am indebted to many thoughtful people in the C of I, both clergy and laity, who have given generously of their time to help me with this article.
To begin with, we need to note that members of the caring professions, which of course include clergy, see people at their most vulnerable and stressed. Because the professionals usually appear calm in these circumstances, many people assume that they themselves are not affected by stress; but this is far from the truth. It is recognised that those working with people in need of care are impacted by stress and may develop secondary trauma, also known as ‘burnout’.