Priestly priorities: workload

Most clergy I know think of a week when they do 50 hours as an average load; many do much more (though they’re probably not married…) I wanted to draw attention to two things I’ve read recently.

The first is some research (considered here) that suggests there is a significant decline in productivity when excessive hours are worked over the longer term. There can be a short-term increase, but after about six weeks the productivity declines steadily. A ‘healthy’ load is considered to be around 35 hours for ‘knowledge work’, which is of course what the ‘cleric’ does.

The second is some research demonstrating the link between excessive working hours and depression. (Of course, ‘depression’ is only one of the possible symptoms – a colleague commented that clergy who are overworked and isolated develop ‘idiosyncratic behaviours’ – I’m sure that’s just a euphemism!)

One of the things that I find most challenging is ‘switching off’, because even if I am offically not working, my brain simply processes all the various issues anyway, and if I don’t do it consciously during the day then I wake up in the middle of the night and have to wait for an hour or two for the brain to do its business. There are things that I can do about this, and I’m working on them with the help of my spiritual director – essentially taking time out for contemplative prayer every day, of a substantial length (ie at least half an hour a day, preferably more), and I’m hopeful that that aspect of the challenge can be met.

Here is some advice from – I think – Charles Gore about priestly priorities: 1. Prayer, 2. Recreation 3. Work – because if you put work at #2 then you will never reach #3 and everything will then suffer. Not easy though.

4 thoughts on “Priestly priorities: workload

  1. I know exactly what you mean, Sam. I did the 30 day Exercises in the autumn, and I lost count of the number of times my director said, “You’re on sabbatical” to me during the first few days. I find it takes me several days to switch off work in my head and for this reason usually try to ensure that when I go on holiday I take at least 10 days, and preferably a fortnight.

    One thing the sabbatical taught me was the value of spending a significant amount of time in contemplative prayer and I am trying to build this into my daily schedule. I’m not finding it easy, though.

  2. If I could get some of my friends in ministry down to 50 hours, I’d be cheering.

    I’ve sat down with two close friends over the last few months and added up their hours. One was at 80, the other in the low 70s.

    Two of my former ministers when I was growing up were also workaholics, and each of them has had his wife walk away in the last five years. When I was training with one of them, he told me that unless you’re frequently burned out from overwork as a young person in training for ministry, then you’re probably not serious enough for a life of it. Pure poison and I told him I strongly disagreed.

    Nonetheless, this is where I fear too many of my fellow theology students are headed, since massive working weeks are assumed to be part of the job and when senior figures don’t address the issue (and set poor examples), then changing a culture is difficult.

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