Why are our pastors getting sick? 2. The response

The first article in this series described the problem of unrelenting work in local church ministry (the ridiculous list). This article considers the growth in bullying that accompanies the unrelenting workload and the hidden commitments that motivate clergy and congregations to endure these things.1 [Article]

Michael Flynn with Chris Brown – October 2021


The response of congregations

The growth of work in local churches is caused by demands from government and other authorities outside of the church, as well as the aspirations of clergy, congregations and denominational leadership within the church. This combination of external and internal pressures produces frustration in congregations and frustration can lead to bullying.

Bullying is a criminal matter in Australia

Before we consider the causes of bullying, it is worth defining what it is. Work Safe Victoria provides this definition:

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed at an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety.

WorkSafe Victoria

According to the Commonwealth Occupational Health and Safety Act2 workplace bullying is a criminal offence in Australia. The Victorian WorkSafe web site lists examples of workplace bullying as well as its causes which I have included in the endnotes of this article to flesh out the definition above. The examples WorkSafe provides are sobering reading for clergy, congregations and denominations who will find parts of themselves described there.

Why do congregations engage in bullying?

When frustration continues without relief in our congregations the focus of dissatisfaction may  turn on the staff team. This is a reflection of the wider complaint culture of Australians who deeply believe that changing, criticising and challenging leadership is how to deal with our problems. 

As Chris Brown notes:  

“…many clergy talk of simply not feeling supported as a few parishioners’ views are imposed on the church they are responsible for. The sense of always feeling you are letting someone down or someone is not happy is very distressing  and upsetting and at the same time infuriating when one experiences a lack of understanding or support. I don’t know how many times I heard someone say words to the effect of, ‘I never hear when I’m doing a good job but I sure hear it when I don’t.”

Church members do not know or respect the role definitions that their governing bodies provide regarding their clergy. Ordination vows are position descriptions which should define the workload of clergy but they are frequently forgotten and broadened by congregations as well as the denominational bodies who required those vows in the first place.

People who are used to leading in their professions expect to lead in the same way in churches. If a style of leadership is not adapted from the workplace to the communal, volunteer environment of local churches then that style will encounter frustration and work itself out in bullying behaviour in the church community.

Our churches do not regularly expect, guard against, measure or have zero-tolerance of bullying behaviour. For example, continuing to insist on an opinion that has been duly considered, and left aside, becomes bullying if demands to adopt the opinion are repeated, but churches and clergy fail to recognise this.

Bullying can be harder to detect and manage in a volunteer environment than a work place environment. Roles and expectations tend to be more clearly defined in the workplace as are the consequences for poor behaviour. In churches, graciousness and patience is viewed as a weakness or an opportunity by bullies while a strong response to them can be spun as a lack of Christian love.

Bullies are always right. Chris Brown observes bullying behaviour will target genuine mistakes or minor errors of judgement in clergy who then internalise the critique (for example, as a sin to be repented of) because their disposition and training is to look first for errors in themselves.  Bullying behaviour will also target the matters that are debatable ignoring the requirement of leadership to make decisions and act rather than leave a local church bogged in inefficiency or indecision.

We can distinguish bullying from critique in these situations because bullying aims to control, demoralise or be destructive rather than critique which is designed to build up encourage and even heal (Galatians 6:1-5).

Chris advises that separating the issue criticised from the style or intent behind the criticism is essential to finding healthy ways forward.

Bullying also arises from conflicts on the staff team over how to prioritise and manage the unworkable to-do list of contemporary congregations.

Bullying is a danger where a ministry is successful. Success produces its own opportunities, expectations and frustrations. Some will seek to deal with these stresses by asserting control. Others will want to control something that is working.

Why do clergy accept overwork and bullying?

The solution to a relentless workload, the ambition driving it and the resulting fallout of bullying behaviour seems to be simple. Name and reduce our expectations then shorten the list of processes required to run a local church.  The effect will be to reduce frustrations in the congregation and subsequently reduce incidents of bullying. Yet this is difficult to implement for two reasons: first, the pressures driving aspiration in our culture are also driving our local churches and, our clergy have competing commitments that hold them back from challenging these pressures.

The Harvard Business Review 4 in its Change management series describes competing commitments which inhibit our ability to adapt to or accept change. Put bluntly, there are aspects of the ill-defined, relentless and anxious overwork of contemporary church life that are attractive to congregations and clergy.

What are examples of competing commitments clergy may have?

(Overwork & Bullying) Many clergy are overly conscientious in some aspects of their work. Denominations traditionally select and train people for ordination who are conscientious performers, sensitive, thoughtful and caring. The ordination vows reinforce consciencousness reminding clergy they will give an account to God for their ministries. The irony is, these traits and expectations place clergy in a high-risk category for mental distress because the very strengths that qualify our clergy for their work are the traits that undermine their ability to sustain themselves in that work. Leading a local church with high expectations, multiple strongly held views, and relentless demands will damage them.

As the Australian academic psychiatrist, Gordon Parker, notes in his book Burnout,5

the percentage of people suffering from employment induced mental distress increases to around 60% for people in caring professions who are required to be highly reliable. 

(Bullying) Pastoral training makes clergy vulnerable. Clergy are trained to invest in a pastoral identity and ministry style that is passive in the face of bullying. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a staple diet in clerical training, is based on the work of Carl Rodgers who advocated a listening technique that does not confront or challenge the patient but reflects themselves back to them. While it is wise to learn listening skills (James 1:19), the tendancy of therapeutic ministry culture is to make CPE a substitute for gospel ministry and proclamation. The problem is, both in therapy and pastoral ministry, people not only need to be heard but also challenged.6 Being trained to be passive and reflective does not equip clergy well as leaders who can deal decisively with bullying. Instead, it encourages them to accept abuse for the sake of the other person.

(Overwork) To be over busy means we are important. There are times when our sense of achievement in our work is built upon the back of us feeling exhausted and having an overcrowded or even unpredictable diary.

(Overwork) The returns on non-essential work are attractive. There is a great deal of praise for clergy when they are good at administration. It is easy to prefer to see the check lists in our to-do apps piling up on that side of our job. Meanwhile, our pastoral, evangelistic and teaching responsibilities pay the price.

(Overwork) Once we start measuring the unrealistic workload we become accountable for our time. We may not want this accountability for any of three reasons: 1) We like autonomy. 2) Our relentless workload is a measure of our restless souls, our lack of confidence in ourselves or God. Overwork is how we cope with ourselves. 3) The possibility of ministerial autonomy and a lack of accountablilty is one of the things that made ministry attractive to us in the first place.

(Bullying) We feel we have no other choice for work. We cannot leave our current ministry placement, no matter how destructive it has become. We need the income and believe our denomination has a monopoly over our employment.

(Overwork & Bullying) We won’t admit that we deeply expect our lives to be a struggle. Some arrive at a point where we unconsciously work to choke not only our success but our own life. Sometimes we see this as a form of humility but it actually hides our sense of worthlessness and shame.

(Overwork) We need to be in control of all the processes because we deeply fear failure. We struggle with delegation because we fear being out-shone and made redundant or merely judged.

(Bullying) We are the bully or part of the bully group in our church. For some ungodly reasons, whether we are deeply insecure or deeply sinful, we work hard to control others to misdirect our rage.


These examples of competing commitments won’t describe any one minister, the point of listing them is to prompt clergy to consider what internal commitments are shaping our responses to external pressures.

To change an unhealthy and therefore ungodly response7 is the work of the Holy Spirit through our prayer lives and daily sanctification. There we will determine before God the difference between sin and wisdom. We will also need courage, good counselling and professional supervision sessions. In the case of bullying, it is likely that clergy, along with congregational and denominational leaders, will increasingly be called to the secular courts.

For now, it will be a significant achievement if clergy and congregations can name the deeper causes that underlie our response to the environment of relentless work and increased bullying we find ourselves in. 


Chris Brown speaks of the great surprise it is for his clergy clients to discover that these problems are common for clergy in all ministry settings. Part of clergy learning how to manage what is making us sick is the realisation that we are not alone. It is not that ill clergy are abnormal, or failures, or weak in some unspecified and sinful way. We are fallible and limited human beings like everyone else. What we are experiencing are normal responses to the stresses that mark work in a local church today.


End notes

 1. These articles draw on Chris Brown’s (lead counsellor of Keriva counselling) observations on the causes of a continuing rise in clergy burnout in Melbourne. In the first article, Chris noted the following trends in counselling clergy.

– A rise in workplace distress over the last five years

– Development of a relentless workload due to increased administrative requirements that are difficult to avoid or delegate

– A trend in church and community where volunteerism has been in sharp decline while expectations for professionalism have risen

– Local congregations and their denominations have not measured this change or employed more administrative or ministry support to address it

– An ineffective response to increased bullying of clergy, especially in congregations of professionals who are experiencing increased stress and change in their own lives.

2. The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to eliminate risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks, the employer must reduce risks, so far as reasonably practicable. Those risks include the risk of bullying which has a serious impact on workplace safety. For the purposes of work safe legislation the trend is to treat clergy as employees.

3. https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/workplace-bullying-and-law

An excerpt from the web site appears below:


Examples of workplace bullying include repeated:

  • verbal abuse. For example, being sworn at, threatened, insulted, continual inappropriate and/or invalid criticism, name calling, practical jokes, unjustified threats of punishment, belittling and humiliation, gossip and malicious rumours, inappropriate language, yelling
  • hostile behaviour toward a staff member or group. For example, excluding them from conversations or various activities
  • abusive or offensive e-mails or other correspondence
  • threatening body language
  • unreasonable demands, unnecessary pressure and impossible deadlines which are targeted at an individual or group of individuals
  • unfair allocation of tasks and/or working hours. For example, repeatedly requiring a particular person to stay back after hours or rostering them onto night duty
  • deliberately changing work rosters to inconvenience an employee
  • undermining a person’s work performance, recognition or position, especially with their managers or co-workers
  • deliberately withholding necessary work-related information or resources or supplying incorrect information
  • inappropriate surveillance or monitoring
  • inappropriate interference with personal belongings or work equipment
  • unequal or unreasonable exclusion from or access to training
  • unequal application of work rules and benefits
  • unreasonably excluding employees from activities
  • unreasonably isolating an employee from others
  • setting tasks that are above or beyond a person’s skill level without access to training or support

Causes of bullying

  • Work-related factors, also known as psychosocial hazards, are anything in the management or design of work that increases the risk of work-related stress. A number of work-related factors can increase the risk of workplace bullying if they are not addressed, including:

 – presence of work stressors

  • high job demands
  • limited job control
  • organisational change, such as restructuring or significant technological change
  • role conflict and ambiguity
  • job insecurity
  • an acceptance of unreasonable workplace behaviours or lack of behavioural standards, and
  • unreasonable expectations of clients or customers

– leadership styles

  • autocratic behaviour that is strict and directive and does not allow employees to be involved in decision making
  • behaviour where little or no guidance is provided to employees or responsibilities are inappropriately and informally delegated to subordinates,
  • abusive and demeaning behaviour that may include inappropriate or derogatory language, or malicious criticism and feedback

– systems of work

  • lack of resources
  • lack of training
  • inappropriate work scheduling, shift work and poorly designed rostering, and
  • unreasonable performance measures or timeframes

– poor workplace relationships

  • poor communication
  • isolation
  • low levels of support
  • work group hostility

Multiple offenders

  • A person, through their bullying behaviour, may be guilty of an offence under the OHS Act. However, the employer and other individuals may have breached the OHS Act by their failure to take action against bullying behaviour. For example:
    • the employer has failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health associated with bullying or as a result of failing to respond to bullying behaviour
    • an employee, including a manager or supervisor, has acted in a way that fails to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others at a workplace

4. On Change Management Vol. 2 (Harvard Business Review, 2021)

On competing commitments – https://hbr.org/2001/11/the-real-reason-people-wont-change

5. Parker, Gordon Burnout (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2021)

6. This is not only a psychological point; that we need to be challenged to learn how to be sane. It is first of all a theological claim that we are not unfallen creatures who simply need to be heard for our innate goodness and brilliance to become aparent to ourselves and those around us.

7. The final article in this series will consider the theological ideas driving the internal commitments and external pressures pastors are subject to