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On imperfection, self-doubt, and over-functioning

How should clergywomen—especially early in their careers—deal with vulnerability, imperfection, and failure? Is showing humanity and vulnerability a luxury women cannot afford?

Stories of ordinary over-functioning Growing up, Sandra was used to seeing women working in ministry positions. They often occupied subordinate or temporary roles, which caused Sandra to hesitate when faced with her calling. When she finally decided to accept it, she didn’t immediately enroll in a seminary. Instead, she worked hard to fill her resume with all sorts of relevant work experiences. She believed that by building an outstanding professional profile, she would be shielded from gender discrimination. In time, she developed a tendency to obsess over the quality of her performance. It took her years to realize that overcompensating for her fears was putting her at risk of burnout. “I had to befriend my humanity,” she explains. “I wanted to be the perfect priest… and my years of seminary and ministry became ground zero for the person I am today… I just decided to be the best human being I could be, who also happened to be someone who wanted to become a priest… I learned how to come home to myself.”

Sarah is an energetic and outspoken associate pastor in her mid-thirties. Her senior pastor has been in charge of her church for many years, and parishioners know they can call him at any time of the day—or the night. He is comfortable with very low boundaries, and his typical work week is often between sixty and seventy hours. Sarah has a very open and egalitarian work relationship with her senior pastor, but she struggles to resize her parishioners’ poor boundaries and expectations. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that she is new to ministry, young, and a woman in a congregation traditionally led by men. She considers herself a confident woman, but she often questions her performance. To reassure herself and respond to possible criticisms, she keeps a very detailed record of what she does every day, but sometimes she asks herself: “Am I doing a good enough job?” In those moments, she looks at her list of daily achievements to soothe her anxiety and remind herself that she is doing enough.

Overworking, perfectionism, and burnout among clergywomen Numerous studies have documented the incidence of depression and burnout among clergy. Unfortunately, most research on clergy burnout speaks about ministers “in general” and does not explore the impact of gender or sexual orientation. Yet, Sandra’s and Sarah’s stories show that gender dynamics play a powerful role in shaping clergywomen’s ability to define their position, workload, and boundaries.

Studies about women in ministry often speak about a “stained-glass ceiling” preventing clergywomen from reaching the top levels of leadership. The gender gap is thus reduced to an issue of career prospectives and access to top leadership positions. A more holistic way of thinking about gender inequality, in the church as in other workplaces, is to imagine it as a “labyrinth” of gender-related barriers acting at multiple levels. One of them has to do with occupational stress, a potential risk factor for burnout.

According to recent studies, clergywomen report higher levels of work-related stress than their male counterparts. Generally speaking, ministry is a profession at increased risk of depression and burnout. Multiple factors explain this phenomenon. Some have theological roots: ministry work comes from a belief that ministers are personally called to fulfill God’s will, which implies that many clergy struggle to define the “boundaries” of what they perceive as a spiritual mission. The very idea of committing one’s life to serve God also implies that failures take a deeply personal spiritual significance. Furthermore, ministry is a highly complex job: ministers fill many roles on the same day, often resulting in fragmented and unpredictable work schedules. These and many other factors connected to the unique nature of the ministry profession explain why clergy report high levels of occupational stress and low levels of engagement in wellbeing practices.

In clergywomen’s case, this baseline risk is increased by multiple factors. Given the short time available, I will focus only on three:

  • For women, ministry is still an “ill-fitting robe.” In our study, most female participants reported perceiving themselves or, more often, being perceived by others as not precisely “fitting” the role. This “contradiction of status”—an explicitly or unconsciously felt inconsistency between someone’s characteristics and the position they occupy—is a recurrent issue in male-majority workplaces. Our female participants often reported being less appreciated and recognized than their male counterparts; diminishing comments regarding one’s gender, physical aspect, tone of voice, and ability to perform were pervasive and directly connected to women’s self-doubting, fear of failing, overworking, and overall stress levels. Prior research has documented that female pastors and priests perceive substantially lower levels of social support compared to men and that when male and female clergy enact the same professional behaviors, congregations evaluate female priests less favorably. Unfortunately, multiple studies also show that gender inequality in the workplace has a profound impact on mental health.

  • Gender inequality and the ministry job market. Female participants placed in small and declining congregations were more likely to struggle with unpredictable work schedules, financial instability, lack of resources, and poor social support. At a personal level, they were more likely to experience family tensions over dual career planning and caregiving roles. Unfortunately, across denominations, women are still disproportionately assigned to small and under-resourced parishes. In our study, an indirect consequence of this persistent “job market” inequality was that these women reported higher levels of work-related stress.

  • Single vs. married women. According to our findings, single women experienced unique challenges that put them at particular risk of stress, depression, and burnout. Congregations generally expected single clergywomen—more than men—to grant limitless availability to their demands. Consequently, these women struggled to claim boundaries and “justify” off time. Conversely, being a wife and a mother provided a basic legitimization for those claims.

Befriending one’s humanity Despite these concerns, our research clarifies that increased stress levels among women do not necessarily lead to higher levels of depression and burnout. This insight contradicts previous findings regarding clergymen. Women’s more positive outcomes seem related to a few crucial factors:

  • They show a greater focus on mental and spiritual wellbeing. The overwhelming majority of our female participants had a spiritual director, a therapist, a coach, or a mentor. Clergywomen’s inclination to look proactively for wellbeing resources marked a stark difference from their male peers. Among men, the proactive recourse to professional help was extremely rare. Furthermore, most women formed and maintained intentional connections with informal support networks, often composed of women who had undergone similar experiences. Prior research shows that support networks play a critical role in protecting clergy from the risk of depression and burnout.

  • More than men, women claimed boundaries, and tried to build resilience. Having to reconcile different and sometimes conflicting roles—as congregational leaders, wives, heads of a household, and caregivers—led most women to emphasize the need to set and maintain healthy boundaries between them. And while clergywomen with young children suffered an evident strain, a cultural shift seemed to be taking place among younger couples, who often shared caregiving roles based on pragmatic criteria, irrespective of gender. As highlighted above, claiming boundaries was particularly difficult for single women and small parish pastors and priests, who remained at an increased mental health risk. Multiple clergy studies point out that boundaries and rest are essential to building a minister’s psychological, emotional, and physical resilience.

  • Ministry involved learning to befriend one’s humanity (theology of imperfection and vulnerability). Personal theologies play an essential role in legitimizing destructive tendencies or protecting individuals from them. Our study highlights that clergywomen tended to place a particular emphasis on the theme of incarnation and embodiment as expressions of divine grace and presence. This focus was positively connected to attitudes that encouraged self-compassion, self-awareness, vulnerability, and self-care. Especially in the early stages of women’s transition into ministry, an essential component of new clergywomen’s learning process was Sandra’s idea of “befriending one’s humanity” and learning to defuse external and internal pressures to perform and be “perfect.” This finding was particularly striking given the cultural pressures female professionals face not to show vulnerability, limitations, or failure.

While these findings emphasize clergywomen’s ability to face stress, build resilience, and protect their wellbeing, it is essential to highlight that clergywomen continue to face higher levels of work-related stress than their male counterparts. This differential is undeniably connected to gender-related causes. Some of these factors have structural roots in a job market that continues to be unequal; others are grounded in gender-based prejudice. Finally, it is also crucial to underline that women’s greater resilience to stress may result from self-selection. Our female participants’ calling journeys were often more complex and challenging—for cultural and practical reasons—than those of their male colleagues. Put simply, clergywomen’s increased ability to face stress may be connected to a pre-selection that does not necessarily happen in the same way and for the same reasons for men.

Discussion/reflection questions :

  1. In your journey as a minister, how have you learned to face stress and overwork? What is your experience?

  2. In your experience, what are the most significant sources of stress?

  3. How have you learned to protect your wellbeing and build resilience as a pastor/priest?

  4. What role has your gender/sexual orientation played as both a source of increased stress and an asset to nurture your wellbeing?

  5. How should clergywomen—especially early in their careers—deal with vulnerability, imperfection, and failure? Is showing humanity and vulnerability a luxury women cannot afford?

  6. What resources could be mobilized to better support clergywomen?

Manuela Casti Yeagley, PhD

Photo credit: Photo by mehul dave on Unsplash.


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