Survey: Priests satisfied with their lives

By | October 21, 2009

“The first follow up to the survey is to revel in the good news,” said Fr. Paul Demuth, vicar for ministers for the diocese. “What is amazing to me is there is such good news when we ask so much of our priests. A pastor’s life is often involved with high and lows of people’s lives. They are happy and rejoicing with baptisms and marriages to switching right over to funerals, accidents or hospital visits. You are constantly asked to react. You would think therefore that physical exhaustion and burnout would be higher than the general population, but in fact, we are healthier than the general population.”

Saint Luke Institute initially sought three or four dioceses to execute the wellness survey as a pilot program. Approximately 20 took part, said Fr. Demuth. Priests surveyed provided responses to four psychological tests: The Satisfaction with Life Scale, which measures one’s overall happiness with life; a Positive and Negative Affect Scale that measures positive and negative emotions; a Burnout Inventory, which measures one’s work related state of mind; and a Brief Symptom Inventory, which measures psychological distress. Data was compiled and analysis provided by Saint Luke’s, including a summary by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, who recently completed his term as president and CEO of the institute.

“The interpretation they said is their interpretation, but the material in itself provides a wealth of opportunity for reflection so that we can make our own conclusions beyond what they suggest,” said Fr. Demuth.

Msgr. Rossetti credited the wellness of the priests to their healthy backgrounds. Data supports that the majority had good relationships with their parents, healthy families and good friends. For example, when asked to respond to the statement “Growing up, I had close friends,” 52 percent strongly agreed, 42 percent agreed, 5 percent were neutral and only 1 percent disagreed.

He also noted in the summary that a small percentage have trouble managing anger, were themselves abused as children, struggle with their celibate commitment and/or suffer from loneliness.

Fr. Demuth said that the survey results indicate that priests who encounter problems are open to seeking guidance.

“When priests, as part of the general population, come up with serious issues, we have a history of offering them assistance through counselors, psychological aid and dealing with addictions, as well as spiritual direction,” he said. “The percentage of priests that suffer from stress or addictions is very similar to the percentage that said they got some help. There is no way of telling if that is the same person, but it is a good correlation.”

The biggest challenge facing the priests is physical health, added Fr. Demuth. According to the survey, 20 percent who responded have diabetes and 40 percent are overweight.

Msgr. Rossetti also concluded that the priests are supportive of the bishop and his leadership. In responses to priestly life, 31 percent strongly agreed and 48 percent agreed with “I support my bishop’s leadership.” Twenty-two percent strongly agreed and 50 percent agreed with “I have a good relationship with my bishop.”

Saint Luke Institute utilized means (average scores for the group) in comparing the priests to the general population. For satisfaction with life, the priests who were sampled scored 28.07 means compared to 23.90 for the general population. For burnout-personal exhaustion, the priests only reported 14.71 compared to 20.99 for the general population. A national profile is expected from Saint Luke Institute as well as a book about the survey results.

Fr. Demuth, who took the survey, described it as “a very good, broad based examination of conscience.” Priests in the diocese have participated in past surveys, but the Saint Luke study provided a more scientific approach, he added.

“People said it took them a good half hour to answer,” said Fr. Demuth. “It’s not a superficial questionnaire. It caused you to reflect. The nice thing is it was anonymous. We sealed them and sent everything in an envelope. It was confidential. This would have been a very expensive tool if we would have had to pay for it.”

The survey results will be put to use.

“It can be helpful in recruitment, in dealing with particular issues, in the development of future programs to continue to help people grow in their ministries, some actual basis for decision making,” said Fr. Demuth.

The results didn’t surprise him, he added.

“I’ve been a priest for 41 plus years and the morale among priests has consistently been high,” he said. “The survey said there is an exceptionally strong spiritual life and connection with God among our priests. This contributes to well-being and satisfaction.”

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