Social Networks among Ministry Relationships: Relational Capacity, Burnout, & Ministry Effectiveness

By Pickett, Candace Coppinger; Barrett, Justin L. et al. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Social Networks among Ministry Relationships: Relational Capacity, Burnout, & Ministry Effectiveness


Pickett, Candace Coppinger, Barrett, Justin L., Eriksson, Cynthia B., Kabiri, Christina, Journal of Psychology and Theology


Humans, on average, are believed to have the capacity to sustain approximately 150 personal relationships due to social-cognitive limits and time available for relationship investment (Dunbar, 1993). The consequences of attempting to exceed this relational limit have not been investigated. Yet relational-style ministry workers face pressure to increase their number of personal relationships. It is likely that attempting to exceed this relational limit leads to distress. Therefore, relational ministers exceeding typical social network sizes were predicted to experience higher levels of burnout and lower levels of ministry effectiveness. For this study, two hundred thirty-seven relational ministers completed self-report measures. Multiple hierarchical regressions indicated that while total network size was not a significant predictor of outcome variables, nuanced differences among networks predicted burnout and ministry effectiveness. Above average numbers of intimate, high-investment relationships predicted smaller overall network sizes, and subgroups of more intimate relationships may have optimal size ranges that contribute to personal well-being.

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In recent years, the stress of ministry leaders has become of increasing interest within the academic community and the religious public. Researchers have found that clergy members suffer from hypertension, depression, and obesity at higher rates than most people in the United States (Vitello, 2010). Clergy work is oriented toward serving others and characterized by a devotion to Christian faith and a feeling of divine calling (Proeschold-Bell et al., 2012). Clergypersons occupy many roles including teacher, counselor, preacher, administrator, and fundraiser (Proeschold-Bell et al., 2012; Weaver, Flannelly, Larson, Stapleton, & Koeing, 2002). Though the term "clergyperson" is generally reserved for someone ordained inside of a particular denomination, many other religious professionals and volunteers have occupations similar to that of clergy, such as relational ministers. Relational ministers, who are clergy or laity, are those working for faith-based organizations with the strategy of building personal relationships to carry out the mission statement of their respective organizations. As a group, relational ministers work in ways similar to clergypersons: teaching, mentoring, fund-raising, administrating, organizing events, etc. Due to similarities and overlap with clergypersons, it can be speculated that relational ministers (clergy or laity) may suffer similar physical and emotional health problems as a result of their occupation.

No one cause has been linked to the negative effects associated with clergy or relational ministry jobs, but interpersonal relationships have been implicated as a major stressor for those doing cross-cultural relational ministry (Carter, 1999). What is it about personal relationships that may lead to these negative outcomes? Theoretical developments in the field of evolutionary psychology provide insight into this question.

Social Network Theory

Evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist, Robin Dunbar (1992) found a predictable relationship between relative neocortex size and social group size in a regression analysis of 38 non-human primates. He observed that animals with a larger neocortex size relative to body mass tended to have larger social group sizes. Considering the substantial size of the neocortex in relation to a human's body mass, Dunbar (1993) extrapolated from the regression fit line and estimated the upper limit of a typical human's personal social network to be 148. This figure, known as Dunbar's number, is commonly rounded to 150 and consists of personal, loving social relationships. Other researchers have corroborated this estimation in studies attempting to measure social network sizes, finding that the average active social network size centered around 150 (Hill & Dunbar, 2003; Killworth, Bernard, & McCarty, 1984). …

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