To most clergy, it comes as no surprise to learn that ministry can be hazardous to your health. Even so, the clergy health statistics from the Duke Divinity School Clergy Health Initiative are a startling wake up call.
Their findings of life-style related physical ailments among clergy point to a need for deep changes across the culture of ministry. Pastor rates of obesity and chronic disease are significantly higher than those of their non-pastor peers. The Clergy Health Initiative 2008 survey of over 17,000 active North Carolina United Methodist clergy showed their rates of obesity to be about 10 percent higher than other North Carolinians. The same survey revealed clergy rates of high blood pressure and asthma at about four percent higher and diabetes rates at about three percent higher than those of their non-clergy peers.
The Clergy Health Initiative is a $12 million, seven-year program intended to improve the health of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina. Their survey also asked about mental health. Depression rates in pastors, which approach about 10 percent, are roughly double that of all people in the United States. Other less formal surveys in other denominations have shown similar results. One such study indicates that the number of young clergy who are leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry has quadrupled since the 1970s.
Why do clergy suffer from obesity, chronic disease and depression at rates higher than those whom they serve? As a personal coach, what I see is that people who enter the ministry tend to be helpers who desire to sacrifice for the greater good. Furthermore, most congregations expect their clergy to sacrifice, yet are unaware of many of the ways that they do. As today’s churches face economic challenges and for many, aging congregations and loss of members, pastors in smaller congregations carry an especially heavy load.
Cell phones and congregational expectations that pastors be available 24/7, along with a shrinking volunteer pool, exacerbate the problem of too many needs and too little time. Too little time for exercise, slow food, time with family and friends, and much-needed vacations.
Can clergy regain health? They can and they must. The changes that will promote clergy health – physical, mental and spiritual – will not come quickly. Many factors contribute to clergy health. There is a lot more to the issue than just educating the minister to make healthy food choices. Health requires not only a shift in eating, but a shift in lifestyle and self-perception as well. It also requires a shift in congregational thinking.
The issue of clergy health is an adaptive challenge, not a technical one. Leadership guru and author Ronald Heifertz describes a technical challenge as one that is easily solved by experts, such as when a mechanic fixes a car. He describes an adaptive challenge as one that requires people in the community to change their attitudes, values and behaviors. The very real problem of clergy obesity, chronic disease and depression poses an adaptive challenge to congregations. The responsibility for change cannot be left to ministers alone. The gargantuan scope of the problem requires congregations to develop their own core strengths for helping clergy to become and remain healthy. There is not one right way to approach the problem; there are many.
Many pastors suffer under an either/or philosophy: I must serve this congregation or take time away for myself. I must sacrifice to be effective or be seen as selfish. That kind of thinking begs the question of how we measure sacrifice and generosity, and whether we are living by someone else’s measurements or our own.
The change from either/or thinking to both/and thinking is essential. Thoughts such as, if I am taking care of myself, I am not caring for others, must change to: I can take care of myself and then better serve others. Self-love – the kind of love that Jesus commanded with “love your neighbor as yourself,” embraces both/and thinking. It commands self-care. Pastors who move most effectively toward both/and thinking are those with congregations that encourage them to take time off, spend time with friends or family, exercise, or just rest and de-stress.
And those who move most effectively toward both/and thinking are those pastors who grab those resources when they are offered. Pastors must ask for support in their efforts to stay healthy. They must admit that they cannot meet every need in the congregation and embrace realistic boundaries.
One of my fellow coaches, Mitch Coggin, has gained first hand expertise in the area of clergy self-care. Mitch is not only a certified coach, he is the pastor for two small PC(USA) churches in North Vernon, Indiana. In his past life, Mitch served as a chaplain for two Baptist hospitals and as pastor and minister to families for two Southern Baptist churches. He knows clergy wellness obstacles firsthand, and he is working with churches and ministers to change the culture. He knows that this is an adaptive challenge – requiring change in attitudes and actions at several levels.
Through a grant from the Lily Endowment, Mitch’s presbytery has established a coaching component to help congregations who are between pastors to consider what they can do to assist the incoming pastor in the area of personal wellness. Mitch initially works with a session to increase their understanding of the large stake their church has in maintaining the health of a new minister. As part of the program, the congregation names a task force to work with a coach over five to seven sessions to discover how their congregation can play a key role.
With the coach’s guidance, the task force leads the congregation in discovering their own unique abilities to support pastor health. Recommendations differ for each community of faith, Mitch says, but the entire congregation has to take responsibility for maintaining pastoral excellence. If recommendations from the task force are institutionalized, a Care and Concern Committee might be formed and trained in stress management as one solution in providing safe space for the pastor.
To be most effective, the Care and Concern Committee’s work with the pastor must be separate from that of the personnel committee. They might find ways for the pastor to take study and leave time, they might supply a gym membership, encourage wholesome church dinners, find creative ways to fill the pulpit on Sunday. The committee uses the church’s unique strengths to help the pastor stay healthy.
Mitch says that a two and a half day long seminar on clergy wellness is enough to point out health problems and causes, but it takes an ongoing relationship with a personal coach, mentor or a supportive small group for most clergy to see positive life changes. The majority make significant, lasting changes only after six to twelve months of on-going, intentional work.
The culture of unending clergy self-sacrifice is slowly finding ways to promote clergy self-care as denominations become aware of the flagging health of their obese, sick and stressed-out pastors. Change must come if the church is to remain vital. Healthy pastors are an essential component of a healthy church.
- Melissa Clodfelter is the coordinator of coaching for the Center for congregational Health in Winston-Salem, NC.
- Mitch Coggin is Pastor of Scipio and Grammer Presbyterian Churches in Southern Indiana and a certified Life Coach with the International Coach Federation.