Sacrificing the Body

From Leadership Journal by G. Jeffrey MacDonald

For years, dinners consisting of granola bars or peanut butter crackers on the run were good enough for Pastor Ross Varney.

He’d munch them as he sped off to one evening meeting or another. He saw it as putting the church’s needs ahead of his own. The habit seemed harmless until he couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t concentrate by day, and felt just plain lousy much of the time. Acid reflux exacerbated by late-night ice cream binges to, as Varney put it, “soothe the day” was keeping him awake and wreaking havoc on his ministry.

“I always feel a bit guilty in self-care pursuits, be it rest or exercise or time with food,” said Varney, pastor of Belleville Congregational Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “My calling as a solo pastor is to maximize my time caring for and serving the people. It’s a mindset I have, which I know is extreme. With any extra time or energy I have, I should be out serving somebody.”

Varney’s situation is far from unique. The demands of ministry are taking a toll on pastors’ health. Their lifestyle tends to be sedentary during office hours, with a diet marked by potluck dinners that would make a cardiologist blush. Though the joys are many, stress is continual, and outlets tend to be few. As a result, clergy suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension at such alarming rates that it’s become a mark of the profession.

“Clergy feel called to serve God’s will,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University. “They work extremely hard and would perceive any kind of failure as devastating. [In this mindset,] it’s better to put one’s health at risk than to fail in this larger sacred mission.”

Mounting evidence points to eye-opening patterns. Forty percent of North Carolina United Methodists clergy are obese, according to survey research from Duke University’s Clergy Health Initiative, which tracks the state of clergy health over time. That’s 11 percent higher than the rest of North Carolina whites. (Whites comprise the comparison group because more than 90 percent of North Carolina Methodist clergy are white). They also report significantly more cases of hypertension, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes.

Other denominations have unhealthy pastors, too. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America compares health statistics for 12,000 church workers, most of whom are pastors, with the general population insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield. Pastors and their colleagues experience far higher rates of illness in certain categories: 54 percent higher in hypertension, 69 percent higher in high cholesterol, and 100 percent higher in cancer. And at the Southern Baptist’s national convention, GuideStone Insurance’s health screenings find SBC pastors consistently suffer from weight problems and hypertension.

That pastors would suffer from stress-related health problems is nothing new. From the 16th century to the early 20th century, clergy lived longer in European nations and the United States than did non-clergy. But even then they tended to suffer disproportionately from coronary disease, diabetes, and digestive problems. The vocation seems to come with inherent health risks that must be managed, not entirely unlike coal mining, commercial fishing, and other lines of work that come with unique dangers.

In the 21st century, pastors’ stress is heightened by their smartphones. In generations past, a parishioner would phone the pastor, sometimes get no answer and need to try again later. Now pastors are always reachable. Today’s pastors face more stress-and the negative health repercussions that come with it-because they are bombarded with messages. They must constantly respond to delicate matters and pressing issues whether by text, email, or voice, according to Bruce Epperly, author of A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-Care.

“That’s changed the whole nature of ministry,” said Epperly, a former seminary professor and now pastor at South Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts. “Ministers are really available 24/7.”

The heightened stress level that comes with constant connectedness, coupled with the fallout from poor diets and inadequate exercise, creates an uphill health challenge for clergy. But pastors also have some advantages when it comes to health, and they’re learning to leverage them.

No pastor wants to build a reputation for immoral behavior. Thus pastors are seldom linked to certain risky behaviors that are highly stigmatized, such as smoking, illicit drug addictions, and promiscuity. As a group, they consequently do better than the general public in terms of avoiding lung cancer and sexual transmitted diseases, according to the Clergy Health Initiative and other research.

With this insight into driving influences on the pastoral lifestyle, some suggest it might be time to broaden the list of behaviors unbecoming to a man or woman of the cloth to include overeating and physical inactivity.

“If it were suddenly to become stigmatized for a pastor to be overweight, in the way that it would be if they were using drugs, then there would be far more attention to that by the pastors,” said Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative researcher.

Pastors also have broad flexibility to interpret how to live out their callings on a day-to-day basis. That they should preach the gospel is a given, but how they go about preparing a sermon or being a witness in their communities can vary widely. With intentionality, it can be infused with healthy habits.

Tipping the Scales

Some pastors are making changes that have them feeling much better, without compromising their ministry. Varney, the Congregational pastor who used to eat meals on the fly, is part of this group rethinking the pastor’s lifestyle.

At age 57, Varney has bid adieu to acid reflux and dropped 20 pounds. He did it by changing his eating habits (no more wheat or dairy) and making room for healthy meals on a regular basis. In the process, he changed some of his thinking about his calling. Theologian Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer was inspiring for Varney when he first entered ministry, but now Nouwen’s words sound almost masochistic to his ear.

“I still remember the language of it: the healer binds his wounds just enough to get back out into the fray and gets wounded all over again,” Varney said. “That’s a big difference for me now. I can allow myself the occasional power nap after lunch and feel totally justified.” An afternoon nap helps him to be alert at night meetings, he said, and serves as an example of how he uses rest as an investment in ministry longevity.

Gayla Collins, a 64-year-old United Methodist pastor who serves two yoked congregations in eastern North Carolina, makes a point to never take a call sitting down. With phone in hand, she strides through her neighborhood, walks laps around the church building or paces in the sanctuary until she hangs up. She logs more than 10,000 steps a day, largely just by moving in the course of getting her work done.

When it comes to food, the Collins gets invited to many lunches where she’s expected to dig into rich foods lovingly prepared by members of her congregations.

“Every time I’m in a new church, people look at me and say, ‘We’re gonna fatten you up!'” Collins said. “That’s one of the problems clergy face.”

She’s learned how to navigate the potluck terrain, though. If a dish is homemade, she’s glad to partake. By sampling the casseroles and pies, she enjoys a tasty treat here and there while reassuring her congregations that she is “one of them,” she said. But later in the day, she offsets earlier indulgences by having just a yogurt for dinner, for example, and/or going for a bike ride, which has the added benefit of boosting her mood.

“I work it off,” she said. She feels good knowing she wears the same size as she did in her 20s. And good health has given her longevity in ministry. She’s lasted 39 years in the pulpit and isn’t ready to retire.

Varney now makes eating well a part of essential ministry tasks. If he needs to meet with a lay leader, he often does it over a healthy breakfast or lunch. When time comes for sermon prep, he frequently goes out for lunch by himself at 1 or 2 p.m. when the crowds are gone. He brings study materials along.

Help From The Congregation

Congregations can encourage pastors’ health by recalibrating expectations and reinforcing healthy habits, according to Jeff Thiemann, president and CEO of Portico Benefits Services, which handles wellness programs for the ELCA. Pastors can cultivate these congregational traits by stoking the collective imagination and responding well when parishioners try something new.

Don’t tempt a pastor’s weaknesses, Thiemann says, by inviting him or her to meet and talk over donuts. Instead, bless the pastor by suggesting a walk outdoors together to discuss the topic at hand. Pastors who plant such ideas or respond enthusiastically to such invitations can nurture their own good health in the process.

Still, ingrained church habits need not be entirely disavowed, even if they’ve had an unhealthy effect on pastors in the past. Such dynamics might just need to be redirected toward healthier ends. That’s possible even in the many congregations whose elders take pride in doting on the pastor by preparing his or her favorite dish or dessert for the church potluck meal.

“If the pastor just told the one the person who’s getting the news out that, ‘I’m really committed to eating healthy, so I’m going to be looking for healthy vegetable dishes at the potluck,'” Thiemann said, “then it would almost be like a healthy competition to provide the pastor with the healthiest stuff.”

Congregations can help the pastor be physically healthier by sharing the workload. Pastors feel stressed by the fact that they can’t please all their “bosses” in the pews, Proeschold-Bell said. The strain mounts when congregants lean on them to be involved in virtually everything at the church. Taking a few responsibilities off the pastor’s plate can help free the mind, as well as slots on the weekly calendar for healthy habits that pay dividends.

It’s a lesson Michael Kurtz learned the hard way. Now senior pastor of Oak Ridge United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, North Carolina, Kurtz used to serve in smaller churches where he played noontime basketball for years and sustained a jogging regimen. But he took it upon himself to lead just about everything from Bible study to every committee meeting.

“I didn’t avail myself of the ministry of the laity and the priesthood of all believers to engage people and trust in people,” Kurtz said. “I was instead getting some kudos, I’m sure, consciously or unconsciously, saying, ‘you’re doing such a great job pastor.’ I was not sharing the ministry.”

When Kurtz moved to his current church, his hands-on leadership style became unsustainable in a congregation of 1,500, and his body made the message clear. Though he thought he was getting enough sleep, he was sleeping only lightly and not getting enough deep rest. He found himself tired by day, unable to focus at meetings, and irritable at home. He was suffering from sleep apnea, a condition that had him gasping for oxygen as he slept. The many things weighing on his mind, including a $5 million capital campaign, compounded the issue and made clear that he needed to share more of the load.

“I could mask it before,” Kurtz said, “but it caught up with me.”

Along with getting fitted for a mask that helps him breathe better at night, Kurtz made sure to delegate at the church and let others help lead activities. He now takes Thursdays off, swims three times a week, and reserves part of every day for non-work activities. If he has a night meeting, for instance, he takes either the morning or afternoon off that day.

Finding Rest

Healthy adjustments in the pastoral lifestyle need to be theologically sound and rooted in Scripture. Otherwise, experts in clergy behavior find, the adjustments don’t last. Thus the concepts of grace, Sabbath, and stewardship are beacons for pastors revisiting what faithfulness entails for someone entrusted to tend both a flock and a physical body.

Kurtz invokes the Jethro Principle from Exodus 18, where Jethro tells Moses he can’t do it all himself and needs to let other leaders play a role. Epperly turns to Mark 6, where Jesus and the disciples withdraw in a boat for a while before returning and having compassion on the crowd.

The notion of personal sacrifice, which has led many a pastor to subjugate care of the physical body to higher spiritual goals, isn’t apt to fade quickly or easily. But those urging a new pastoral lifestyle say it doesn’t have to disappear entirely. It can be redirected to support health via the idea of stewardship.

In recent decades, seminaries have promoted the idea of “self-care” as an important practice for clergy to cultivate as they reserve time for friends, hobbies, recreation, exercise, and rest. But the ELCA has stopped referring to “self-care” in its Portico wellness literature and programs because it wasn’t resonating with pastors’ self-understandings as servants in discipleship to Christ. The denomination is in effect rebranding self-care as “stewardship of the body.”

“Some people, when they hear the word ‘self-care,’ it sounds to them like selfish care,” Thiemann said. “Some people think about [ministry] as a sacrifice. They think, ‘I’ve chosen this as a sacrificial calling, and so I’m willing to live that out.’ And we’re trying to help people see that bigger picture: we need them to be healthy in order to be able to serve well.”

Those motivated by a sense of noble sacrifice can still find ways to do without for a higher purpose. They might get by with fewer sweets, as Kurtz has done to combat a pre-diabetic condition. Or they might invest some time on the treadmill.

One way or another, those who feel self-denial is fitting for a pastor are finding they can do so in ways that ultimately build up, rather than tear down, the body God has given them. And that can be life-giving for more than the pastor.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” Thiemann says. “Folks in the congregation that may be sensing a call to go into ministry will see that joy and that sense of fulfillment. And it will draw new people into it with eager hearts.”‘

G. Jeffrey Macdonald is a journalist and ordained United Church of Christ minister living in the Boston area.