Archives For Clergy Health

country-ham-sl-258077-lAt my first church I was introduced for the first time to Virginia Country Ham where it was both ubiquitous as a main course and utilitarian as an ingredient in other courses.

Not having had country ham before, the Italian in me located it somewhere near proscuitto, pancetta and guanciale only not as good.

Crackling, to which I was also introduced at this church, is another delicious story.

I left that church with nothing but love in my heart for the people there. Well, actually I left that church with a good bit of cholesterol in my heart too. And sodium in my veins.

My congregants’ words testified to their love for me; their culinary actions however betrayed nothing short of murderous intent. Like a porcine adaptation of Kathy Bates from MiseryMisery05

My country ham experience may be but one instance of a larger, pastorcidal trend, for, according to a new study of United Methodist Clergy Health, pastors are significantly less healthy than the general population.

This isn’t really a surprise. At Annual Conference, my denomination’s yearly gathering of clergy, one instantly notices not just the sea of white hair but the girth of God’s apostles.

According to the same study of Clergy Health, over 1/4 of Methodist pastors exhibit depressive-like tendencies.

john-wesley-1 Again, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to any one who knows Christian history.

John Wesley was OCD anal to put it lightly.

Martin Luther was plagued by a guilty conscience heavier than his substantial punching weight.

Jean Calvin was haunted by the death of his mother and his wife.

St Augustine had mommy issues that would make Freud blush.

Here’s a sampling of some of the stats:

2013 Key Findings:

  • 40% of respondents are obese and 39% are overweight—much higher percentages than a demographically-matched sample of U.S. adults
  • Nearly 51% have high cholesterol, also much higher than comparable benchmarks
  • 5% suffer from depression
  • 26% of all clergy have at least some functional difficulty from depressive symptoms
  • UMC clergy have high rates of borderline hypertension, borderline diabetes and asthma
  • Hostility of the church environment was cited by 47% who experienced at least one intrusive demand(not consulted about ministry decision; devotion to ministry questioned; doubts about pastor’s faith).

*It gets even worse-

I remember from a counseling class at Princeton that male mainline pastors tend to have significantly low (like barely not women) levels of testosterone.

As in all things, I am an exception.

I wonder if something more nefarious lurks behind the stats than country ham and covered dish congregations. I wonder if there’s something more depressing behind the mental health stats than the personalities church work has historically attracted.

I wonder if the main culprit- or an accessory to the crime- is the completely ridiculous and unfocused job description the United Methodist Church hands down to pastors. I wonder if obscuring the Reformation mandate for the priesthood of all believers leads to priestly obesity?

Take a look at this job description from the Book of Discipline and then tell me if you’re not tempted to scratch your head and reach for the Cheetos. But before you do…snark aside, this is a serious issue for pastors and churches. Obesity and the entire processed food industry threaten this country in real ways and we’re called, as Christians, to live as an alternative. A critique.

¶ 340. The responsibilities of elders and licensed pastors are derived from the authority given in ordination. Elders have a four-fold ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order and Service within the connection and thus serve in the church and the world. Local pastors share with the elders the responsibilities and duties of a pastor for this four-fold ministry.

1. Word and ecclesial acts:

a) To preach the Word of God, lead in worship, read and teach the Scriptures, and engage the people in study and witness.24

(1) To ensure faithful transmission of the Christian faith.
(2) To lead people in discipleship and evangelistic outreach that others might come to know Christ and to follow him.

b) To counsel persons with personal, ethical, or spiritual struggles.

c) To perform the ecclesial acts of marriage and burial.

(1) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.
(2) To conduct funeral and memorial services and provide care and grief counseling.

d) To visit in the homes of the church and the community, especially among the sick, aged, imprisoned, and others in need.

e) To maintain all confidences inviolate, including confessional confidences except in the cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, or in cases where mandatory reporting is required by civil law.

2. Sacrament:
a) To administer the sacraments of baptism and the Supper of the Lord according to Christ’s ordinance.

(1) To prepare the parents and sponsors before baptizing infants or children, and instruct them concerning the significance of baptism and their responsibilities for the Christian training of the baptized child.
(2) To encourage reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and renewal of baptismal vows at different stages of life.
(3) To encourage people baptized in infancy or early childhood to make their profession of faith, after instruction, so that they might become professing members of the church.
(4) To explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and to encourage regular participation as a means of grace to grow in faith and holiness.
(5) To select and train deacons and lay members to serve the consecrated communion elements.
b) To encourage the private and congregational use of the other means of grace.

3. Order:
a) To be the administrative officer of the local church and to assure that the organizational concerns of the congregation are adequately provided for.

(1) To give pastoral support, guidance, and training to the lay leadership, equipping them to fulfill the ministry to which they are called.
(2) To give oversight to the educational program of the church and encourage the use of United Methodist literature and media.
(3) To be responsible for organizational faithfulness, goal setting, planning and evaluation.
(4) To search out and counsel men and women for the ministry of deacons, elders, local pastors and other church related ministries.

b) To administer the temporal affairs of the church in their appointment, the annual conference, and the general church.

(1) To administer the provisions of the Discipline.
(2) To give an account of their pastoral ministries to the charge and annual conference according to the prescribed forms.
(3) To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation.
(4) To promote faithful, financial stewardship and to encourage giving as a spiritual discipline.
(5) To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds.
(6) To care for all church records and local church financial obligations, and certify the accuracy of all financial, membership, and any other reports submitted by the local church to the annual conference for use in apportioning costs back to the church.

c) To participate in denominational and conference programs and training opportunities.

(1) To seek out opportunities for cooperative ministries with other United Methodist pastors and churches.
(2) To be willing to assume supervisory responsibilities within the connection.

d) To lead the congregation in racial and ethnic inclusiveness.

4. Service:

a) To embody the teachings of Jesus in servant ministries and servant leadership.
b) To give diligent pastoral leadership in ordering the life of the congregation for discipleship in the world.
c) To build the body of Christ as a caring and giving community, extending the ministry of Christ to the world.
d) To participate in community, ecumenical and inter-religious concerns and to encourage the people to become so involved and to pray and labor for the unity of the Christian community.


Okay, so the title is a tad too confrontational, but if it’s not then you won’t actually open the post and read it.

It’s no secret that there’s a ‘crisis in clergy health’ as Amy Frykholm writes in a Christian Century piece, Fit for Ministry.

I’ve seen the statistics, showing the pastors’ health is right up there- or right down there- with professions like prison guards. Clergy ‘self care’ has been a denominational mantra at least since I entered the ordination process, and because clergy’s poor health impacts local churches, in that they must kick in more money for their pastors’ insurance, it seems an appropriate issue for denominational folks to tackle.

But here’s my beef. Amy Frykholm writes:

Being a pastor is bad for your health. Pastors have little time for exercise. They often eat meals in the car or at potluck dinners not known for their fresh green salads. The demands on their time are unpredictable and never ending, and their days involve an enormous amount of emotional investment and energy. Family time is intruded upon. When a pastor announces a vacation, the congregation frowns. Pastors tend to move too frequently to maintain relationships with doctors who might hold them accountable for their health. The profession discourages them from making close friends. All of this translates, studies show, into clergy having higher than normal rates of obesity, arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.

There is this mythology among clergy, at least in United Methodism, that being a pastor is somehow the most demanding job in the world, a vocation that leaves pastors with little time for friends, family, recreation or exercise.

Pastors have bad health because they’re always running from meeting to meeting or from hospital to hospital, the mythology goes. Congregations only begrudgingly let their pastors take vacations. Church potlucks serve up bad food. Pastors can’t be friends with their parishioners and so on.

Not only is this mythology just that, false (and it’s oblivious to just how difficult other people’s vocations are too); it also points to a larger issue of which clergy health is only a symptom.

It’s true ministry is a unique vocation with peculiar demands on a pastor’s time, choices and family but it’s not one that demands a poor quality of life. Pastor’s schedules are flexible- that’s one of the aspects I love about it.

By and large we control our time and that means we can control it badly too.

I remember as a chaplain at UVA Hospital, seeing pastor after pastor sitting all day with families from their church when the situation was not critical. I’m sure those gestures were appreciated. Were they a good use of those pastors’ professional and personal time? Not at all.

I’ve served as the solo pastor of a small, under 50 folks on Sunday, church in Jersey, as the pastor of a church that had 120 on Sunday and for the last 7 years as the associate pastor of a large church. I work hard, do a good job and am appreciated by most in my congregation.

Of course there’s always the chaotic week but I’ve never not had time to cook a good meal at night, spend time with my kids and get in my daily jog. I’ve made friends, which I’ve continued to keep, in each place I’ve served (what kind of Christian witness do we offer as pastors if friendship is ruled out automatically as a component?).

And it’s not that I’m not busy. I’m busier now than I was in my previous two churches. We have 4 worship services every weekend. We have 120 kids in confirmation and Tribe Time, a 4th-5th grade youth program. We performed like 30 funerals this past year, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.

And here’s where it gets confusing for me.

The average United Methodist Church in the nation has less than 150 people on Sunday morning. That’s roughly the size of our youth group here at church. That’s not an enormous amount of people to lead. 

That pastors’ health suffer because of the demands of leading that many people, I think, says a whole lot about the bad habits and bad expectations of churches and pastors who’ve been taught not to upset them.

If our youth director told me his health, eating habits, friendships and marriage were all suffering because of the time he was expected to spend with the youth, I’d say he was spending too much time with those youth. I’d say they either had unreasonable expectations on his time or he had an unhealthy need to be needed and present in every moment of their lives. I’d say it sounded like he had a codependent relationship with the youth. I’d say that by doing so many things with the youth- by making every thing important- nothing was important, making it impossible for him to lead them anywhere new.

Have you ever taken a look at the job description for United Methodist clergy? It’s ridiculous. It’s longer than my sermon on Sunday. By making everything important, the United Methodist Book of Discipline effectively makes nothing important. Churches have suffered because of it and now, it seems, so has pastors’ health.

It’s great that denominational folks are taking measures to improve clergy health, but I’m skeptical they’ll help apart from those same denominational folks taking steps to create healthier expectations in congregations and empowering pastors to lead.