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.