A holistic approach to wellness
Pastors work in a complex relationship network. New research shows that efforts to improve clergy health must go beyond eating well and exercise to account for the influence of congregations and denominational polity.
Pastors work within a complex web of relationships -- peer, family, congregation and denomination among them -- with sometimes-conflicting demands that have repercussions for pastors’ vocation and health. In that web, new research shows, the influence of congregations and the denominational polity is so strong that pastors’ efforts to be healthy are likely to be enhanced -- or thwarted -- by the institutions in which they serve.
This analysis of conversations with 88 United Methodist pastors and district superintendents, published in April in the Journal of Religion and Health, is the first to examine how to tailor health interventions to clergy. The findings make clear that programs to improve clergy health will succeed only if they address the multiple conditions that contribute to health, especially conditions created by congregations and denominational polities.
Concern for the health and wellness of Christian pastors, especially in mainline denominations, has been rising for a number of years. The problem has not been obvious to lay members in the pews, but it has not escaped notice of denominational leaders and researchers. Several church bodies began pastoral wellness programs in the 1980s and 1990s, but later studies showed these programs had not solved the problem.
A 2001 Pulpit & Pew research project revealed strikingly high rates of obesity in a nationwide survey of parish pastors. Dr. Gwen Halaas’s 2002 study of ministerial wellness in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America described significant levels of stress, depression, and lifestyle-related physical ailments in ELCA pastors who, in her words, faced greater demands and less support than their predecessors. The Church Benefits Association’s 2006 study of clergy in 10 Protestant denominations showed that clergy report more job demands, criticism and stress from criticism than do laity. All of these factors contribute to rising health care costs, challenges retaining clergy, and decreased passion and effectiveness among the clergy who remain.
The Duke Clergy Health Initiative, funded by the Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment, conducted a series of focus groups across North Carolina, with eight focus groups involving congregational pastors and three involving district superintendents. In all, 88 pastors and leaders participated and revealed several dozen factors that influence clergy health, which are listed here. This list offers a new and hopeful picture that lasting wellness can be achieved among clergy in the U.S.
‘An impossible task’
Pastors, who define health comprehensively as a physical, mental and spiritual phenomenon, were highly attuned to the responsibility they have for their own health, and were quick to note in the focus groups their own shortcomings in such behaviors as regular exercise and healthful eating. However, they also indicated that congregant expectations that pastors be available 24/7 contribute to the challenge of being healthy.
“I think some of it’s the moral imperative between the secular world and the church world,” one pastor reported. “In the church, if I block off my schedule that I’m going to exercise or I’m going to do this or this for me, even down to diet, when you’re eating in people’s homes and that sort of thing …When you block this off, it’s almost like you’re being selfish and that’s bad.”
Pastors also said that many of their congregants do not understand the breadth and depth of their vocation. One pastor said congregants “are aware we work one hour on Sunday, and they don’t realize [we work] the whole rest of the week. There’s no such thing as a 40-hour week.” Another pastor pointed out that “every person sitting in the pew has a separate job description for our job, and when you put it all together, it’s an impossible task.”
Pastors reported that some churches create stress for the pastor due to congregational conflict and unhealthy church dynamics. Pastors said situations in which one or more congregants use intimidation or abusive tactics to oppose the pastor are particularly harmful.
In contrast, participants also noted that support from churches can benefit their health: “It does depend upon whether the parish you’re serving is healthy or not,” one pastor said. “There are those that have healthy practices that have a tradition of being supportive of the pastor.”