By Susan Cooper, Special Contributor…
WICHITA, Kan.—Pastors are putting their lives at risk.
They are constantly confronted with fat-laden food and sumptuous sweets prepared and served by the devoted and loving hands of their church members. They are expected to answer calls for advice, comfort and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are held accountable for every facet of the lives of their churches. Pastors also carry the pressure and uncertainty of the United Methodist appointment process.
All of these things can add up to health risks, high stress levels and early death for clergy.
“We neglect ourselves, and we say, ‘Isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it good that I’m burnt out and exhausted? That must mean I’m doing my job well,” said the Rev. Tom Mattick at the recent Clergy Wellness Retreat in Wichita.
Mr. Mattick is a member of the Desert Southwest Conference and a clergy-wellness consultant.
He said the congregation also plays a part in the well-being of the pastor. Members may place unrealistic expectations and high demands for time upon clergy.
Burned-out pastors can create other problems. They may be in danger of leaving the ministry. Mr. Mattick said a recent survey showed that more than 50 percent of ordained clergy indicated they would leave if they felt they could.
According to Mr. Mattick, 75 percent of pastors who left ordained ministry have reported that their spiritual life wasn’t what they wanted it to be, and only 11 percent felt they could maintain separation between spiritual life and personal life.
This year the United Methodist General Board of Pension and Health Benefits’ Center for Health, in conjunction with Duke University and the Virginia Conference wellness ministries, conducted the Clergy Health Survey.
The survey revealed that clergy, compared with an age-matched sample of adults in the general population, have higher rates of chronic physical- and emotional-health conditions. Obesity, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, pre-hypertension and functional symptoms of depression are significantly higher among clergy.
Other survey results for clergy showed:
• 41 percent are obese, and another 37 percent are overweight
• 54 percent have high cholesterol
• 6 percent suffer from depression, and 28 percent have at least some functional difficulty from depressive symptoms
• Men are more at risk when it comes to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and loss of spiritual vitality
• Women are more at risk when it comes to joint and muscle diseases and more likely to experience occupational stress
• Women clergy exercise less and take fewer vacation days than their male counterparts
• Full-time clergy are more at risk on spiritual health measures and occupational stress
• Part-time local pastors report the lowest levels of stress, hostility and dysfunction in their ministry and occupational settings
Compared to a matched sample, the survey results for United Methodist clergy also revealed higher rates of borderline hypertension and diabetes, and asthma.
Mr. Mattick said another dynamic is that pastors often are in denial about their own wellness.
“They just do not see it as a priority. They don’t perceive it as broken. Wellness isn’t a high priority as long I’m still functioning, as long as I can still work,” he said.
Pastors may view self-care as just one more thing they have to do.
“I’m busy; I’m already stressed out; I am already stretched. This is my breaking point,” Mr. Mattick said.
“Let’s suppose you broke your arm. Would you seek out a doctor? Would you go through physical therapy? Of course. Your spirit, depression—they’re just as important as a broken bone. Why do you think it’s not important to take time for your health?”
In contrast, Mr. Mattick said Jesus took the time for self-care. He gave the example of Jesus withdrawing from his followers after feeding the 5,000 in Matthew 22-23.
“He took time apart to care for himself,” Mr. Mattick said.
The Kansas East and West conferences are trying to improve the health of pastors.
The Clergy Wellness Program was established in 2010 to educate pastors on practices that lead to better mental and physical health. The program is offered at no cost to participants and is funded through the Kansas Health Foundation and the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund.
Participants begin the program by attending a two-day retreat that includes consultations with a physician, nutritionist, physical therapist and wellness coach as well as spiritual and financial advisors. They then are given personal goals for wellness and receive continued support.
The Clergy Health Survey noted that improving diet is a key factor to better health. Reducing fat intake, eating smaller portions, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, eating more whole grains and drinking more water are easy ways to start.
The U.S. government website, www.ChooseMyPlate.gov, has a wealth of information and tools for eating healthier.
Mr. Mattick said being physically active on a regular basis can help increase the chances of living longer, improve self-esteem and decrease the risk of depression.
He recommended a combination of exercise practices:
• Two hours and 30 minutes each week of aerobic activity at a moderate level, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-level aerobic activity
• Strengthening activities like push-ups, sit-ups and lifting weights at least two days a week
• Bone-strengthening activities such as jumping or jogging
• Balance and stretching activities like yoga, dance or stretches
Congregations—and staff-parish committees, in particular—can encourage time off, better diet and other healthy practices to help prevent burn out for their pastors and themselves.
Ms. Cooper is associate director of marketing and communications for the UMC’s Kansas Area.