Study says clergy neglecting self-care
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
August 16, 2010

Study says clergy neglecting self-care

Study says clergy neglecting self-care
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
August 16, 2010

DURHAM — Many clergy

are caring for others but not taking adequate care of themselves, according to

a recent study by Duke University.

A survey of United Methodist

ministers in North Carolina found them significantly more obese than their

socio-economic peers in the general population. Ministers also suffered higher

rates for chronic diseases like high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes.

The lead author of the

study, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell of the Duke University Center for Health

Policy, said mortality rates for clergy are lower than their non-clergy peers

due to lower rates of sexually transmitted disease, accidents and suicide. She

said that creates a false impression that the restraint clergy exercise in other

areas of their life will carry over into things like diet and exercise.

Proeschold-Bell described “an

urgent need” for health interventions in the United Methodist Church and

possibly among other clergy to curb obesity and chronic disease.

“Churches and other

religious institutions have often been viewed as structures in which to enact

health interventions,” she wrote. “However, this study’s findings indicate that

it is critical to improve the health of clergy themselves.”

Proeschold-Bell said clergy

are also not immune from depression and anxiety. Because congregants put them

on a pedestal and assume they have strong enough spiritual resources to handle

it, however, many ministers are reluctant to admit feeling strain. She said

that only adds to feelings of stress and isolation.

Stresses unique to clergy

Clergy-related issues that

participants indicated as having the greatest impact on their health included

the ability to set boundaries, the perception that the minister is on call 24

hours a day, church health, itinerancy and financial strain.

Participants reported

feeling overwhelmed by pastoral needs from congregants and community members

and struggling to set boundaries in order to protect their time for self-care

practices like exercise and family time.

Barriers to protecting their

personal time included the ministers’ “own servant orientation” and

expectations by the congregation that they be constantly available. Several

noted that the expectation of constant availability made it particularly difficult

to take vacations.

Other barriers included the

tendency of pastors “to put everyone else’s needs before their own and to have

unrealistically high expectations for themselves.”

Participants also said

unhealthy church dynamics had a large effect on their health. Several common

church situations — such as a small number of congregants opposing even small

changes suggested by the pastor, feuding cliques of church members that

polarize issues along group lines and one or more congregants who use intimidation

or abusive tactics to oppose the pastor — all had significant impact on clergy


Researchers said one

strength of the study, the first of its kind to compare the health of ministers

with people of similar demographics in the general population, was the sample.

All currently serving United Methodist clergy in North Carolina were offered

participation, and 95 percent completed the survey.

They cautioned, however,

that some of the findings related to Methodist clergy might not translate into

other denominations. Instead of being “called” or hired by a local church,

Methodist ministers are appointed by the bishop of their annual conference. In

a given year, about 25 percent of ministers will be reassigned.

Ministers said the itinerant

system forces ministers to re-establish their authority as a pastor, creates

financial strain and takes a toll on spouses and children.

While there is discussion

about ineffective clergy, one leader said, there needs to be more attention

given to the problem of sending ministers into “toxic” churches.

While local churches

determine their pastor’s compensation, the annual conference typically appoints

pastors within salary scales. Those on the lower end of the scale earn about

$34,000 a year. They have a hard time affording resources like healthy food and

membership in an exercise facility, especially for pastors trying to raise a


The Sabbath

Several participants

discussed the importance of taking a Sabbath or spiritual retreat. Some

mentioned “religious coping” with stress, such as one minister who reported

realizing he was working too hard and “just putting my trust in the Lord and

really believing that it’s his ministry, not mine.”

One “interesting but not

surprising” finding was that participants repeatedly included spiritual

well-being in their definition of good health.

Researchers said the

findings confirmed earlier studies related to pastoral stress, but there were

some surprises.

One was that when

congregations commented and directly supported self-care practices, the

minister felt more apt to engage in self-care.

“Although we often think of

leadership as flowing from pastors to the laity, this finding indicates that

leadership can also go the other direction, particularly when pastors feel like

they need permission to stop serving others and care for themselves,” they


Clergy participants also

reported that congregations have a shallow understanding of pastors’ roles,

sometimes perceiving that pastors only preach and make rounds with ill members.

Church members who perceive pastors as having substantial free time are likely

to have unrealistically high expectations for their ministers.

Participants also said they

have less help from volunteers than in the past, and church members look to

them as paid professionals responsible for any undone task.

Researchers said peer

support is one way for ministers to learn ways of handling the unique demands

and stresses of their profession. It is more likely to be effective if it

occurs in a way that allows pastors to make themselves vulnerable to each other

and ensures confidentiality, especially with pastors who hope to later move to

a larger church.