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.
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
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
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.