5 ways to improve clergy health

6/9/2011

3:00 P.M. EST June 8, 2011

United Methodist Bishop James Swanson walks with his wife, Delphine. Swanson lost 30 pounds after he began walking at least three times a week and made other lifestyle changes to improve his health. A UMNS file photo by JaNaé Swanson.
United Methodist Bishop James Swanson walks with his wife, Delphine. Swanson lost 30 pounds after he began walking at least three times a week and made other lifestyle changes to improve his health. A UMNS file photo by JaNaé Swanson.
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Many United Methodist pastors are on a quicker road to heaven than they should be.

Compared to other professionals in the United States, United Methodist clergy are more likely to suffer from obesity and its related chronic medical conditions. Members of the Church System Task Force are concerned that such health problems are taking a toll on the mission of the church and leading some pastors to an early grave.

United Methodist leaders have long realized that to increase the number of vital congregations, the denomination will need clergy in vibrant health.

They also have discovered that promoting health on a large scale requires more than just urging pastors to cut back at church potlucks and exercise more. The root of many medical problems is too much stress.

Clergy members need better preparation as ministerial students and the support and time in their professional lives to take care of themselves, the Church Systems Task Force concluded.

Barbara Boigegrain, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, said she and other task force members noticed that sometimes there are gaps in the systems. “When clergy get caught in those gaps, they can become very stressed,” she said. “That can ultimately lead to illness all the way down to disability.”

After three years of research, discussion and prayer, the 21-member task force has released its final report on ways to help pastors lead healthier lives, be more effective pastors and enjoy more abundant life.

The task force’s recommendations are:

  • More help for those entering licensed or ordained ministry: Stronger screening of candidates for ministry, standardization and strengthening of the residency program during the provisional period, and providing a provision for a career‐long mentor, apart from the district superintendent.
  • Guidelines for healthy work/life balance: Champion and monitor clergy health and wellness, promoting annual (regional) conference resources, and providing support to clergy, spouses and families.
  • Changes to itinerancy and appointment making: Use longer-tenure appointments to mitigate the stress on clergy and, by extension, stress on the connection; encourage use of interim appointments.
  • A redefinition of district superintendent’s role: Prioritize the district superintendent’s supervisory role as someone who proactively coaches, provides feedback and embodies and intentionally monitors clergy wellness.
  • Help for those exiting ordained ministry: Providing career counseling, temporary health coverage and assistance with final moving expenses for clergy who no longer feel God’s call to ordained ministry to make “a grace-filled exit.”

“The Wesleyan way inextricably links the health of clergy with the health and strength of the churches they lead,” said Mississippi Area Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, the task force’s chair. “This was done in the hope of addressing aspects of our life together that adversely affect clergy health.”

A constant struggle

About 25 years ago, clergy members were among the healthiest professionals in the United States. That is no longer true today.


For example, a study published last year in the journal of the Obesity Society found that the obesity rate among United Methodist clergy ages 35 to 64 in North Carolina is close to 40 percent — 10 percent higher than other state residents.

The trend of widening waistlines and growing doctor’s bills has an impact on the denomination’s finances. Its health plan is about 16 percent more expensive than the benefits for the same-aged group of non-clergy, Boigegrain said.

Task force members do not know exactly why clergy health has declined in recent decades. Boigegrain speculates one cause might be that pastors do not enjoy the status in U.S. culture they once enjoyed. A clerical collar no longer guarantees respect. Pastors’ Sunday sermons now compete for attention with Sunday brunch schedules.

Based on a survey of 1,006 clergy, the task force identified several factors that correlated to clergy health. They include: work/life balance, family pressures, financial stresses, worries about itinerancy and relocation, the spiritual challenges of living authentically and relationships with congregation and clergy colleagues and supervisors.

In many ways, stress is part of the job description.

Clergy must continuously share in the emotional peaks and valleys of people, Boigegrain pointed out. One moment, a pastor joins in the excitement of a couple preparing for marriage. The next, that pastor grieves with a family at a funeral.

The work also can be isolating. The Rev. Ed Tomlinson, a task force member and district superintendent in the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, recalls that his early years in ministry were “fairly lonely.”

“I was in a small church and isolated from friends and with people chiefly older than myself,” he said. “To have someone with whom I could identify to discuss ministry and the balance of church and family would have been cool water to a thirsty pastor.”

He hopes the task force’s recommendation for a lifelong mentoring process will recharge pastors, give clergy a place to reflect and offer the needed support.

Better boundaries

The task force also hopes its recommendations will help clergy establish healthy boundaries with their congregations and wider community.

The Church Systems Task Force Report has proposed ideas to mitigate the stress on clergy and, by extension, stress on the connection. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.
The Church Systems Task Force Report has proposed ideas
to mitigate the stress on clergy and, by extension, stress on
the connection. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.
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Sometimes, local churches are reluctant to let pastors take time off. And, pastors often are too eager to sacrifice their time and take on the extra load, said the Rev. Randy Cross, a task force member and executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“As Christians. Jesus calls us to carry the cross,” he said, “but we don’t need to constantly be looking for more crosses to bear.”

The Rev. Paul Dinges, pastor of Abingdon (Ill.) United Methodist Church, knows getting healthier strengthened his ministry.

In the years since he entered pastoral ministry, his weight had crept up steadily to 205 pounds. Then his doctor told him to lose weight or risk chronic medical issues. He started walking five miles each day and cutting back his portions at church potlucks. In a year, he shed 50 pounds, and, in the process, gained a powerful testimony.

“It’s not just about spiritual health. We also have to take care of our physical health because we are God’s temple and the Spirit resides in us,” he said. “I am now not only able to proclaim that message as I had before, but also to live it out.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.