(Previously published in the online magazine Emphasis)
There is some disturbing evidence from several studies that the health of the clergy is in serious decline as they seek to faithfully minister to their congregations.
Presbyterians Today reported in March 2009 a startling study of the changing weight of pastors. In the previous 17 years, the average weight of pastors had increased 11 pounds, from 181 pounds in 1991 to 192 pounds in 2008. The share of pastors who were obese had doubled from 14 percent to 27 percent in that time period. This increase, according to the study, occurred for both male and female pastors, and younger and older pastors. This is not the type of equality that we are seeking.
Duke Divinity School has conducted a large study of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. It discovered alarmingly high obesity rates, along with high arthritis, asthma, hypertension and cardiovascular disease rates, when comparing with data from the same questions among other North Carolinians.
There is evidence that this tendency toward obesity affects people’s mental health. The depression rates among male pastors is double that of males nationwide.
It is reasonable to assume that the physical and mental health of our pastors also affects their spiritual health and their capacity to engage in effective ministry. Perhaps congregations need to reflect on how they can love the pastor who is pouring out his or her life on their behalf.
How does a congregation support the physical health of its pastor?
Let’s say that you recognize your pastor is gaining too much weight. How do you raise the question of your concern without feeling you are invading his or her personal space?
I want to suggest one approach that any congregation can take. It would be to broaden the conversation so that it includes not only the pastor but others as well. Recognizing that the lay members of a church’s governing board are also part of the spiritual leadership of the congregation, one begins by having a health conversation with the whole board.
Set aside some time on the agenda to reflect on the health challenges facing the congregation as a whole. Beginning broadly lessens the threat of such a conversation. Pose the question, What factors in our lives threaten good health? Begin by asking all the individuals to talk about the general challenges facing members regarding the health within the congregation. Make a list as each factor is identified. For example, people are overweight, some don’t exercise enough, they don’t get enough sleep, they drink too much, etc. The conversation alone raises the consciousness of the subject.
Next, reflect on the faith issues that speak to the care of our bodies. Explore the connection between our religious journey and our health journey. What is it in our faith that speaks to the care of our bodies? Develop a brief liturgical confession with respect to the connection between physical health and faithfulness. There are several ways this can be used later in the process.
Then pass out some blank 4-by-6 cards. Tell all the members (including pastors and other staff present) that you are going to have a time of silent prayer in which each is asked to reflect on and identify a specific action that they think if done regularly would contribute to improvement of their personal health. At the end of the prayer time, they are to write down on both halves of the card the action they identified, without placing their names on the cards. They then tear the card in half, keeping one half and turning the other in.
The cards are compiled into a list to be shared at the next meeting. Each commitment may be assigned a number to preserve anonymity. At that next meeting, each member is asked to enter the number from the list that identifies their commitment to action on the card. Then, using a scale of 1–10 with 10 representing complete success, they rate how they have done on that task over the past month. For example, I may have committed to action number 3 — that I will walk each day — and I only achieved a 5 because I only walked half the days. A graph can then be created representing the entire session and showing how many reached each number of success. This would be a good time to invite members to share in the confession developed earlier.
Each month, at their regular meeting for a year, the same procedure is followed and a graph of success in each area is recorded. After each time of sharing, there is a time of prayer in which the person rededicates him or herself to practicing their designated action for the year. Again the confession can be said in unison.
What you are doing is developing a communal effort addressing the physical health of our journey of faith. You are also developing a form of accountability without undue personal exposure. Knowing most church boards, the monthly agenda item will become a fun but valuable experience with a fair amount of kidding even as they develop a stronger commitment.
With respect to your pastor, you are accomplishing several things. First, you are making visible the connection between the physical issue and the spiritual concerns. It may strengthen everyone’s participation to ask the pastor to develop some sermons around physical health and spirituality. A good place to begin might be Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in our body.”
Second, you are creating a support mechanism that encourages attention to health. Many pastors neglect their health because they are so busy trying to meet the demands of the ministry. By having the health conversation, you are encouraging him or her to pay attention to health as part of the ministry. They can experience how taking care of their own bodies also contributes to taking care of their parishioners’ health.
Third, you are living out the truth that the Body of Christ is a community in ministry. It is not just the pastor but the whole congregation that is on a spiritual journey. As Paul challenges us in Romans 12:10, you are loving “one another with mutual affection.” When you love the person who loves you, in this case the pastor, you will receive many blessings in return.
If you share what you are doing with the congregation and develop a way to engage them in the process as well, it will be well received. In fact, my guess is that when it becomes known that you are a church that emphasizes the connection between physical health and spiritual health, you will find that this is good news that attracts others as well.
STEPHEN MCCUTCHAN is a retired teaching elder and a member of Salem Presbytery.