Reflections on the “Clergy Health Crises”  

I believe it was the ancient theologian Irenaeus who said “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Part of that celebrated state, it seems right to assume, would be satisfaction with one’s work. If that’s true then pastors are (reportedly) well-positioned to bring God buckets full of the good stuff. Apparently pastors are more satisfied with their work then just about anyone else. One survey from the US found that more than 87% of pastors were very satisfied with their work. That’s 20% better than painters and sculptors and a bit better than physical therapists and firefighters. However, knowing pastors as I do, it’s a number that I find hard to believe. It turns out that the survey didn’t actually include very many pastors—just 68. What seems more realistic is the finding of another study that suggests clergy are experiencing depression at a rate 3% higher than the general population. The disparity is even higher among men. Many pastors do find ministry to be deeply satisfying, yet even they find it to be full of anguish as well.

Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell (a researcher professor in public health) and Jason Byassee (a professor of homiletics) claim that there is a crises in clergy health. A study from North Carolina found that clergy experience angina, diabetes, asthma, joint disease and obesity more commonly than does the general population. More specifically, Proeschold-Bell says that there is a “major problem” with depression among clergy. Pastors suffering in this way report feeling overwhelmed by their work and guilty for not doing enough. These pastors feel like the demands of ministry often outweigh the rewards. Proeschold-Bell and Byassee grapple with these findings in the recent book Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crises. Their work aligns with a new report from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. That report found that 1 in 3 pastors experience burnout at some point in their careers, which is surprisingly more common than among non-profit leaders (1 in 5).

It’s possible, of course, that people who are predisposed to poor physical or mental health are more likely than others to become pastors. Perhaps this is why it is common in pastoral circles to say that we “minister out of our own pain.” Maybe, but the adage attributed to Richard Rohr is an important corollary: pain that is not transformed is transmitted. One does not become a better pastor by stagnating in poor health.

What might such transformation look like? The report from the Seattle School suggests the need for clergy to develop resilience. (Am I the only one that finds this word under every rock these days?)  Pastors should develop resilience, the report says, by nurturing positive relationships, healthy spiritual practices and that all-too-elusive “sense of meaning.” Proeschold-Bell and Byassee point pastors in a similar direction. They note the importance of maintaining a sense of the big picture, that is, the meaning of ministry. They also observe the importance of pastors’ having relationships beyond the congregations they serve. Pastors are less likely than the general population to report that they “always or usually” receive the social and emotional support they need. This is strange because pastors know full well that social isolation is a problem. For some reason many of us are prone to being solitary ourselves.

What else can clergy do? They can get enough sleep, eat good food and exercise regularly. Pastors must also be proactive about stress. Stress is another one of those concepts that isn’t disposed to a clear definition, yet it is something we all experience. Pastors are advised to manage the expectations their congregations have of them. Pastors should learn to listen to the right people and to be deliberate about the way they analyze stressful circumstances. They should be cognizant of the interplay between their emotions and their mood.

That’s all good advice. By putting these kinds of things into practice, pastors will be better positioned to recommend such tactics to congregants.

What captures my attention about these studies, however, is the way they point to an opportunity pastors have to raise a prophetic critique about negative aspects of modern culture that they themselves are experiencing. Clergy once comprised one of the healthiest segments of the population. Now they do not. At the same time, modern medicine has done a wonderful job pushing back many forms of historic human suffering. Nevertheless, it seems that modern culture has heightened other forms of suffering. Have we too readily assumed that modern forms of suffering must remain endemic to our experience of being human? Given the fact that pastors now experience some of these forms of suffering at higher rates than the population at large, I hope that we will grow in our ability to name the roots of these widespread problems.


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