Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis

I don’t think of myself as part of a clergy health crisis.

Although my blood pressure usually tests high at the doctor’s office, the last time I checked myself it measured a healthy 116/70. I’m not on any regular medications. Where I live in Canada and through my church employer, I have both medical and dental insurance.

Yet I know that health can quickly take a turn for the worse, that sometimes serious disease can develop without our knowing what’s happening in our own bodies. I know of a number of pastors and others in ministry who have been on stress leave or needed to go on long-term disability. I know others south of the border who struggle with medical insurance issues, and even medical insurance where I live does not cover every treatment nor eliminate long waits to see a specialist.

That’s why I wanted to read Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee (Baker Academic, 2018). This book grew out of a project funded by The Duke Endowment to Duke Divinity School with a view “to understand and improve the holistic health of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina.” But this book is so much more than that. Although the study itself was sharply focused, the authors relate the research with these clergy to research from other denominations, and the results have much wider application to the health of clergy and others who work for the church.

Here’s why this book is one of my must-reads for this year:

1. From the opening quote, this book clearly understands life in ministry.

Although my denomination and the details of my day are different, I resonate with this comment from a pastor:

Twelve-hour workday. Three committee meetings. One breakfast meeting and one lunch meeting. Working with the Music Director to tweak the sound system in the Fellowship Hall for Sunday youth worship. Working with the Associate Pastor on Confirmation Sunday plans. At least three dozen emails and one dozen phone calls. Various conversations with folks about new members, revamped websites, capital campaigns, session retreats, NEXT Church, Sunday school classes and one member who asked how my family is adjusting to the move. Honestly, I get to do this for a living. How awesome is that? (page 1)

2. it understands the complexity of ministry with all of its promise and challenge.

It embraces a range of perspectives, from these words from Eugene Peterson:

I’ve loved being a pastor, almost every minute of it. It’s a difficult life because it’s a demanding life. But the rewards are enormous–the rewards of being on the front line of seeing the gospel worked out in people’s lives. I  remain convinced that if you are called to it, being a pastor is the best life there is. (page 19)

to this one attributed to Stanley Hauerwas:

We went into ministry to change lives and society, and we end up being nibbled to death by ducks. (page 8)

3. it’s based on solid research.

The authors include many quotes from pastors, plus graphs illustrating survey results for those interested in that level of detail. For example, clergy were asked “How much of your time do you think church members expect you to make available to them?” and their answers reflected these results:

Less than 40 hours a week – 2.0%

About 40 hours a week – 14.1%

Between 40 and 50 hours a week – 40.4%

Most of my time, including significant time beyond a 40+ hour work week, although a day off per week is generally acceptable – 37.1%

Nearly all of my time with a day off not really feeling acceptable – 2.8%

All of my time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – 3.6% (page 4)

4. it offers a rich interplay between the voice of a researcher (Proeschold-Bell) and the voice of a theologian and former pastor (Byassee).

One voice amplifies another–adding an anecdote, a question, interacting with the material. As a researcher, Proeschold-Bell says:

Ten years ago, when I first started studying the health of clergy, I expected pastors to have better physical health than the average American. . . . [but in this study she discovered] Across the board, clergy experience worse chronic disease than North Carolinians from similar demographic groups. . . . diabetes . . . obesity . . . angina . . . asthma . . . joint disease . . . depression. (pages 79ff)

Byassee describes his contribution this way:

As a theologian, I will try to flesh out some concepts theologically, like “call” and “control” and “work.” I will also bring to bear my experience as a pastor who has participated in surveys and studies like these alongside my peers. Rae Jean collects the data and interprets it. I offer some theological and pastoral shading along the way. (page xx)

5. I appreciate the wealth of good health ideas for clergy and others in ministry.

Ideas abound for clergy and others in ministry, for parishioners, personnel committees, lay leaders, for those in supervisory capacities. An appendix is also included with “Recommendations for Clergy Health Programs.” Pastors who are flourishing give some very specific advice like this one that made me smile:

You don’t have to eat it. You don’t have to sample every food item in the potluck line, even if it was made out of love. Try one parishioner’s dessert this time, another next time–don’t worry, you’ll get around to everyone, one at a time! (page 142)

And I’m encouraged by Byassee’s comment:

It doesn’t surprise me at all that Rae Jean’s flourishers are people with strong boundaries. They know how to work hard and how to play hard. They have relational support that goes beyond small talk. They pray and rest and play. In other words, they’re fully human. . . .

Ultimately, we pastors have to figure out how to work as though the result depends entirely on us. At the same time, we should work as if none of it depends on us. Because none of it does. This is God’s world. God will finally save it all–down to every last particle of creation. God made the world in the first place and is currently redeeming it in Christ. (pages 143-44)

If you’re concerned about clergy health, if you’re interested in working on your health as a person in ministry, I highly recommend this book.

Thank you to Baker Academic for providing me with a review copy. As always, the choice to review and the opinions expressed are my own.

Thank you for reading, and please consider subscribing

if you’re not already on my email list.

Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Four Gifts, Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on spiritual growth and Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

2 thoughts on “Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis

  1. April, a topic I’ve never even thought of as critical. And why shouldn’t I? Every occupational choice has its own hazards and difficulties. Why not the clergy? Thanks for an excellent review of what should be a life changer for some members of the clergy.

    • Thanks, Sherrey – I had never thought about a clergy health crisis, but it’s sobering that in this study clergy had higher rates of diabetes, angina, and other chronic diseases compared to the general population in their area. This book has made me think about developing a wellness plan of my own.

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