DURHAM, N.C. (ABP) -- Many clergy are caring for others but not taking adequate care of themselves, according to a recent study by Duke University.
A survey of Methodist ministers in North Carolina found them significantly more obese than their non-ministerial counterparts. 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 less venereal 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 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 are reluctant to admit feeling strain. She said that only adds to feelings of stress and isolation.
Conditions 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.
Participants reported feeling overwhelmed by pastoral needs from congregants and community members and struggling with setting boundaries in order 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. Situations like a small number of congregants opposing even small changes suggested by the pastor, two sets of 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 stress.
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 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 family.
Several participants 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 some surprises.
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 wrote.
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.