By Bob Smietana
Being a pastor used to be good for you.
Pastors caught fewer diseases, had fewer accidents, and lived longer than most other people, says Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.
This went on for about 400 years, according to long-term demographic studies in Europe and the United States.
There was even a joke that pastors were the last people to get to heaven because they lived so long.
No more, says Proeschold-Bell.
Starting in the 1960s, clergy health went downhill. Pastors started gaining weight, adding stress, and suffering from diabetes, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
They may still live longer than other people—but that may not last long, says Proeschold-Bell, co-author of Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis.
“The physical health of clergy is pretty dire these days,” she says.
Her co-author, Jayson Byassee, a former pastor and now professor of homiletics at the Vancouver School of Theology, agrees.
“I’ve been going around saying that clergy are in worse health than the average American—which is hard to do because the average American is not in great health. Still, pastors live longer,” he says.
“But Rae Jean says I’m not allowed to say that anymore. She’s sure the death rate will catch up with the way we are living. In the meantime, we live longer with worse health.”
Based on more than a decade of studies involving United Methodist pastors in North Carolina and other Southern states, Faithful and Fractured lays out the precarious state of clergy health in the 21st century—and gives practical advice on how pastors can live longer and healthier lives.
Widespread health concerns
United Methodist pastors involved in the studies have higher cholesterol, higher rates of asthma, and more hypertension than other Americans, according to the researchers.
The cause appears to be obesity. Forty-one percent of United Methodist pastors are obese, says Proeschold-Bell, compared to 29 percent of all Americans.
And it’s not just Methodists who are overweight. The health risks for pastors are the same in most denominations.
“There really is an obesity epidemic among clergy,” says Proeschold-Bell. “When you talk to the people who provide insurance for clergy in other denominations, they all say the same things.”
Obesity isn’t the only risk factor for pastors. Stress, depression, and financial worries also take their toll.
Still, many pastors love their work. And relatively few leave.
That’s in part because many pastors find great meaning in the ministry. Their sense of calling can sustain them when the work is stressful.
The authors looked at four factors that distinguish pastors who flourish from those who burn out. Focusing on the big-picture mission is one way pastors can flourish.
Pastors can be tempted to judge the quality of their work by the collection plate or church attendance. But those who focus on the mission—rather than outcomes—do better.
“If you feel like you’re taking part in God’s work to change the world, you can endure a lot,” says Byassee.
Having a lot of social support also helps. Pastors who do well have more friends and closer relationships than pastors who don’t.
Byassee says having friends at church can be hard for pastors. Some keep their distance from church members out of fear of crossing professional boundaries.
But pastors are also human. They can’t cut themselves off from the rest of the church.
“Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I’m keeping my professional boundaries and therefore I am a removed person from you.’ He says, ‘I’ve called you my friends and I am going to wash your feet,’” Byassee says.
Flourishing pastors are able to have good professional boundaries and still have friends.
Byassee suggests setting up some clear ethical rules. Don’t sleep with anyone in the church except your spouse. Don’t play favorites. Don’t steal money. Act like a mature person.
Then—with those rules in place—make friends.
Church boards, deacons, elders, or other lay leaders can help by keeping an eye on the pastor’s friendships. Make sure pastors are spending time with their close friends, he suggests. Encourage pastors to get away with friends or to collaborate on projects with friends.
Those healthy relationships can help pastors thrive in their work.
Have a plan to stay healthy
Thriving pastors also pay close attention to their health—both physically and spiritually. They have plans for regular exercise and regular prayer and devotions. And those plans are flexible.
“Maybe their preferred thing to do was to get up and exercise in the morning,” says Proeschold-Bell. “If they couldn’t do that because they were up too late the night before, or they had to drive to the hospital to see someone—then they had a backup plan.”
So if pastors miss their morning exercise, perhaps they go for a walk after visiting a church member in the hospital.
Thriving pastors take a similar approach to their spiritual lives. They have regular habits of prayer and Bible reading. They also have backup plans, in case ministry life gets in the way.
If they miss their morning quiet time at home, for example, then they’ll listen to a devotional or another Christian book while driving in the car.
Church members can encourage pastors to pay attention to their spiritual and physical health. Instead of telling their pastor to exercise, perhaps they can invite the pastor to the gym or out for a run.
When Byassee was a pastor in North Carolina, he made friends with a church member named Wade. The two became running pals.
“Wade didn’t tell me to go run out for a run,” says Byassee. “He just said, ‘I’m coming to your house tomorrow at 6. We’re going running.’”
Byassee wasn’t a great runner. But his friend, Wade, ran at a slower pace so Byassee could keep up. As they ran, they talked—about life, the church, and ministry. The two eventually convinced other church members to start a half-marathon team that raised money for a local charity.
“Running became part of the church and a way of building friendships,” he says. “So going for a run didn’t feel like stealing time. It felt like doing my job.”
Have a few clear boundaries
Ministry can be all-consuming. The pastors who thrive learn how to draw some clear boundaries around their time, say the authors.
In some cases, pastors would not answer email on their days off. Or they knew when they had to answer the phone—and when they could wait to call someone back. And they set aside time for family.
Thriving pastors also set up systems so church members could reach them in an emergency while still preserving their home life.
“There are ways for a pastor to be responsive and fully invested in parishioners without having to feel like they’re on call 24 hours all the time,” says Proeschold-Bell.
And sometimes the best thing a pastor can do is to get some rest.
“If you’re a pastor, you need to give yourself grace more often,” the authors advise near the end of the book. “If you’re really tired and wondering whether you should work more or go to bed, don’t wonder—just go to bed! Sleep will make you more effective tomorrow, and it will help both your mental and your physical health.”
- Too Many Pastors Are ‘Digging Graves With Their Teeth’
- 10 Surprising Reasons to Pray for Your Pastors
- Former Pastors: Here’s Why We Quit
- 6 Ways Churches Can Help Pastors Thrive
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.