Recent research by Duke Divinity School has confirmed what I’ve heard for many years … that is, that clergy are generally in poorer health than the general population.
On Talk of the Nation (a PBS show) the host summarized the research this way: “Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are generally driven by a sense of duty to answer calls for help and to do the best they can to serve others. But recent research shows that in many cases, they rarely find time for themselves and as a result suffer from higher rates of depression, obesity and high blood pressure. Many clergy members simply burn out.”
Why, you might ask. I suspect there are many reasons—demanding schedules, being always on call, lots of meetings that involve eating are a few, but these are all external factors.
I'm convinced part of the problem also lies within— in the pastor's attitude toward work and self-care. What is sometimes referred to as a messiah complex motivates many ministers to care for others to the neglect of their own self-care. It seems selfish to go to the gym when I should probably go to the hospital, the reasoning goes. So they choose to care for others rather than care for themselves.
As I’ve studied the life of Jesus I noticed there was a rhythm to his ministry. He would care for others — teach the masses, heal the sick, alleviate suffering, and then he would retreat from the crowds (and sometimes even the disciples) to be alone. Like waves that come in and go out, that pattern was consistent throughout his ministry.
So I reasoned, if Jesus practiced good self-care maybe I should as well (I was a pastor of a large church at the time). Here are some basic guidelines I’ve tried to follow:
- eat right — there’s plenty of information on what it takes to eat a well-balanced diet, one of the challenges is to reach and maintain a healthy weight but it can be done
- exercise regularly — which usually means 30 to 60 minutes of good exercise 3 times a week, so join a gym, get a bike, swim, do pilates, whatever you find enjoyable and invigorating
- rest adequately — which usually means getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night and maintaining a consistent pattern (going to sleep at the same time each night and getting up the same time each morning), observing the sabbath principle (which may apply to days off, time away or taking a vacation)
Richard Restak, M.D. is a neurologist and the author of more than 20 books on the brain. I recently heard him say that eating right, exercising regularly and resting adequately are essential for brain fitness! These three simple things make it possible for us to think more clearly, manage stress better, make good decisions and enjoy life more fully.
God created us in such a way that what happens to us physically also affects us emotionally and spiritually. Consequently, such seemingly unspiritual things as eating, exercising and resting also contribute to greater spiritual vitality. We do not typically think of it this way, but good stewardship of our bodies may be as essential to our spiritual vitality as prayer and bible reading.
Recently I interviewed Dr. Ron Lyles, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena. He keeps a demanding schedule as a pastor and professor. I asked him how he avoids burning out. He told me he scheduled his time in a way that allowed him to take care of himself. “I told the congregation,” he said, “that if they’ll allow me this time to take care of me I’ll do a better job of taking care of them.” I think his members would agree.
So, preacher, take care of yourself. It’s not only is it better for you. It’s better for the congregation you serve.
Note: Good self-care requires more than eating, exercising and resting. For those who are interested in knowing more, check our website (www.ubahouston.org). I'll post videos throughout the year where I will deal with such matters.