In an article dated October 22, 2012, written for the Christian Century under the title “Fit for Ministry” Amy Frykholm reports on recent research by the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) funded by the Duke Endowment. The article, if not the CHI, tends to lay the blame for poor clergy health on the job rather than pastors, who are portrayed as poorly differentiated servants to the expectations of others. While CHI “believes that the motivation for changing behavior must come from the pastor” the head researcher suggests that the one cultural change that would make the most difference for clergy health would be a shift in “the way that congregants think about their pastor.”
The article is peppered with comments offered in support of its conclusion, e.g. “The schedule of church work is clearly an impediment to clergy health.” “…eating is a major part of doing one’s job.” Clergy see their work as divinely ordained, and so think that “whenever they act on behalf of their congregations, they are living in faithfulness to their vocations.” “Self-determination is impeded on several levels.” “Decisions about what and how much to eat or when to exercise often seem outside a minister’s control” (emphasis mine).
Here we have the wrong-headedness of a church (and society) in regression. The primary problem is that the vast majority of clergy depend on others, from congregations to communities to church authorities, to define them. Without clear self-definition, and then self-regulation, i.e. regulation of their anxiety, in the face of attempts to sabotage their self-definition, clergy will inevitably experience increased stress and with it vulnerability to the multiplicity of health problems that attend it.
The culture of congregations with its ingrained expectations of pastors is a product of congregations’ founding leaders, primarily founding clergy. Change in such culture will only come when new clergy leaders clearly define themselves differently, and persevere over an extended period of years in that definition in the face of congregational and judicatory sabotage of their efforts. The culture was not installed in a day, and it will not be changed quickly. Nor will it be changed without a change in the behavior of clergy.
The nutritional components, stress management programs, and wellness advocates advised by the article are sensible and helpful in the context of the development of self-differentiated leaders. Otherwise, such efforts are only band-aids, i.e. temporary and superficial treatments, on the deadly institutional cancer of poorly self-defined and poorly self-regulated leadership. Being a pastor is bad for one’s health only if pastors allow it to be.
Of course, pastors would do well to seek assistance on the road to self-differentiation and the health and well-being it affords. None of us is free of the inclination to be and do what others want us to be and do at least some of the time, and most of us are expert at fooling ourselves about our own capacities. Pastors need people (colleagues, coaches, friends) who will regularly keep them honest and ask the questions that direct them to their own resources and the development of them. Self-differentiation is hard work; it is the task of an entire life. And that work does not end with retirement. As a matter of fact, it is just as important for one’s well-being at that point as ever it was in one’s working life. “Being fit for ministry” is only a small slice of the larger task of being “fit for life.”
Finally, any non-pastors who may read this, instead of “pastor” read “leader.” It is all true of you, whatever your vocational leadership, as well.