The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


How healthy are our pastors?

Report reveals church leaders have above average stress, weight gain and depression

Many ELCA pastors find their work fulfilling, but lately they report feeling a little "sluggish," "burned out" and "down."

They tend to say their weight gain doesn't help matters, but it's difficult to exercise or eat better when putting in 60- to 70-hour workweeks.

Many find it hard to take time for vacations or even personal devotions. And that's on top of worries at home, such as paying bills and spending enough time with family.

Some feel cut off, alone with no one to talk to about stress, and they wonder how much longer they can continue.

These are some key findings revealed in an ELCA report on the health and wellness of clergy and lay leaders on ELCA ministry rosters. The majority are satisfied by their work, but they are more overweight, sedentary, and prone to stress and depression than the average U.S. citizen.

The "Ministerial Health and Wellness 2002" study, conducted by the Division for Ministry and Board of Pensions, found that during a one-year period, 16 percent of male clergy and 24 percent of female clergy suffered from depression compared to
6 percent of U.S. men and 12 percent of U.S. women. It also says that nutrition, high blood pressure and heart disease are areas of concern.

The report grew out of concerns raised by the InterLutheran Coordinating Committee on Ministerial Health and Wellness, an ELCA and Lutheran Church­Missouri Synod group. Gwen Halaas, an ELCA member and physician who directs the ELCA Ministerial Health and Wellness project, says the study was conducted to better control the cost of health benefits. "It may cost a little bit initially to develop health and wellness resources. But in the long run, we will see health-care savings and an improved effectiveness and functioning of our pastors," she says.

Halaas says the study also was important because more second-career pastors are entering the ministry. "For older pastors to have the energy and fitness to be able to do a somewhat stressful job, taking a serious look at our church leaders' health was a smart idea," she says.

Work on the report--the first denominational undertaking of its kind--began in 2001. Halaas collected statistics from a representative self-reported survey of 1,460 ELCA leaders by Summex Corp. in April 2001 and data summaries of ELCA leaders' health-care claims from 1998 to 2000. She then compared the ELCA data to health statistics for U.S. citizens and U.S. clergy. The study was partly funded by grants from Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood.

Results not surprising

Halaas says she wasn't surprised by the results, especially those related to nutrition, obesity and physical inactivity, because they reflect the general population's health.

The report describes a clergy's job as sedentary, "with visits done by car, often associated with food or a fast-food stop for quick nourishment." The report even describes leading worship, which includes mostly sitting and standing, as a sedentary experience.

"It's not all bad news," she says. "It's simply a reminder that we have developed bad habits and have unhealthy expectations of our leaders. It's time to take that seriously and do something about it."

Halaas says she was pleasantly surprised that a high percentage of clergy and lay leaders were willing to make lifestyle changes to improve their health, particularly losing weight, exercising more and eating better. "By doing those things, our leaders will feel happier and better physically and emotionally," she adds. "They also will have a better self-image."

But reducing church leaders' stress will take effort by both pastors and congregations, Halaas adds. "The stressors are high in the ministry," she explains. "The pay is proportionately lower, hours are longer and the work is more demanding."

A study by the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality found that Protestant clergy have the highest overall work-related stress compared with seminarians and Roman Catholic religious professionals. They also were next to lowest in personal resources to cope with the strain.

That's why it's important for congregations to encourage their leaders to take vacations and regular time away from work, Halaas says. "We need to recognize pastors as members of the family. Pastors need to spend time with their spouse and children. They need to have recreation just like everyone else," she says. "They need to socialize and get out and do physical activities, like running, biking or swimming. Congregations need to remember that pastors have personal lives too."

Build a healthy culture

Craig Settlage, associate executive director of the ministry division, encourages parishioners to see themselves as "partners in ministry" to help free up some of the pastor's time. He also recommends that pastors link up regularly with other clergy for emotional support, spiritual development, encouragement, counseling, worship and even accountability while trying to implement positive lifestyle changes.

Settlage says the report isn't simply about having healthier leaders--it's also about having healthier congregations. "You can't have one without the other," he says. "The goal is to encourage pastors and congregations to develop healthy patterns of living together. When pastors demonstrate they are taking good care of themselves through exercise, good nutrition and weight control, they can be good examples to congregation members."

Halaas suggests that congregations build a "healthy culture" by doing such things as bringing nourishing foods to potlucks and serving healthful snacks rather than coffee and doughnuts each Sunday. "We also need to set expectations for lifelong learning and developing our prayer lives and devotional habits," she says. "We have to change the culture to expect healthy things, rather than do 'things as usual.' "

Halaas says healthy things could include physical activities such as baseball games, Bible studies that include healthy snacks and prayer walks.

Beyond improving the health and wellness of ELCA leaders and congregations, Halaas says another goal of the study is to create a healthier culture throughout the entire church. "The dream of the Board of Pensions and the Division for Ministry is to create a healthier community, with the church at the center of that community," she says. "We want to set a good example for our entire country, which healthwise is not doing so well."

To achieve that dream, ELCA seminaries, synods and congregations need to make a coordinated effort, Halaas says. Steps are already taking place. Resources are being developed at the churchwide level. Seminaries are offering health and wholeness courses. And synods are planning congregational health and wellness initiatives.

"The report has helped stimulate this activity," Halaas says. "It has given people the extra push they needed to get serious."

Halaas says the ELCA's health and wellness initiatives can result in some exciting scenarios: more satisfied, "healthy and robust" leaders who enjoy their work; increased membership in congregations that are "having fun and doing healthy things"; and more funds devoted to ministry and outreach rather than medical claims.

"We will be able to recruit more people into the ministry because it will be viewed as a healthy vocation," Halaas says. "Right now young people who may be thinking about the ministry may be discouraged by watching some of our clergy and leaders who aren't very happy and healthy."

Settlage adds, "The study confirms there are health issues facing our church. But as we focus on what we can do to improve the health of our pastors and lay leaders, we will have congregations energized for ministry. I see this as being a very positive opportunity for the church. It's not a gloomy picture at all."


Jack Whritenour

Jack Whritenour

Posted at 11:00 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/22/2010

The source of my depression and the physical health issues that have arisen from it is the ELCA itself, plain and simple.  The ELCA's slide into liberal antinomianism and our leadership's assault on traditionalists has been a cause of great stress and sorrow in my life.  I find it ironic that the ELCA leadership is concerned for the health of clergy, when they themselves have created the unhealthy situation.  To labor faithfully as pastor of a congregation knowing that when you leave a 'progressive' revisionist will follow you and undo all your orthodox confessional teaching, introduce the new heterodox service book, and promote the 'new morality' is enough to make any traditionalist pastor depressed.  It is the equivalent of shooting someone in the back and then saying, "Gee, we need to help you take care of your back problem."  The cure for the ELCA blues is to get out of it.  Just as someone being abused in a relationship needs to get out of that relationship and get away from the abuser, so we confessional orthodox traditional pastors need to get away from our abuser.  Only then will we bein to heal! 

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