Clergy Wellness beyond Portion Control...

Read the latest information from various clergy wellness projects and one message comes across loudly and clearly:  Clergy are a rather unhealthy lot. As a group, we are overweight, overstressed, overwrought, and struggling with all sorts of personal and job-related issues.

We also have all sorts of events that speak to clergy wellness. They repeat the same things, because they are true (for us and for most people):  eat healthy food, exercise, take your day off, take care of yourself mentally and spiritually.

And yet, even with all of this information, we clergy are still an unhealthy lot.

A caveat - I often think being such an unhealthy lot is the price of privilege. While yes, clergy do work all sorts of impossible hours and deal with crazy situations, most of us are not working too hard for too little money like so many working for minimum wage. Most of us have health benefits and a pension, things far too many Americans do without.

But I worry. These unhealthy clergy aren't a vast label, they are often my friends and colleagues. I watch many clergy friends struggle, and I would selfishly like them around for as many years as possible. Also, many of my clergy friends are healthy. They are doing the hard work. So I asked what are they doing, what are the wellness ideas they can offer that go beyond the norm?

And, in no particular order...

1. Have friends who are not associated with the church. This came up again and again. Seriously people, get some folks in your life who don't care that you're in full-time paid ministry, people who don't read Augustine or have any idea (or even care) about Pelagianism.  Yes, being a minister is who you are, yet it is part of who you are. Have people in your life who are invested in the non-clergy person. Have people who will not bring up church-related issues over a meal. Have people who will allow you to be wholly you, who will welcome your prickly self, your silly self, and your sassy self without judgment.

2. Get something in your life that you are shamelessly enthusiastic about...that has nothing to do with the institutional church (are we seeing a theme here?). In seminary, we all heard about the importance of having a hobby. And we all nodded, "Yes." Again, nurture and nourish other parts of your soul. Paint, sing, ride horses, play in a local soccer league, anything that is not tied to your work. Have a passion outside the walls of the Church. One friend said, "Having a place where I can leave all the petty struggles and the huge tragedies of life in ministry behind and for an hour or two a week, just play, that refreshes and restores me."

3. Recognize that there are parts of your ministry that are a wonderful call...and parts that are simply a job. Not everything we do is fun, exciting, or affirming. Sometimes you just have to mop up the overflowing toilet. If you aren't always in love with your ministry, you aren't doing anything wrong; you are simply being present to the reality of life in ministry.

4. Be honest about your health. Yes, there are simply some big-boned people in the world. No, a disproportionate part of the clergy population do not fall into this category. Most health issues are tied into our emotional and spiritual issues. Be honest about how healthy and not healthy you are. Have the pounds piled on over the years? What has changed? What need are you trying to feed by over-eating?

5. Responding to job-related emails, phone calls, and texts on your day off is work. Stop it. If it's not someone in extreme crisis, the concern about the hymn selections from Sunday can wait until your regular work day. Protect your day off and your vacation the way a mother bear protects her cubs. Because no one will do it for you. A comment on this from another friend, "Parishioners don't always know when your day off is. Tell them. And make them honor it."

6. Your personal life, including your family, does not get the leftovers of your day. As human beings, we only have so much bandwidth per day and week. While we will undoubtably have days and weeks that demand our strongest bandwidth for ministry-related issues, avoid repeatedly giving the weakest, leftover bandwidth to your personal life.

7. Admit you have bad days. We are not Stepford clergy, always happy and smiling. People hurt us with their words and actions. We can be exhausted. What goes on in our personal lives, while not for public consumption at times, definitely impacts our professional lives. Having a bad day? Maybe instead of pushing through it (and giving it our leftover bandwidth), we reschedule things if we can, we read, we go for a walk. Honor your bad days as well as your good days.

8. Get some sleep. Clergy are not immune from the I don't sleep epidemic. A night or two of restless sleep? That happens. Chronic problems? Get some help. Not enough sleep is as damaging to our selves and souls as that extra 180 pounds some are carrying.

9. Restore and refresh...every day.  Related to sleep, several clergy said they make time for a quick nap, especially on days where the work day ends at 9 or 10 pm. Filling up the spiritual and emotional tank was a repeated theme of practical wellness tips. A nap, some time reading for pleasure, walking around the block, catching up on a guilty-pleasure soap opera...all were ways I heard that clergy capture a little time to rest in order to be present to a long day.

10. Remember, no priest is an island. Back to that friends observation, having clergy friends whom you trust to share your joys, struggles, laughs, and heartbreaks in ministry is essential. Leave the contests of who has the highest average Sunday attendance, the superfluous titles of "cardinal" anything, and the most awesome outreach project ever behind. Be vulnerable and willing to listen and share. Life is hard. Ministry is hard. Have close friends and colleagues who will walk the road with you.

If you haven't discovered CREDO, it's a great resource for clergy wellness. Their Walk and Be Well Program is gearing up again, and a way to accomplish some wellness by walking.  Click here for more information.


Anonymous said…
Thanks! I have a number of friends in my life that are preists. I too want them to be around for a long time, just because I like them.
Kimberly said…
Thank you for this great article. It is good to remember such important lessons again, no matter how long one has been in the ministry.
Anonymous said…
Thank you thank you! This is something I'll definitely be keeping close at hand as I walk toward being in professional ministry, but it's also something to keep in mind for all the ministerial friends I have. Sometimes, it's hard for me to remember that it doesn't lessen our friendship when my pastoral friends need to be around non-church friends; everyone has/needs different spheres in their lives, priests included. We can talk about Augustine again later.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, this is wonderful, both as someone going into professional ministry and as someone with a lot of pastoral friends. It also helps to be reminded that it doesn't lessen our friendship when they need to hang out with non-church folk; everyone needs different spheres, and we can talk about Augustine again later.
Crimson Rambler said…
Right! I'll now put on serious footgear and go walk in response to the potluck lunch after church today (lots of wonderfully healthy food -- emphasis on LOTS, alas)...
Unknown said…
Thank you for this insightful article on how to encourage clergy wellness!

I would like to invite your readers to assist in a survey around clergy well-being I am conducting in conjunction with my doctoral project at Louisville Seminary. It is for all clergy to complete, and has a special interest in clergy doing interim ministry. Don't be spooked - it is "live" until October 31st! The link is:

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