Which Way to Clergy Health?

Prompted by rising health care costs and looming clergy shortages, the church is recognizing health as an important issue.

Reprinted from the Fall 2002 issue of Divinity, the alumni magazine of Duke Divinity School

By Bob Wells

Dr. Gwen Halaas, a family physician in Kenosha, Wis., is concerned about a patient, a middle-aged professional whose case has drawn all her time and attention. She describes the case in the same concise format she learned years ago at Harvard medical school:

A 51-year-old male with symptoms of depression, the patient has high blood pressure and is overweight, presenting a heightened risk of heart disease and other illnesses. He works 60-70 hours a week in a sedentary job, does not currently engage in any physical exercise, and reports considerable work-related stress. Patient is married, with three children, one of whom expresses interest in following patient’s career path. Patient expresses little enthusiasm for encouraging child to do so.

While the case history may sound routine, Dr. Halaas and her patient are, in fact, remarkable – perhaps even historic. That’s because the patient is not a specific individual, but a statistically based overview of the typical Lutheran pastor. And Halaas is the project director of the Ministerial Health and Wellness Program, a major new initiative by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to improve the health of Lutheran pastors and other church leaders.

What makes her work especially significant, however, is that her patient’s condition does not differ substantially from that of clergy in just about every Christian denomination today. Doctrinal and theological differences aside, North American churches have in common not only the Cross and a love of Christ, but also a pastorate whose health is fast becoming cause for concern.

Prompted by rising health care costs and looming clergy shortages, some denominations are recognizing health as an important issue. A few – most notably the ELCA, the American Baptists, and the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada – have launched efforts within the past year to improve clergy health. Others, including the United Methodist Church, are following the issue with great interest.

“Certainly this is a big-time problem,” says Steve Weston, assistant plan manager for HealthFlex, a managed-care health plan offered by the UMC’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits. “I see the utilization data every month, and definitely, we’re overweight, we have high blood pressure, and we have stress levels and depression levels that are higher than the general population. The General Board and HealthFlex are aggressively looking at the issue, and I would imagine there will be discussion about it at General Conference within the next couple of years.”

If you’re imagining thousands of jogging-suit-clad pastors pounding the pavement, relax and take a deep breath. At its heart, this new movement to improve clergy health is about much more than just strapping on the Nikes. It is about creating and cultivating within the church a wholistic approach to health that addresses wellness in all its physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions. At its best, observers say, this emphasis on clergy health raises important theological issues with the potential for reclaiming Christian practices about care of the self and one another. At the same time, it’s challenging both clergy and laity to rethink and re-envision the entire nature of ministry.

God has called us as pastors to lead people into spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is wholistic and not just about how many bible verses a person can quote.  Spiritual maturity includes the quality of an individuals relationships, the care and nurture that they provide for their family, their emotional well being, their finances and their physical well being.  The reality is many pastors are so caught up into the passion of ministry that they loose their passion for balance and wholeness. 

I am a confessed workaholic.  I thought that I reformed in seminary but once I began working in the church I found myself replacing the morning networking breakfast, noon prospecting lunch and evening client cultivation dinner with Seeker coffee sessions, lunch discipleship sessions and dinner fellowship with other disciples on the journey.  The morning exercise time became prayer and study time and instead of running from office to office I find myself allowing everyone to come to the church to meet me. Emailing has become my most effective style of networking instead of the nice long walks that I enjoyed in seminary talking about the impact of God in our lives.

I now deal with being overweight, high blood pressure and other physical challenges that have significantly slowed me down. A pastor friend who is younger than I am is dealing with prostate cancer. Another pastor is dealing with depression and counseling is not one of my strongest gifts. As I try to refer him he then goes into his cave of denial. This does not bring honor to God.

My prayer is that every pastor operates in their God given purpose.  You can not do this when you are not exercising, not eating correctly and not paying attention to your health. The message that we send when health is not a priority is that our bodies are not important to God.  Actually our bodies were created by God as a vessel to carry out the purpose that God has gifted us with.  When we neglect our bodies we are being good stewards of what God has trusted to us.

Faith and Health do go hand in hand.  It begins with us. Stay tuned and join me as I gear up for some major life changes.  During the 40 days of lent I will be engaging 40 days of exercises.  It should be as much fun as the coffee that I am giving up.

Working on my Health to Fulfill my God Given Purpose

Pastor William T Chaney Jr