Sabbath, Sacrifice, and Sustainability: Why balance and clergy health matter.

Mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ (UCC) are exploring some exciting new ideas these days.  Writers like Molly Phinney Baskette (Real Good Church), Nadia Bolz-Weber (Accidental Saints), and Rachel Held Evans (Searching for Sunday) are suggesting new ways to worship, communicate with congregants, and engage with the larger community. Others in the emerging church movement are redefining our idea of church itself. Since mainline denominations have lost about half their membership since the 1950’s – and continue to do so at an alarming rate – this seems like a good idea.

As a clergy spouse seeking to promote balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families (and caring about the health of my partner), I want to be sure that these important new initiatives do not exacerbate an already serious and under discussed (at least in my denomination, the UCC) issue of clergy workload and health. Because church attendance isn’t the only thing that has steadily declined since the 1950’s; so has the health of our clergy.

Recently, the Duke Divinity School’s Leadership Education website republished an article entitled “Which Way to Clergy Health?” by Bob Wells. I recommend you Google it. It summarizes the findings of Dr. Gwen Halaas, project director of the Ministerial Health and Wellness Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and although the original article is a dozen years old it is still relevant. And shocking. Halaas contrasted studies from the 1950’s to 1999 that showed that protestant clergy went from being healthier than the general population in the 1950’s to being less healthy than the average person in a few short decades. Take a look at this statistically based overview of the typical Lutheran pastor, written in the format of a doctor’s case study:

“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.”

Unfortunately, this describes too many of the ministers I know.

The 2015 Clergy Health Survey conducted by the United Methodist Church showed clergy having a higher than average incidence in the following areas: high cholesterol, borderline hypertension, asthma, borderline diabetes, obesity and being overweight, and depression. I quote from other denominations because, on a national level, the UCC does comparatively little on the topics of clergy health, clergy spouses, or clergy families, perhaps leaving it up to individual conferences. (I am pleased to say that the New Hampshire Conference of the UCC has both a Clergy Support Ministry and a Clergy Spouse/Partner Support Mission Group.)

What is the chief cause of the relatively poor health of clergy? Let’s see what pastors said when asked to name their biggest concerns in a 2000-2001 survey conducted by the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (reported on the Alban Institute website):

“In the survey…74 percent of the pastors reported that they had too many demands on their time…This was by far the most significant stressor in pastor’s lives.” Other studies and articles have reported similar findings.

My own conversations with clergy suggest this is actually getting worse. They describe being stressed and often exhausted by needing to meet all the traditional expectations of the congregation while at the same time reaching out to younger people and potential new members through new initiatives like social media, cafe church, and the like. Adding to this, many ministers have an unexamined “need to be needed” that is a factor in their own behavior. Together, this is a potent recipe for chronic overwork and unbalanced lives. Roy M. Oswald, Senior Consultant with the Alban Institute and author of Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry estimates that one-fourth of all clergy are burned out, and that clergy wives have higher stress levels than either clergymen or clergywomen.

This is not a sustainable state of affairs. We cannot have healthy churches without healthy clergy. And healthy clergy families.

Some feel that many pastors and congregations consciously or unconsciously subscribe to what I call the sacrificial model of ministry. “There is a false notion that effective ministry is about the imitation of Christ,” says the Rev Pamela Cranston, chair of the Clergy Wellness Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of California. “There is the idea that ministry is about dying to the self and living to other people…The theological problem around that is that Jesus already did it and we don’t have to.”

There is another model that ministers can choose to follow.

I recently attended a workshop led by Lisa Anderson and sponsored by the National Church Leadership Institute entitled “Self-Care is a Mandate for Prophetic Leadership.” Lisa is part of an initiative at Auburn Theological Seminary called The Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle, a program which “explores integration of self-care into strong leadership and activism.”  It challenges the concept of selfless leadership, and declares that “Self-care is defined as the spiritually grounded intention to honor the one body, mind and spirit given to us by God as we do the work of love and justice in the world.”  In short, God cares about all God’s children, and presumably does not favor a model of church that sacrifices the pastor to get the job done. And yet that seems to be what we have grown to accept.

Speaking of God, what about Sabbath? “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” Genesis 2:3 (NRSV).  In handing down the Ten Commandments, God is quite clear that it is a model that his followers are commanded to follow: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that it is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exodus 20:8-11.

The message seems pretty clear here. Yet this is the one commandment that we have deemed optional.

So, to return to the crisis in the mainline church and the many new ideas to transform it: Let’s please not continue this trend toward overworked clergy and a lack of a sustainable and healthy balance between congregations, clergy, and clergy families. As the society around us speeds up to produce more, let us remember our countercultural mission and adopt a prophetic model of ministry, one that answers God’s commandments as well as God’s call, and one that cares for and serves all.

-Bob James