Taking Clergy Health Seriously

What if clergy took their health more seriously?

When the days of having multiple clergy, staff and an army of women volunteers ended, the work became fragmented, stressful, and demanding.  Unprepared clergy suffer from depression and obesity – even if they know they love their work and the call.  Especially the smaller church pastor is often underequipped to handle the demands of building management, event planning, and performance that are each separately stressful upon the body.

I do not mourn the old days. I never knew them. And to some extent I enjoy the diversity of the workday and its challenges. My part-time staff is productive, helpful and supportive, so it’s manageable. I count my blessings, which are many.

But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And for this reason, I wonder that clergy should have a rule about health. It should be non-negotiable, and may save the lives of a few clergy, and of some congregations.

And it might be like this.

The first rule of a priest is go to the gym. Every day. Do it first. Before work. Do it also for the health of the church. Because a priest that does not make a concerted, deliberate effort to do this work, will less effectively set important boundaries in other areas.

If it means postponing meetings until 11am, then do so.

If it means that you aren’t in the office until 10 or even 12, get to the gym.

Make it easy. If your gym has a locker, rent one.

If you need to just practice going to the gym, get there, take off your clothes, take a shower and then leave.

Put your clothes back on first.

If necessary, assure the parish. This will make you more productive, happier and they will be happier as well.  If they complain, we remind them that we want them to do the same, and find ways to be intentional about their own health.  Getting to the gym at a later office hour will still require that the tasks get done. It’s not license to leave early; trust that the impact of the exercise has shown to increase brain power. The work will more likely get done.

The consequences will have a cascading effect: exercise allows for better sleep; then it’s easier to workout again.  The pastor will have more energy.

What works for me? When I’m at my best I have a four day a week lifting program. It’s probably the only thing that keeps me going to the gym regularly.  The other day I do a very light 30 minute walk / run. Admittedly, I’m not always consistent. But a “rule” of life is not meant to be a whipping rod to lash oneself with guilt but an orientation to live into.

I recognize this is flip. But that first 20 minutes may change the nature of the day. It may begin with just walking. Wise priests might get a trainer or a coach for a few weeks to get started.

I suppose there are other things about health that are probably central. Jesus hates soda, including diet soda. Addicts trying to give that up can allow themselves flavored seltzer water.  And if thats not pleasing enough, try dark chocolate or beer.

Jesus loves beer and dark chocolate.

Diary

The other day I read about Tony Benn, who my mother idolized. He was passionate orator, and a political diarist. Good diaries can be compelling windows into an age, especially by discerning writers. Some use it to document feelings, to work through one’s thoughts. But I had one parishioner who made lists of what was done. I’m tempted to make it into a list of things I need to do. 

So yesterday I preached. The gospel was on Nicodemus, and his misunderstanding of Jesus. John divides the world into light and dark, and Nicodemus is from the dark, and so he is forever in the fog of misunderstanding, who can’t figure out the riddle Jesus. Who do we understand? Those who have suffered along side us, who’ve fought the same battles. And in a more balkanized society, where we are separated by class and by media demographic, we simply don’t understand what we think we do. A solution? To free us from that misunderstanding, we must try to hear one another. I referred to the Buddhists who would meditate on corpses in Sri Lanka, which would prepare them for burying the bodies after the tsunami. Only when we hear, see, contemplate the stories, can we carry them, recognize them in others. I made the analogy that seeing the serpent was like inoculation – and perhaps the cross is like that as well. The cross casts light upon the suffering of others. 

After, I taught on the Apostles creed. We discussed hell.

I went to a wake for a well-loved deaf priest who lived in the area. At the funeral home I saw the mayor and his wife and a couple parishioners who knew his son through boy scouts. Sometimes when I see a local politician I feel like we have a lot in common because we have to please a lot of different people. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Theoretically I have a lot more freedom, but then, I restrain myself.

I said a few prayers from the prayerbook, which were translated by a signer. 

I went to the library where a local buddhist temple was making gifts for clients of Meals on Wheels of White Plains, where I am a board member. The temple is supporting a lot of public projects. It feels a lot different than other institutions – they make no effort to evangelize, but have become much more involved in the variety of institutions in the area. They have even started sending one person to the White Plains Religious Leaders. 

I almost went dancing, but my friend’s aunt died. So we ordered pizza, opened up a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Languedoc Region (not a classic, but perfectly tasty), and watched Monty Python.