On the other hand, caring deeply about those mired in systemic evil and witnessing firsthand overwhelming grief in the lives of those they dearly love leave ministers wondering if they can continue on in ministry. Such is the experience of many clergy.
Over the last 20 years, a number of research studies have identified patterns of emotional and mental health disease among ministry professionals when compared with the general populations. Many denominations, including the Church of the Nazarene, have responded with appropriate resources and support structures. While clergy don’t always ask for help, help is available. Recently, researchers have turned their attention to the physical health of clergy.
As a registered nurse and current practicing minister, Carla Sunberg helped lead a research project exploring the physical health of Nazarene clergy. This project included comprehensive physical exams as well as follow-up health plans for these clergy. Carla, who serves as Pastor of Evangelism and Discipleship at Grace Point Church of the Nazarene in Fort Wayne, IN, shares some of these findings with G&P readers.
G&P: What appears to be the state of clergy health today?
Carla Sunberg: Recently, the Church of the Nazarene received a grant from the Lily Endowment to explore the physical health of clergy in Indiana. Each of the four districts in Indiana participated in the research project. Since the goal of the project was to assess clergy physical health, each participant in the study completed the Personal Wellness Profile (PWP) health assessment. This assessment tool brings to light personal health practices.
Once completed, research findings were gleaned from the data. The data revealed that 74% of the study participants were overweight, and only 3% ate a nutritious diet on a regular basis. The majority of the group reported that regular exercise was not a part of their lifestyle. Additionally, 31% were diagnosed with diabetes. As a result, 37% of the participants are considered a high overall coronary risk.
G&P: How would you describe a healthy member of the clergy?
Sunberg: Our study highlighted the relationship between physical health and wellness and mental health. The Indiana study revealed a significant fi nding—20% of the males in our study exhibited a low mental health score. This percentage of the group is a greater percentage than the general male population. When this lived experience of stress is coupled with poor physical health, we end up with unhealthy clergy.
Healthy ministers, on the other hand, are those who are proactive about their physical health. This includes an evaluation of their diet. When Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon into exile, they requested a healthy diet. This diet, which was high in fruits and vegetables, had an overall positive effect on them, and they appeared healthier than all the other young men chosen for leadership. We can learn something from Daniel and his friends. In fact, the same message has been given to us by our mothers: “Be sure to eat your fruits and vegetables!”
Exercise is another important indicator of health and wellness. In fact, physical exercise can help burn adrenalin. In stressful situations, our bodies produce adrenalin, and if that adrenalin is not put to good use, it will begin to attack the body. Physical exercise provides a positive outlet for that adrenalin. Depending on the age and health of the individual, physical exercise can be as simple as walking or as rigorous as a full-fledged work-out program.
G&P: Nazarenes know how to avoid alcohol and cigarettes. At the same time, Nazarenes know how to have a good potluck. Is there a health hazard here for clergy?
Sunberg: While Nazarenes have been good and, at times, proud of avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, we have often found comfort in food. We have gone so far as to structure our lives around food. We often live to eat rather than eat to live.
Our study brought to light a number of important questions about how ministers structure their vocational life: How many appointments are held over a meal? How often are our meetings accompanied by unhealthy foods or snacks? Must every congregational fellowship event include a buffet of food? Yet a tinge of guilt lurks for every pastor, “We never want to hurt anyone’s feelings!” Too often we take the phrase, “Eat whatever is set before you” (1 Corinthians 10:27) literally; we try to eat everything that we are given. In the long run, this is not healthy. We must find a way to break this habit. Does it mean that we can no longer gather over food? No! However, we must come up with a viable strategy to limit what we will eat.
G&P: How does accessibility to healthcare impact a clergy person’s wellness?
Sunberg: The running joke a number of years ago was that a church board would inquire if the pastor’s spouse could play the piano. Currently, the question seems to be if the pastor’s spouse has a job with health insurance. The spiraling cost of comprehensive healthcare makes it unaffordable unaffordable for many smaller and even mid-sized churches. The result is that the minister must either be bi-vocational or his/her spouse must provide health insurance through his/her employment. Such a situation increases stress in the minister’s life.
Unfortunately, we have situations where ministers and their families have no healthcare coverage or cases where healthcare coverage includes a high deductible. Each of these situations makes it costly for those who become ill. However, the most significant factor for wellness in Indiana was poor nutrition and fitness, and those two issues can be addressed without health insurance!
G&P: Any suggestions on how a clergy person might implement a wellness approach to life?
Sunberg: If every pastor would simply add five servings of fruits and/or vegetables to their diet daily, their overall health and well-being would improve significantly. These good food choices fill our bodies with the nutrients we need and also provide the antioxidants, which help to fend off cancer.
Also, increasing the amount of daily physical activity would improve a pastor’s health and wellness. One simple step would be to keep track of daily activity by way of a pedometer. Taking at least 10,000 steps a day might make a significant difference in a pastor’s energy level. Once you have started eating your fruits and vegetables and exercising, a pastor might want to tackle a strategic plan to address the need for weight loss. Programs such as Weight Watchers are helpful in their accountability and intentionality. In fact, they have an online program, which is very simple to follow. At this stage, a pastor might attempt to add a daily physical work-out to his/her established rhythm of life.
The time has come for us, as ministers of the gospel, to consider the care of our bodies a spiritual discipline. Just as daily commitment to prayer and the study of Scriptures is essential to our spiritual walk, so is caring for the physical body that we have received. Our bodies are a gift from God—let’s care for them as such.