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VOL. 39 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2015

Saving souls takes toll on pastors’ health

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The first time I thought about what it takes to be a church pastor was when mine took a three-month sabbatical after a decade in Downtown Presbyterian’s pulpit.

I asked my friend Bob Smietana, a lifelong churchgoer and now senior news editor at Christianity Today magazine, why pastors do that.

“I’m not saying I disagree with it,” I said. “But I’ve been a reporter for 20 years, and I’ve never had a sabbatical.

“Right,” Bob said. “And nobody is asking you to channel the will of a divine being for them.”

Touché, Bob. Touché.

Turns out full-time church ministry actually can kill the people who do it – but it does so slowly.

A much publicized 2012 Duke University study of United Methodist pastors in North Carolina showed their obesity rate was 40 percent, compared to 29 percent of the general population. They also posted high rates of chronic diseases, including diabetes, arthritis and hypertension.

Ten percent said they suffered from depression – about double the national rate.

At the same time, they were less likely than the general population to say their health issues affected their work. Researchers concluded that members of the clergy understand they should be taking care of themselves, but they simply won’t do it.

In September, Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated LifeWay Research put out a new survey of pastors at 1,500 evangelical churches. Some of the results may surprise even devout churchgoers: 54 percent of pastors find their jobs frequently overwhelming, and 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.

So while about half are overwhelmed and wonder if they should quit, another part of the study showed only 13 percent of senior pastors left their posts over the past 10 years for reasons other than death or retirement.

Nashville-area pastors aren’t immune from that dichotomy of feeling the strain but being unwilling to leave.

Freeman

“I had a heart attack five years ago and took a year-long sabbatical to get my health back,” says Pastor Roger Freeman of Grace Baptist Church, which has a Sunday-morning attendance of about 350. “The workload is the stressful thing. It’s a 70-hour week. You wake up, and the emails and phone calls with people’s problems start.

“When someone has a problem, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on vacation or it’s 3 in the morning or there’s another pastor on call. People want their pastor.”

Think about it: A pastor’s job is almost completely unpredictable outside of what happens in the pulpit on Sundays. (Even that hour can be fraught with peril, of course.) A church member’s marriage crisis can mean an emergency counseling session instead of dinner with the family. Fun trips can be upended by funerals.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board wants to give a little something back in October, which is Pastor Appreciation Month. Congregations can fundraise to purchase gift cards for bed and breakfast stays – if their pastors will actually use those. Event organizers are encouraging people on social media to post messages of thanks with the hashtag #LiftMyPastor.

And because Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., there’s a whole lot of potential for pastor-lifting this month.

Darling

Freeman says he’d appreciate any of the Pastor Appreciation Month suggestions, but he’s already grateful for a group of deacons that not only help guide Grace Baptist’s direction, but also are its true servants, stepping in where needed. In many cases, they handle criticisms or other minor disruptions without even telling him.

Daniel Darling, communications vice-president for the denomination’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, knows about a busy life in ministry. A Chicago-area church pastor before moving to Mt. Juliet, he’s a married father of four who, in addition to his day job, guest preaches on weekends and just finished his latest book, The Original Jesus.

But what both he and Freeman said congregations need to know is that, despite the anxiety and weird hours and physical toll, your pastor loves you.

“You go into ministry because you love the Lord and preaching and teaching, but you also do it because you love people,” Darling says. “There are extroverts and introverts – I get all that – but if you don’t love people, it’s hard to shepherd.

“That’s why you become a pastor to begin with, to walk through people’s lives with them.”

Heidi Hall is a freelance writer and former religion editor for The Tennessean.

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