by Brad A. Greenberg
No one can make you feel guilty like a pastor. Or in this case a New York Times story about pastoral burnout that I’ve been meaning to write about for two weeks:
The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.
But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.
Part of the problem, from my vantage point, stems from the fact that once a pastor has invested in his or her career, it’s exceptionally difficult to make a career change when burnout occurs. You don’t have to believe the law is just to be a high-earning attorney. But when a pastor’s faith slips, there really isn’t anywhere for them to turn.
This at least was the premise of the story I was researching. It was an idea, like my Muslim high school football player, that came out of the 2005 Religion Newswriters Association conference. It was hardly off everyone’s radar. Why I never completed the story I can’t recall. But I’m glad to see someone — and the NYT, of all places — got around to a fairly old but unreported challenge affecting Christianity.
This story doesn’t talk at all about spiritual burnout, which is something I’m more interested in than physical burnout, but it does a good job covering the physical consequences of pastors being overworked:
In May, the Clergy Health Initiative, a seven-year study that Duke University began in 2007, published the first results of a continuing survey of 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina. Compared with neighbors in their census tracts, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Obesity was 10 percent more prevalent in the clergy group.
The results echoed recent internal surveys by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which found that 69 percent of its ministers reported being overweight, 64 percent having high blood pressure and 13 percent taking antidepressants.
A 2005 survey of clergy by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church also took special note of a quadrupling in the number of people leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry, compared with the 1970s.
Paul Vitello’s article runs through a number of examples of how churches and synagogues and mosques are dealing with clergy burnout. Many now are trying to treat it before it goes full-blown by mandating vacations.
The big problem clergy have is the ability to say no. I’ve heard this from many friends in ministry. And the NYT suggests, quite logically, that it’s only gotten harder in a world where pastors friend their flock on Facebook and are always reachable by cell call or text. Or in the comments on their blog.